During our last patrol through the shantytowns a young mother waited patiently outside the bustling throng of children hopping back and forth between our vehicles. I don’t remember seeing her arrive, she just suddenly appeared on the outskirts of the roiling flock of children. In that sea of motion she stood as still and resolute as a obsidian tower, her black burkha providing a mute contrast to the gaudy kaleidoscope of children’s clothing. She was clutching a toddler tightly to her chest, and I reflexively assumed she was trying to secure some candy for her child. I watched her for a moment and sensed that she was too proper to approach and ask for treats. I made a mental note to hand her some candy once the throng had died down, and put a few pieces of candy into my pocket to pass to her later. Then I turned my attention back to the happy shrieks of the children vying for our attention, and finished passing out the remaining supplies
Once our vehicles were stripped of humanitarian supplies the children started to settle down, happily splitting off to try to wheedle more candy from their favorite soldier. As the children filtered off I got my first good look at the young boy she held to her chest. And it was only then that I realized she hadn’t come here to ask for candy.
The young boy was clearly suffering from a congenital birth defect - he looked as frail as spun glass. His slender, atrophied limbs seemed to hang off his little body like limp banners, and his oversized head rested on his mother’s chest as if he needed help supporting its bulk. As I approached I greeted the sad eyed mother, and then bit the inside of my mouth and waited for her to ask me for the medical help I knew I couldn’t provide. The mother spent several minutes explaining her sons medical condition, and then asked the question that I knew was coming - “You have helped fix some children – can you help my son?”. I already knew the answer, but to avoid appearing callous I called my medic over and asked him if there was anything we could do for the boy. He took one look at the crumpled waif of a child and then said “Sir, we couldn’t help him even if we were in the States”. I turned back to the mother and explained to her that her sons condition was beyond our ability to help. Once my terp had conveyed the message she gave a small smile, and thanked me for trying to help. Then she turned away and made her way back to her tiny home.
The memory of that wisp of a boy stayed with me, and after a few days I asked SSG Spite if he could think of anything we might be able to do for the family. SSG Spite said that he would see what he could do and then disappeared for the rest of the day. The following day I knocked on SSG Spite’s door and when I walked in I almost dropped my coffee mug in shock. There sat SSG Spite quietly cleaning his weapon… sitting in a wheelchair. SSG Spite seemed to sense my agitation without even turning around and after a pregnant pause he said “Don’t worry sir, I’m fine. The wheelchair is for the kid”. Then he turned around, gave me a sly grin and said “But I had you worried, didn’t I?”. We laughed for a few minutes and then SSG Spite said “If I didn’t feel sorry for the kid I’d keep the wheelchair – this is the best seat in the barracks”.
The next morning we loaded up our HMMWVs with small Iraqi flags, candy, and a bulky wheelchair and set out for shantytown to bring SSG Spite’s favorite chair to the little boy. As our combat patrol came to a close we turned onto the long, dusty road leading to Shantytown to drop off our supplies. The entire town seemed to flood into the alleys to greet us, and in a few minutes we were swimming in a sea of smiling faces. As we passed each mudbrick compound the head of the household would anxiously flag us down and offer their advice on how to catch the AIF, and we spent long minutes trying to politely bring each conversation to a close. Several of our soldiers were passing out small Iraqi flags and toys to the children yammering around our legs, and in a few minutes our procession through the alley ground to a halt under the sheer numbers of children vying for a small flag. Usually the children are fixated on candy or toys, but not today. Today the big ticket item was Iraqi flags. As we passed out dozens of the little flags the kids seemed sated, and the alleys started to clear. We continued towards the house followed by a phalanx of children happily waving their flags. When I looked back at this strange procession I almost felt like I was watching a miniature parade - the kids were laughing and waving their flags as proudly as drum majors.
After the better part of an hour we arrived at the right house, and I rapped my knuckles on the tin gate to announce our arrival. I peeked over the gate to make sure we had the right house and noticed the little boy sitting in the dirt watching his mother prepare a meal. The mother must not have heard us knock, because she turned and looked surprised to see our kevlars peeking over her front gate. She recovered quickly and greeted us warmly, opening her gate and inviting us to come in for chai tea. We politely declined, but asked her to take her son and follow us to our vehicle. She looked a little confused at our request, but dutifully picked up her son and followed us to the HMMWV. When we arrived SGT Bard opened one of the doors and pulled and tugged until the wheelchair slid through the armored door. I wish I could describe the womans face when we gently picked up her son and placed him in the wheelchair - but there are some emotions words cannot hope to touch. We stopped to snap a quick picture as the little boy rested peacefully in the full sized wheelchair, and then we quickly said our goodbyes. As we loaded into our HMMWVs several of the local kids were arguing over who would get to take the boy for his first ride. I’m not sure who ended up shuttling him around, but as we left you could see his wheelchair weaving through the trash strewn alleys.