Slain doctors brought medical care to Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — One gave up a lucrative practice to give free dental care to children who had never seen a toothbrush. Others had devoted decades of their lives to helping the Afghan people through war and deprivation.

The years of service ended in a hail of bullets in a remote valley of a land that members of the medical team had learned to love.

The bodies of the 10 slain volunteers — six Americans, two Afghans, a German and a Briton — were flown Sunday to Kabul by helicopter, even as friends and family bitterly rejected Taliban claims the group had tried to convert Afghans to Christianity.

Also flown to the capital was the lone survivor of the attack, an Afghan driver who said he was spared because he was a Muslim and recited Islamic holy verses as he begged for his life. The International Assistance Mission, which organized the trip, said the driver had been a trusted employee with four years of service.

Police said they don't know if he is a witness or an accomplice in the killings, claimed by the Taliban. A loosely allied insurgent group, Hizb-i-Islami, also claimed responsibility. The group and the Taliban said the victims were Christian missionaries trying to convert Afghans. The mission group denies the accusations.

"We are heartbroken by the loss of these heroic, generous people," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. She condemned the Taliban for the deaths and what she called a "transparent attempt to justify the unjustifiable by making false accusations."

The group had spent two weeks treating villagers in a remote valley in northern Afghanistan for eye diseases and other ailments before being ambushed by extremists on their way back to Kabul.

Neither the Afghan government nor foreign embassies formally released the victims' names Sunday. Family and friends, however, came forward with words of praise and sorrow.

• • •

Team leader Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, N.Y., had been working in Afghanistan for more than 30 years. He and his wife, Libby, reared three daughters in Kabul, sticking it out through the Soviet invasion of the 1980s and the vicious civil war of the 1990s, when Afghan warlords rained rockets on the city.

They were briefly expelled with other Western aid workers in August 2001 but returned after the Taliban was ousted from power three months later. Little supervised a string of hospitals and clinics offering treatment for eye diseases.

"He was part and parcel of that culture," said David Evans of the Loudonville Community Church, New York, who had worked with him to deliver aid.

• • •

Dan Terry, 64, was another longtime Afghan veteran. A fluent Dari language speaker like his friend Little, Terry first came to Afghanistan in 1971 and returned to live in 1980 with his wife, rearing three daughters while working with impoverished ethnic groups.

"He was a large, lumbering man — very simply a joyful man," said longtime friend Michael Semple, a former European Union official in Kabul. "He had no pretensions, lots of humility."

In a Web posting, a friend, Kate Clark, recalled that in 2000, Terry was hauled off to jail by the Taliban for overstaying a visa.

"He went off good-naturedly, seeing it as a rare chance to have the time to learn Pashto," Clark wrote on a website. "He was released from prison after a couple of weeks and then rearrested after the authorities decided he had not served enough days. He arrived back to the prison to cheers from his fellow inmates, who were now newly found friends."

• • •

Dr. Thomas Grams, 51, quit his dental practice in Durango, Colo., four years ago to work full time giving poor children free dental care in Afghanistan and Nepal, said Katy Shaw of Global Dental Relief, a group based in Denver that sends teams of dentists around the globe.

Grams' twin brother, Tim, said his brother wasn't trying to spread religious views.

"He knew the laws, he knew the religion. He respected them. He was not trying to convert anybody," Tim Grams said. "His goal was to provide dental care and help people."

Tim Grams said his brother started traveling with relief organizations to Afghanistan, Nepal, Guatemala and India in the early part of the decade. After he sold his practice, he started going several months at a time.

Khris Nedam, head of a charity called Kids 4 Afghan Kids that builds schools and wells, said Grams and the others were "serving the least for all the right reasons."

"The kids had never seen toothbrushes, and Tom brought thousands of them," Nedam said Sunday. "He trained them how to brush their teeth, and you should've seen the way they smiled after they learned to brush their teeth."

Nedam said the medical group had never talked of religion with Afghans.

"Their mission was humanitarian, and they went there to help people," said Nedam, a third-grade teacher from Livonia, Mich.

• • •

Dr. Karen Woo, 36, the lone Briton among the dead, gave up her job with a private clinic in London to work in Afghanistan. She was planning to leave in a few weeks to get married, friends said.

"Her motivation was purely humanitarian. She was a humanist and had no religious or political agenda," her family said in a statement.

• • •

Another victim, Glen Lapp, 40, a trained nurse from Lancaster, Pa., had come to Afghanistan in 2008 for a limited assignment but decided to stay, serving as an executive assistant at IAM and manager of its provincial eye care program, according to the Mennonite Central Committee, a relief group based in Akron, Pa.

"Where I was, the main thing that expats can do is to be a presence in the country," Lapp wrote in a recent report to the Mennonite group. " … Treating people with respect and with love."

• • •

Another victim, Cheryl Beckett, the 32-year-old daughter of a Knoxville, Tenn., pastor, had spent six years in Afghanistan and specialized in nutritional gardening and mother-child health, her family said. Beckett, who was her high school valedictorian at a Cincinnati area high school and held a biology degree, had also spent time doing work in Honduras, Mexico, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

"Cheryl … denied herself many freedoms in order to abide by Afghan law and custom," her family said.

The group's attackers, her family said, "should feel the utter shame and disgust that humanity feels for them."

Slain doctors brought medical care to Afghanistan 08/08/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 9, 2010 8:21am]

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