FOB RUSHMORE, PAKTIKA PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN - Four police trucks crept to a halt last Saturday morning on Forward Operating Base Rushmore in Paktika Province, 100 miles south of Kabul. Their blue dome lights twirled silently as policemen unlatched tailgates and lifted 26 Afghan boys down onto the dusty gravel.
Aged 5 to 12, the boys had been brought from Said Jamaluddin Afghan, a local government-sponsored day care center in Paktika's capital, Sharana, for boys who either are missing one parent or both and to which troops on FOB Rushmore have conducted safety patrols in recent months. But until Saturday, the soldiers' interaction with the boys was restricted by the imposing sight of heavy weapons, armor and mirrored sunglasses. There was none of that now.
"This time, we wanted to do something for the kids without having all of our gear loaded on," said Air Force Capt. Eric Baroni, who co-organized the FOB Rushmore visit.
"Operation Shoebox," as Baroni had coined the event, was intended as the culmination of a goodwill gesture by Americans to the local Afghan community. Working with the soldiers of the Covington-based Bravo Company "Black Sheep," 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment, who run FOB Rushmore, Baroni planned activities that included an obstacle course, a hygiene class, a cookout and a pep talk from the provincial police commander. It was topped off by the distribution of shoeboxes filled with toys, hygiene items and candy sent from Americans across the United States.
"Operation Shoebox" was first conceived at the suggestion of Bravo Company's commander, Army Capt. Shilo Crane of Kennesaw, Baroni said. But it was also inspired by Baroni's similar work with an orphanage in Honduras, where he was deployed in 2006 on a humanitarian mission. This time, Baroni added something extra. Modeled after "Operation Christmas Child," a missions project in the U.S. in which people fill shoeboxes with toys, candy and toiletries for boys and girls of varying ages, Baroni began asking friends and family back home for similar donations this summer. He even created a Facebook group to get the message out.
"The end result has been a bit overwhelming," said Baroni, who received more than 180 boxes from scores of donors in 10 different states as well as more than $1,400 in cash donations. "My dad told me that people have been coming up to him at church saying it's been a long time since they had had so much fun."
To kick off Saturday's festivities, the children were corralled around one police truck where an interpreter explained how the obstacle course would run. There would be a tire run, a sandbag-carry, a barrel-balance, a basketball throw and then one final sprint with a Granny Smith apple tucked beneath the chin, the interpreter said. Although, it was unclear whether they understood what an obstacle course actually was, the boys nonetheless lined up in pairs, smiling.
Once the competition got rolling, the boys weren't the only ones enjoying themselves. Several Georgia guardsmen who had volunteered to work the event were moved by the boys' reaction.
"I miss my kids!" yelled Sgt. Todd "Doc" Cole, a Bravo Company medic, who handed out candy prizes to the boys as they finished the final leg of the course. Cole's three daughters, ages 3, 5 and 7, were waiting for him back in Covington, he said.
"I figured the kids would be more standoffish and skittish," said Spc. Garrett Bitts, a tattooed guardsman from Loganville who has a 10-month-old girl at home. "They're happier now than they were when we picked them up this morning."
The bearded, bespectacled director of the center, Ustad Mohammad Hashem, watched pleased as the students finished up the obstacle course and prepared for a cookout of grilled chicken, hamburgers, beef hot dogs and assorted fruits and vegetables.
"This is very good for them," said Hashem, who has worked at the school since its founding in 2004, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai first came to power.
Across Afghanistan today, there are 60 to 70 such schools for kids from homes broken by war, Hashem said, with four or five in each of Afghanistan's northern provinces. But owing to a Pashtun sense of honor that makes passing off care for children to the state unappealing, he said there are far fewer schools in the east where Paktika is located. (Pashtuns are the predominant ethnic group inhabiting Afghanistan's east and south). Hashem added that his school gets only periodic funds from the government.
"If you are the ones to bring these things to them," he said, referring to American efforts at providing aid and a better quality of life for Afghan children, "then they will always be grateful for it."
Gen. Dawlat Khan, Paktika's provincial police commander, said as much when he addressed the boys later that afternoon in the base library. Surrounded by staffers and his American counterparts, the uniformed Khan stressed the importance of joint events such as this.
"When they go home and tell this story to their mothers and fathers, it will help improve relations between you and the Afghan people," Khan said to the Americans standing along the walls, snapping pictures. When he asked how many children wanted to become policemen, every boy raised his hand.
Moments later, Baroni's shoeboxes were passed out one by one to each child. As the kids ripped open their packages and compared their gifts of soccer balls, toy cars and soap, there was general agreement among the volunteers that the day had been a success.
"The words of the general sum it up," said 1st. Lt. Jonathan Razzano, chaplain for 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment. "By showing love to these children, it helps build relationships with them and clear up misconceptions. Having that human to human contact is important."
According to the Afghan Police and U.S. service members present, this was the first time an event like this - whereby local kids are brought onto a tactical base - had ever occurred. And as far as Baroni was concerned, Saturday was only a test case.
"Next time, we want to try to do this for little girls," he said.