Although there were no clouds in the sky and the sun was bright, the air was crisp and cold in Mazar-e-Sharif, early March 2012. I was standing next to an Afghan Border Police’s green Ford Ranger in the middle of a slightly frozen, muddy street. The building beside me cast a shadow on the alley way so the blocked sunlight provided no additional comfort of heat. I had just finished attending an event in the city and we were getting ready to load our trucks to head back to post.
I had worn a layer of thermal clothing under my uniform and a cold-weather jacket was my outer-most layer. I removed the purple shamaugh I had worn for the event, rolled in a ball, and slid it into my cargo pocket. I could feel a subtle chilled breeze blowing across my exposed neck. I threw my heavy body armor over my shoulder and slid it over my head then fastened the Velcro flaps into place. The snugness of the vest helped to keep my layers close to my body adding another layer of warmth. I pulled my thin, flame-retardant hood up over my head and ears and then put on my hard, camouflaged helmet. My gloved fingers fidgeted to find the clasps and I snapped the helmet in place as I moved the hood to a comfortable position around my face, covering most of my exposed skin.
Afghan women streamed out from the building and began to gather around our trucks as if we were celebrities. They watched as we geared up and loaded into our vehicles. I threw my assault pack, with camera inside, into the bed of the pick up. While I waited for the female Soldier in front of me to get herself into the truck, I turned to look to my left. An Afghan woman wearing a dingy orange shamaugh stood apart from the gathering crowd and had walked up just a few feet away from me. As I caught her gaze, she motioned her hand down and she stepped to the side. Appearing from behind her was a small child.
His little tan face was streaked with dirt and his dark hair had no shine to it. He wore a tight black and brown sweater that did not fit him and the tails of his light blue Afghan shirt hung out from underneath the sweater. He had matching light blue pants and the thinness of the material could be seen by the ripples in the cloth that the breeze was creating. He wore no winter hat… he wore no gloves… he wore no shoes. He stood bare footed in the cold mud. The mud above his ankles, now near-white in color, had dried in patches on his skin while the wet mud he was standing in squished up between his little unprotected toes. I looked back up at his somber face when I realized he was shoeless. He stood there motionless as if he was cemented in place with that mud. He had no look on his face.
I looked quickly at his mother and she pointed again to his feet. She had a desperation in her eyes that only a parent could understand. I had no shoes for him…no little socks or gloves or hats… and I had no money with me. There was nothing I could do.
I felt a tug on my sleeve from the female Soldier ahead of me and I turned quickly as if I had just not witnessed this atrocity. I loaded myself into the truck and we left.
This entire sequence of events couldn’t have taken more than a minute or two to play out but his bare, little mud-clad feet, the blank look on his face, and the desperate look in his mother’s eyes are forever a snapshot of memories I will carry with me forever.