PARKVILLE – The children in two Afghan orphanages that have been informally adopted by members of the 290th Military Police Company speak only basic English like “hello” and “how are you.”
No telling how they will do with “infield fly rule” and “hot corner.”
But the Maryland-based National Guard unit will find out soon, when they deliver two freezer-sized boxes packed with tiny baseball gloves, batting helmets, bats, catcher’s equipment and rubber bases.
They are the most recent — and the most unusual — of a series of relief supplies sent from military families here to help the two orphanages north of Kabul in what the soldiers are calling “Operation Sandbox.”
The soldiers of the 290th “inherited” the informal operation from a Vermont National Guard unit they replaced, said 1st Sgt. Aaron Henderson in a phone interview from Afghanistan.
Once a month, or whenever their storage unit fills up with the clothes, toys, and school supplies sent by family members back home, the soldiers pack their 2.5-ton truck and drive out to the orphanages to make a delivery.
“My soldiers love going,” said Henderson. “It breaks up the time and gives them something else to do.
“It’s great to see little kids. To be able to hold them,” said Henderson, who has two sons, ages 4 and 8, at home.
The two orphanages house a total of about 1,400 children between 5 and 12 years old, Henderson said. They sleep in bunk beds, eight to 10 to a room. There is little furniture. The walls need painting. There is no carpet.
“It was pretty overwhelming at first,” said Henderson. “You just have no idea what you have until you are away from it. To see these kids. To give them something as simple as a lollipop just lights up their faces. It’s amazing.”
In addition to packages from home, the soldiers bought two sewing machines for the orphanage directors, who used them to make school uniforms for the children. The guardsmen hope to deliver paint for the rooms soon, if a deal one soldier is planning with a store at home works out.
The drive out to the orphanages provides a break from a daily routine that is tiring, boring and sometimes frightening. Most days, the guardsmen work 12-hour shifts at a fort that was once a Taliban training camp, but which is now a base for training Afghan army soldiers. None of the soldiers have been injured, but they fear suicide bombers or other terrorist attacks.
“There is always that threat,” said Henderson. “You constantly have to keep your mind in the game.”
Sgt. Eric Ogden, who returned home from the unit less than a month ago, agreed that the mission in general has been pretty grim. But he also tells the story of handing out presents to the orphans near Christmas, while another soldier played Santa Claus, complete with a fake beard and a 9 mm pistol strapped around his red suit. Ogden said the kids were wary until he gave one a Nerf football.
“Then the kids mobbed the truck. They will remember that their whole lives,” he said on a recent Saturday morning at the Melvin Sherr Armory, where families of the 290th had gathered to pack the baseball gear for shipping.
The family members said “Operation Sandbox” helps them as much as the orphans: They meet monthly to plan shipments, but said the talk invariably turns to loved ones.
Family members feel like they are helping their children and spouses rebuild the country, said Ursula Kondo of Columbia, as she packed a few Barbie dolls in with the baseball equipment. She carries pictures of the orphans that her daughter, Cynthia, sent.
“Everything is bombed out,” Kondo said. “They have no parents. They don’t have anything.”
The baseball equipment they were packing up was donated by the Orioles Advocates, a charity foundation that has also provided gear for youth teams in the United States, as well as in the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
The equipment, which was sent through Bagram Airbase, will no doubt be a puzzle when it is opened in Afghanistan, Henderson said.
“When that equipment gets here, we’ll take it out there and show them what the premise of the game is,” he said.
The 290th is set to return to Maryland in May, maybe sooner. When those soldiers leave Afghanistan, the orphanages will be turned over to their replacements.
But Henderson will not forget about the children: Despite the orphans’ limited English, the soldiers have bonded with them, he said.
“You can’t really communicate, but you can, you know what I mean? You pick him up and he smiles. He’s playing with your face,” he said. “He sees that I’m happy. It’s a win-win situation.”
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