Monday, August 9, 2010

Members of a medical team gunned down in Afghanistan

KABUL — Members of a medical team gunned down in Afghanistan brought some of the first toothbrushes and eyeglasses villagers had ever seen and spent no time talking about religion as they provided medical care, friends and aid organizations said Sunday.

Grams, 51, quit his dental practice in Durango, Colo., four years ago to work full-time giving impoverished children free dental care in Nepal and Afghanistan, said Katy Shaw of Global Dental Relief, a Denver-based group that sends teams of dentists around the globe. He was killed Thursday, Shaw said, along with five other Americans, two Afghans, one German and a Briton.

"The kids had never seen toothbrushes, and Tom brought thousands of them," said Khris Nedam, head of the Kids 4 Afghan Kids in Livonia, Mich., which builds schools and wells in Afghanistan. "He trained them how to brush their teeth, and you should've seen the way they smiled after they learned to brush their teeth."
Image: Dr. Thomas Grams
Anonymous / AP
Dr. Thomas Grams, 51, was killed in Afghanistan on Thursday.

The team was attacked after a two-week mission in the remote Parun valley of Nuristan province, north of Kabul. Their bullet-riddled bodies were found Friday, and were returned to Kabul Sunday aboard helicopters.

The families of the six Americans were formally notified of their deaths after U.S. officials confirmed their identities, said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the embassy.
Story: Afghan medical mission ends in death for 6 Americans

The Taliban has claimed credit for the attack, saying the workers were trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. The gunmen spared an Afghan driver who told police he recited verses from the Islamic holy book the Quran as he begged for his life.

But Grams' twin brother, Tim, said his brother wasn't trying to spread religious views.
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"He was there to help the people of Afghanistan," said Tim Grams, holding back tears in a telephone call from Anchorage, Alaska on Sunday, after the U.S. State Department confirmed his brother's death.

"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. He knows it's a capital offense to try to convert folks."

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

'Zero interest'
Grams' former partner at the Durango practice told the Associated Press Sunday that the medical group had no religious mission.

Grams had "absolutely zero interest in proselytizing," Dr. Courtney Heinicke said.

The members were working with the International Assistance Mission, or IAM, one of the longest serving non-governmental organizations operating in Afghanistan. The group is registered a nonprofit Christian organization but does not proselytize, said its director, Dirk Frans.

The 32-year-old daughter of a Knoxville, Tenn., pastor was among the dead, her family said. Cheryl Beckett spent six years in Afghanistan and specialized in nutritional gardening and mother-child health. She was valedictorian of her Cincinnati-area high school and earned a biology degree from Indiana Wesleyan University.

"Cheryl loved and respected the Afghan people. She denied herself many freedoms in order to abide by Afghan law and custom," her family said in a statement. "... Those who committed this act of terror should feel the utter shame and disgust that humanity feels for them."

The family of Glen Lapp, 40, of Lancaster, Pa., learned of his death Sunday, according to the Mennonite Central Committee, a relief group based in Akron, Pa. Lapp went to Afghanistan in 2008 and was to remain until October, the group said. Although trained as a nurse, he was not working as a medic but served as executive assistant for the Mennonite group and manager of its provincial ophthalmic care program, spokeswoman Cheryl Zehr Walker said.

"Where I was, the main thing that ex-pats 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 and trying to be a little bit of Christ in this part of the world."

Lapp was a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and had a nursing degree from Johns Hopkins University, the group said. He had volunteered with relief efforts for hurricanes Katrina and Rita and worked as a nurse in Lancaster, New York City and Supai, Ariz. His mother, Mary, said Sunday the family was referring calls to the Mennonite group.

Officials have said the victims also included team leader Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, New York, who had lived in Afghanistan for about 30 years, and Dr. Karen Woo, who gave up a job in a private clinic in London to do humanitarian work in Afghanistan.
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Little had been making such trips to Afghan villages for decades, offering vision care and surgical services in regions where medical services of any type are scarce.

"They raised their three girls there. He was part and parcel of that culture," said David Evans of the Loudonville Community Church, New York, who accompanied Little on a 5,231-mile road (8,419-kilometer) trip to deliver the medical team's Land Rover vehicles from England to Kabul in 2004.

Nedam, who knew both Grams and Little, said the team was "serving the least for all the right reasons."

"Their mission was humanitarian, and they went there to help people," Nedam said.

'No one ever expects'
British surgeon Karen Woo, who worked with a separate group called Bridge Afghanistan, was among those killed. She well known in the foreign aid community in Afghanistan.

She wrote in a recent blog posting that she would act as the team doctor and run a mother-and-child clinic in Nuristan.

"Perhaps no one ever expects it to be them, perhaps not their immediate friends either, it (is) always some poor unknown person, a local national, a third country national. We count those that matter to us," Woo wrote in another recent blog about the dangers of working in Afghanistan.

The IAM describes itself as an "international charitable, non-profit, Christian organization" which has been helping Afghans with health and economic development since 1966.

Frans said the group would review its security procedures after the incident but thought it was "highly unlikely" they would leave Afghanistan.

"We have been here when the king was in power, when the Russians were in power, when the mujahideen were fighting here in Kabul under the Taliban and all the time we have stayed," Frans said.

Warned about area
Afghan police told Reuters the bodies had been found early on Saturday and that the group had been warned not camp near dense forest in Nuristan.

Nuristan is a remote region with a growing insurgent presence as well as smugglers and bandits. U.S. forces withdrew from the province in the past year after taking heavy losses in years of battle near its Pakistan border.

Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since U.S.-led and Afghan armed groups overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

June was the bloodiest month of the war for foreign forces in Afghanistan, with more than 100 killed. Hundreds of Afghan civilians have also been killed this year as they become caught up in the crossfire