Eager to connect with her co-workers, Maurice asked Safiullah Azizi, one of the Afghan interpreters on base, to help her buy them boots.
Azizi queried the kitchen workers about their shoe sizes, collected the money from Maurice and went to the local bazaar just outside the base to buy them. Because he was worried that the Taliban might recognize him, he covered his face with a scarf and put on sunglasses. In his wallet, Azizi carries a thumb-size photo of his older brother, who was killed two years ago while patrolling with the Marines in Helmand province.
“I told [the merchant] in the bazaar, if you give me shoes too expensive, you will be in trouble,” he said.
U.S. soldiers are issued rugged leather boots with thick rubber soles. In Afghanistan, American troops are permitted to purchase warmer and sturdier hiking boots. Azizi bought eight pairs of black vinyl boots with imitation-fur lining and gave them to the Afghans. Maurice passed along extra pairs of donated tube socks that she picked up from the base chaplain.
In the days and weeks after Maurice’s gift, relations between U.S. troops and Afghan personnel countrywide came under intense strain. In January, a video of Marines urinating on Afghan corpses surfaced on the Internet.
A few weeks later, U.S. troops at Bagram air base, near Kabul, accidentally burned several Korans, setting off riots and reprisals in which Afghan soldiers killed at least six Americans. Last month, a U.S. soldier allegedly shot 17 Afghan villagers to death.
The Koran burnings, in particular, remain a sore spot for the Afghan laborers at the Sayed Abad outpost. “We all wanted to quit,” said Mohammed Aziz, a 37-year-old kitchen worker. “The Koran is from our God. We stayed because their government apologized and we needed the money.”
Tension and good will
The Americans have been on edge, as well. One of the Afghan kitchen workers was fired for brandishing a knife at some of the soldiers in the chow hall, said Staff Sgt. Tawana Roberts, who runs the kitchen.
Despite the tension, there have been genuine moments of wordless warmth. Before Aziz went home on leave, the outpost’s American medics gave the kitchen worker vitamins for his pregnant wife and six children.
About once a week, Mohammed Ashraf, who runs the small bakery on the outpost, will knock on Maurice’s trailer door and invite her and the other soldiers from the kitchen to eat fresh Afghan bread made with garlic, sugar or a sweet cheese.
Ashraf, 45, communicates with the Americans using a worn paperback book titled “30 Days English.”
“Share food?” he asks, his black beard dusted with flour after a long day’s work.
Even if Maurice has already eaten, she will gather her friends and walk over to his dimly lit shop, which doubles as his bedroom.
“They have so little, but they will give it to you,” Maurice said of the Afghans.
The boots that Maurice purchased in January for the Afghan kitchen workers have gradually disappeared from the base. Several of the workers quit their jobs over the winter, alleging that the subcontractor who hired them did not pay them on time. The Americans said they are trying to get to the bottom of the complaint.
The remaining Afghans said they did not realize that Maurice had paid for the boots. Azizi, the interpreter, did not clearly tell the kitchen workers that Maurice, who makes about $24,000 a year, dipped into her personal bank account to buy them. Although he is a full-time interpreter, his English is not strong.
Maurice did not rush to take credit for the gift. She worried that she might be taken advantage of for having money and said she was reluctant to boast about her good deed.
The result: A critical aspect of the small, kind act was lost. The Afghan kitchen workers on the base stopped wearing the boots earlier this spring when they started to come apart at the seams. Today, most assume that the wealthy American government bought them poorly made shoes.
“We are happy for the shoes,” said Sher Ali, a 27-year-old kitchen worker. “But they did not last.”