Army Capt. Dave Henderson waited a year to share this particular story of holiday generosity.
While in Afghanistan, he says, it would have been difficult to talk publicly about his work and opinions. But he left active duty in September and he’s back home in Philadelphia’s Roxborough neighborhood.
“I’m out now, I just want to showcase the efforts of our soldiers abroad during deployment,” Henderson said. “It’s not all what we see in the media.”
In the winter of 2012, Henderson was in Khost Province. He got a check-in message from Janice Kelsey, wondering what he and the other troops might need to get through the holidays.
The two had worked together in the past to help resettle Iraqis. Henderson says Kelsey is someone who gets things done.
Henderson asked Kelsey to help gather things for a local girls school in Khost.
“Ok, let me see what I can do,” she said. She spread the word on Facebook and among neighbors in Chester County. Soon Kelsey’s dining room was overrun with donations.
“People would just drop things off on my porch and I packed all them up. 25 boxes or more,” Kelsey said.”I lost count at 25.”
There were wooden toys, pencils, colored paper and knitted baby caps from Children Creating Bridges, a nonprofit group in West Chester, Pa. Students from the Navy Junior ROTC class at Owen J. Roberts High School also donated.
“Within weeks we had dozens and dozens of boxes of basic school supplies,” Henderson said.
His team was sent to Afghanistan to help prepare the region for a reduction in U.S. troops.
“Basically that means that you embed with the local security force and you try to build them into a capable fighting force,” Henderson said.
He arrived in Khost Province in August 2012 during a rise in what became known as “green-on-blue violence” – attacks on U.S. forces by some of the same Afghan forces they were supposed to mentor.
Many civilians were also antagonistic toward American soldiers, Henderson said.
“I expected the people there to be less than receptive to U.S. forces quite honestly. It doesn’t make anything easy to accomplish,” Henderson said. “But in dealing with these kids you have a chance to make a difference. That is a blank slate for you to show them Afghan forces and U.S. forces care about you.”
The parcels from Pennsylvania arrived by January, but it took months to find the right time to safely and diplomatically hand off the gifts. Eventually the supplies went to children from a nearby orphanage and a girls school.
“It’s not to say that we didn’t care about the girls school or the orphanage. We most certainly did,” Henderson said. “But it always seemed like a new obstacle came up.”
Safety is always an issue, he said.
“If the enemy sees you going to the girls school, they know the girls school received supplies,” Henderson said. “It endangers the school and shows the enemy that they are cooperating.”
For those who might regard his story as a bit of holiday-themed propaganda to support the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, Henderson said: “I don’t know how to respond to that, I don’t think there are many things in life that are greater than serving your community, whether you are deployed to Afghanistan or whether you are back home,” Henderson said.
He’s hoping to compile a coffee table book of photos to document his team’s community and charity work.”I don’t think that gets talked about enough,” he said.