Marine with Afghan children

I’m surrounded by children. Young ones ranging from what appears to be age three to 11 or 12 have approached the vehicle in which I’ve traveled to their remote village in a fertile valley of southern Afghanistan, and they’re convinced that I’ve brought candy with me.

Regrettably, they’re  mistaken. I’ve only brought the bare essentials with me and forgot to pack away some of the snack food items that generous Americans have sent to us via care package on several occasions since we’ve been “in country.”

As chaplain, I have come to pay a morale visit to the Marines and Sailors of my unit and also conduct a field worship service. The children, however, see it as my duty to replenish their supply, which is always rapidly diminishing, of sweets.

I nearly escape the deluge, as it were, of little hands begging me to dole out what I simply do not have and make my way inside the compound where “our guys” are located. Once inside, I take care of business and am soon told that there’s a candy stash somewhere inside the compound, so, I look for it and find it.

I love kids and always have. They’re honest, trusting, and easy to get along with and entertain. Maybe it’s  just chronic immaturity on my part, but I always feel as though I can be myself when I’m around a group of kids, or even one child. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand why I took the time to raid a candy stash that wasn’t even mine in order to procure a handful or two of treats for the youngsters who were still lingering en masse just outside my unit’s compound walls.

Out I went. I am classified under Department of Defense as a non-combatant and therefore (infuriatingly!) am legally prohibited from carrying a weapon on the field of battle, I have a young sergeant from my unit accompanying me, his M-4 assault rifle in condition one and at the ready in case a dangerous situation breaks out. It’s been quiet in our area so far, but complacency and carelessness are considered dirty words around where we currently live and operate.

The sergeant warns me repeatedly about the kids. No, they’re not dangerous, unless you consider dangerous as being marauded and manhandled by children hungry for non-nutritious confections. “They’re gonna mug you,” he said with a slight grin. I scoff at him: famous last scoff.

Several moments later, after I’ve “handed out” the candy (yes, “handed out” is in quotation  marks for a reason…”being marauded for the candy is more accurate.”) and  more importantly, after I’ve checked my trouser cargo pockets for my wallet to make sure it’s still there, I can’t help but marvel at the tenacity with which these children nearly  knocked me over in order to get the sweets.

I’m not upset about it, either. How could I be?

These children have next to nothing in the way of material possessions. As is typical in agrarian societies, making ends meet is often a difficult achievement to come by; harder still when you live in an austere Islamic republic marked by endless tribal warfare, corruption, and laws typically aimed more toward oppression and privation, rather than securing the basic human rights of human beings and creating opportunities for prosperity.

I guess is one reason why I tried to give out the candy as equitably as I possibly could; making sure the taller of the youngsters didn’t completely deprive the younger and smaller ones of a fair share.

During this time as well, I also practiced some of the rudimentary Pashto that I had learned prior to this deployment. “A Salaam Alai’kum,” (“Peace be upon you”…as standard Pashto greeting), I would say to the kids. A few of the less shy ones responded by mumbling, “W Alai’kum Salaam”(“And peace be upon  you”). Most of them just wanted candy,  though, and weren’t interested in  how much Pashto this goofy Gringo knew.

At any rate, I went through my candy supply pretty quickly and soon it was time to leave and go back to the main base. After I gave out a few high-fives and “fist bumps,” I prepared to embark onto the vehicle.

That’s when a plastic bottle nearly hit me.

I turned around to see what had happened. Who threw a bottle at me? I didn’t have to look far. A young girl who looked to be about eight was standing nearby and the impish look on her face gave her away immediately. I had seen the same look on the faces of girls about her age many times before, having worked with kids in church settings as well as after-school settings as a tutor. Talk about a universal language;  it was a look that said, “Yeah, I threw it. Because I’m eight(-ish) and I’m mischievous and I’m a girl and I want to get your attention.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the little flirt.

Later, as I chuckle again to myself about the experience, it sadly occurred to me that, had this girl been just a few years older, I probably would not have been able to see her rascally and playful face, thanks to the burqa adorning her from head to toe. Nor would she have perhaps taken the grave risk in throwing a bottle, and a flirtation, my way had she been a few years older for fear of being disciplined or even executed for adultery.

It is a well-known truth that girls who grow up under Islamic law are often given in marriage at as  young an age as 15; sometims younger, depending on just how dire the economic straits in her home country. Fathers, largely hoping to improve their financial status by merging their family, and thus their family’s meager wealth, with that of a mother, will do so via arranged marriage.

From there, the girl, and later the young woman, is conscripted to a life of servitude and concealment under a burqa, her playfulness and once free spirit forever stifled under the weight of Shariah  law.

Oppression and tyranny often have a more far-reaching impact that we tend to think. What a person can and cannot do is strictly regulated and/or forbidden under the iron fist of a dictator or despotic regime.

Too often, a more insidious phenomenon takes place, usually over time, as a person’s or people’s dignity, uniqueness, and inclination to use the gifts and abilities that God has given them to be a blessing and asset to their fellow man are diminished as a result of their freedom being stripped from them.

America is far from perfect. From the economic perils we are facing to the threats to our national security to the general erosion of our culture where our  moral values and personal sense of responsibility is concerned, clearly we have our own demons to overcome. However, we are still a free country, by and large, and for that reason alone we are still the “last best place” and we are still a nation worth defending.

I should clarify, though, by “defend” I do not simply mean “on a distant battlefield,” though I am convinced that threats to our national security should be identified and faced head-on at every turn.

But on a deeper level, let us be ever vigilant and aware of the constant threats to our liberty and freedom posed by self-serving politicians and  those committed to outright destruction of the vision of our Founding Fathers.

When I see protestors seeking to “shut down” main thoroughfares of commerce on our West Coast, and elsewhere, when I hear our very own president speak about our unique system of government that has created the American Dream and the highest quality of living the world has ever known as having “never worked,” when I witness any politician of any political party or stripe seek to limit my freedom as an American to keep and bear arms, I am reminded of the “bottle slinger,” the young Afghan girl who will grow up one day only to have her freedom, dignity, and dreams dashed under the weight of tyranny.

I am resolve to never let her story be that of my own nor that of my children and generations to come. In short, I am emboldened to continue fighting and defending freedom at every turn. And I hope you will join me.