Six years ago, on an icy winter day, Army Reserve Gen. Patt Maney visited a refugee camp on the outskirts of the capital to check out rumors that several people had frozen to death. ¶ But when he entered a tent filled with dozens of street children, sitting on a threadbare rug and shivering, he knew he had to do more than just report back to his boss, the ambassador. ¶ "Some of the children were sharing one pair of shoes. Walking through snow with one foot bare," he said.
Maney called his wife, Caroline, back home in Fort Walton Beach. She called a local radio announcer who launched a clothing drive. In a few months, the children had shoes — on both feet — and coats.
The tent was an outpost of Aschiana, a school for street children started in the mid '90s. As part of his embassy assignment, Maney made it a point to take visiting dignitaries there and get supplies for the school.
And he started to make special appeals. A July 2005 Army proposal, signed by him, asks for a medical van because it would "provide scores of working street children with immediate medical attention … and be a visible symbol of the commitment of the American people to the people of Afghanistan."
That summer, while waiting for a go-ahead, Maney went on a mission to find a clean water source for U.S. troops. As the armored Land Cruiser he was in bumped along a dry creek bed, it dipped into a sandy eddy, triggering a buried bomb.
"Everything went black," says Maney.
He survived, cut up, but intact, with what appeared to be a mild concussion. After a few weeks at a German field hospital near Kabul, he was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where tests showed a serious brain injury.
His short-term memory was shot. He had bouts of dizziness and balance problems.
"In his own mind, he thought he was an adult. But it was like having a 6-year-old who had to be watched and guided, constantly," said Caroline.
"I had to face that my life as a judge and an Army officer was probably over," he said.
But during long nights of insomnia he found he could still write terse e-mails. Sitting in bed with his laptop, that was just enough to continue helping the street children of Kabul.
• • •
Aschiana is now wedged between bike repair shops and furniture stores in a dusty, bustling downtown neighborhood of the capital.
Behind a wall, Aschiana (pronounced ah-she-AH-nuh, it means "nest" in Dari) fans out into a grassy paradise of apple trees, brick pathways, rose gardens, playgrounds and heated, carpeted classrooms. Two hundred children, ages 6 to 16, who survive by selling gum, washing windshields and shining shoes, come here for five hours a day for a hot meal and an education.
Children with mental disabilities — most previously locked in at home all day — also come here for school, arts and crafts, physical education and a hot meal. And mothers come for group counseling.
Kabul engineer Mohammed Yousef started the school in 1995 because of a dramatic increase in children working on the streets. Most were boys who had lost their fathers to war and depended on their mother's low wages. But when the Taliban took control and prohibited women from working, hundreds of children flocked to the streets so their families could eat. Many, Yousef noticed, went on to become thieves, prostitutes and child soldiers.
"Without an education, they had no future and, if they had no future, neither did Afghanistan," he said.
• • •
Maney's future looked bleak at first, too. One time, he stopped at a gas station in Maryland, but couldn't figure out what to do.
"I had to ask another customer how to get the gas in the tank. You should have seen the way she stared at me — probably because I was in my general's uniform," he said.
Another time, he became so confused in a supermarket, he didn't know where he was. His wife found him in the cereal aisle and led him out by the hand.
For whatever reason, however, the ability to send late-night e-mails never left him.
Six weeks after Maney was injured, Peggie Murray, humanitarian assistance officer at Central Command in Tampa, got an e-mail from him, asking what had happened with the request for a mobile medical van for Aschiana.
"I've been out of the net since late AUG due to an IED. I don't know if a ball has been dropped," he wrote.
His e-mails were sporadic and short because he was struggling to stay focused. But he kept at it, which impressed Murray.
"Here Gen. Maney was — brain injured, but still so determined to get the medical unit for the street kids in Afghanistan," she said. "Those kids inspired him to keep trying, and he inspired me."
In late December 2005, when his days were filled with physical and cognitive therapy, Maney got an e-mail from Murray, giving shipping details on the mobile medical clinic. He had no trouble grasping the significance: He was still able to help Aschiana. And just as important — he understood everything she wrote.
"Wonderful news and a great way to close out the year!" he wrote back.
In late spring 2006, an Army cargo plane took the van from Albany, Ga., to Uzbekistan. A truck carried it from there to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, where it was driven to Aschiana.
"Right around the time it arrived, I was beginning to think I might be able to do a judge's job again," says Maney.
• • •
On a chilly morning in November, the white medical van was parked just behind Aschiana's front wall.
Karim Dad, a 12-year-old shoe-shine boy walked past it, running his hand gently along the side. Like many other street children, he had been treated from the van for a skin disease caused by flies. The van goes out regularly with nurses who do everything from stitch wounds to kill head lice.
Karim started shining shoes three years ago when his father died and his mother couldn't make enough money as a motel maid to feed the family. When he came to Aschiana a year ago, he couldn't read. But now he's a strong reader and wants to be an airline pilot when he grows up.
"I will go a long distance," he says.
Aschiana graduates have gone on to work in beauty parlors, bike repair shops, tailor stands and auto garages. Some have become owners of these shops, and a few have become university-educated teachers.
Next door to Karim's class, Rubina, 15, dances Zorba-the-Greek style with other children with mental disabilities. A folk song plays on a boom box: Mother, sing me a song, a sweet song. I hide from war. I am like a broken tree. Oh, mother, sing me a song.
When Rubina was a year old, her mother left her in the courtyard of their home to check a pot in the kitchen. A rocket propelled grenade exploded next to the baby. Rubina had little visible sign of injury, but as time went on, doctors diagnosed a severe brain injury.
The damage was compounded by the common belief in Afghanistan that mentally disabled children should be kept out of sight. Rubina spent the next 12 years at home, spoon-fed by her mother and siblings. When she came to Aschiana, she didn't know how to hold a spoon, much less speak.
Now she feeds herself, speaks in short phrases, counts, writes her name and can even read and write a few words.
• • •
In December, Maney and his wife came to Tampa so he could take an education course for judges. He retired from the Army in 2007 but has since returned to the bench.
At a Clearwater restaurant, he looked at recent photographs of Aschiana and marveled at the white medical van in the yard with its red cross and orange stripe, and the liveliness of the children playing around it.
But when the retired general got to a photo of an Afghan girl with a perplexed expression and broken teeth, he stopped.
"Like me after the IED," Maney said.
It was Rubina.
When he heard about her injury, he didn't skip a beat: "I bet there is more in this child's head than anyone knows.
"We need her parents' full names to start working on getting her here …"
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8068.