How one US base in Afghanistan adopted two orphans
US soldiers in eastern Afghanistan pay two orphan boys a day’s wage to do odd jobs and stay in school. The young boys are trying to support their Afghan families. The Americans are trying to salvage a bit of the orphans' childhood.
Tom A. Peter
Combat Outpost Penich, Afghanistan
An Afghan laborer at Combat Oupost Penich was carefully maneuvering a forklift when an attack almost caused him to lose control of the vehicle.
Call it both the hazard and the joy of keeping two orphan kids on the payroll, but few soldiers at this remote base in eastern Kunar Province regret having them around.
The orphans, who go by Scrappy and Donovan, are both the base’s unofficial mascots and charity project. They live with their extended family in a nearby refugee camp and spend afternoons after school working on the base. How they ended up here is something of a happy coincidence and the US intersection with Afghan culture.
It’s not uncommon for the Afghan military to hire young boys to do odd jobs around the base. When Attack Company, 1-32 Infantry Battalion moved into the area for the first time, they found Donovan working for the local Afghan Army unit in exchange for meals and foodstuffs for his family.
Donovan’s father had been killed by the Taliban, leaving no one to support his family of four, so as the oldest son, even though he was only 12, Donovan had quit school and begun working. The only job he could find was working with the Afghan soldiers in exchange for the meager provisions.
When the soldiers in Attack Company learned about this arrangement, they invited Donovan to work on the US outpost for the same rate as the adult day laborers. Three months later, Attack Company also hired Scrappy, who came from similar circumstances as Donovan – but with a family of 10 to support. The main condition of their employment is that they attend school every day.
“Our friends think this is good work. They also want to work with the Americans to learn English,” says Donovan, who lives in a camp for internally displaced people most of whom are friendly with US forces.
Though the two are technically employed as laborers, they don’t work for more than 20 or 30 minutes a day, watering plants, picking up trash, or helping with other odd jobs around base. Most of their time is spent having water-gun fights and hanging out with soldiers. They also race bikes, which they were awarded last spring for doing well on their final exams.
“We try to encourage them to have fun, because they are treated like adults – they do have to provide for their families, be contributors, and yet at the same time they’re like 10- or 12-year-old kids,” says Spc. Adam Rowe, the base "mayor," in charge of logistics, who's from Philadelphia.
Scrappy and Donovan have grown up quickly. Asked what he’d like to do with the money he’s making, Scrappy matter-of-factly explains, “I’m working on the [base] so I can build an extra room on my house.”
Scrappy’s comment reminds Donovan to ask Rowe if he can help his family get some extra wood for his house – wood is often hard to come by in their area.
Still, their relatively light work schedule has occasionally proven a point of contention with some of the other Afghan laborers, who don’t place the same value on children’s playtime.
On one occasion the Afghan foreman tried to fire Scrappy for not working enough. The Americans quickly vetoed that decision.