The family of Dr. Tom Little will accept the country’s highest civilian honor—the Presidential Medal of Freedom—on his behalf from President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday afternoon. Little and nine other aid workers were killed last August in a remote province of Afghanistan when gunmen ambushed their vehicles. Little had worked in Afghanistan since the 1970s.
Fifteen years before his death, Dr. Tom Little helped save a life. I’m sure it wasn’t the first life he saved, or the last, but on this occasion I happened to be present. I was 11 years old, and Afghanistan was in the midst of a civil war. The year was 1995. My family, his family, and a group of other people were camped on the edge of the swollen Panj River in Afghanistan. Dr. Tom, as everybody called him, had set up an eye clinic there, examining villagers who had walked for days to have their eyes checked and their cataracts removed.
We were milling around camp one afternoon when a group of young men ran toward us. In frantic Dari, they explained that while swimming, their friend had had a seizure and was drowning. My dad, Tom, and some of the other men ran to the river. They formed a chain across its cold torrent, and the man was swept into their arms. They carried him to shore and laid him on the bank. He wasn’t breathing, and his heart had stopped. His oxygen-deprived body was turning blue. We all looked on as Tom and my dad started CPR. Minutes later, his eyes opened, and his breathing resumed. His friends shouted with joy.
The next day, the resuscitated man returned to the camp, propped between the shoulders of his two friends. My dad and Tom had broken several of his ribs during the CPR, and his breaths came painfully, but his smile was broad. The group carried with them two large buckets of mulberries—a gift of gratitude from the men and their families.
Dr. Tom was killed on Aug. 6, 2010, along with seven other foreign aid workers and two Afghans as they returned from another eye clinic, not far from our campsite of 15 years earlier. The group had hiked 120 miles with packhorses loaded with supplies into a remote valley of Nuristan, where 50,000 people had no access to medical care. It was a region so remote and volatile that the U.S. military had recently abandoned it. To reach the valley, the team crossed a snowbound 16,000-foot pass and walked for three weeks. It wasn’t Dr. Tom’s policy to abandon any region of Afghanistan.
The group was gunned down by a group of militants as they picnicked in a forest at the beginning of their long drive back to Kabul. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
Dan Terry was also among the dead. Dan was the father of a high-school friend and had also lived in Afghanistan for decades. He had done development work all across the country—often traveling by bicycle. His was the sort of low-budget, small-scale development work that achieves lasting results. Instead of imposing Western solutions to problems, he worked with villages to solve their problems in a sustainable way. If a village needed electricity, he would find the money to buy a small turbine for a micro-hydroelectric project. He didn’t talk much about his successes, nor about his scrapes with death. He took a bullet in his knee during the Soviet era, and though it still caused him great pain, he never mentioned it, and it didn’t inhibit his work.
In 2006, Dan told me that he couldn’t wait for the deluge of foreign aid to dry up so that he could start doing some real development work. He advised me on a trip I was taking that year to Afghanistan’s remote Wakhan Corridor. I met with him on my return, and he was eager to hear of the journey, though he scolded me gently when I recounted an evening when our group was too tired to dine with our hosts.
Today, Kabul is awash with foreigners on short-term journalistic, diplomatic, and humanitarian assignments, people who drive around the city in bulletproof Land Cruisers and dine in barricaded French restaurants. They may have written dissertations about Afghanistan’s recent history, but they didn’t experience it first-hand, like Dan and Dr. Tom did. Both men had worked in Afghanistan since the 1970s. They spoke fluent Dari and traveled by humble means, crisscrossing the country to hold clinics and distribute aid to those who most needed help. They were some of the handful of foreigners in Kabul who had lived through the Soviet occupation, the civil war, the Taliban rule, and the American invasion. Few Afghans can even claim that level of longevity—anyone with means fled to Pakistan or Iran at some point during the last three decades of violence.
All Afghanistan-watchers who knew them felt a fresh wave of defeat when they heard that Dr. Tom and Dan had been killed. Both men had escaped kidnappings, rocket attacks, and firefights so many times before that it didn’t seem possible that their lives would end this way—and when there was still so much work to be done in Afghanistan. They were just two men, and yet the country seemed less hopeful in their absence.
There is hope, however, in the inspiration they leave behind. In the lives they led by example, with service, humility, respect, and courage. None who met them could forget them, and if, one day, stability and peace return to Afghanistan, their quiet decades of groundwork will have played no small part.