Kandahar is one of the most impoverished areas of Afghanistan. There are many reasons for this, but mostly it is because it’s the birthplace of the Taliban and was their de facto capital during the brief point in history when they ruled as the official government of the country. A small sliver in the northeast of Afghanistan was under the control of a group called The Northern Alliance that allowed some of the modern world within its borders. NGOs were allowed to work, hospitals were built, roads were constructed, and girls were even allowed to go to school.

The south wasn’t so lucky. Under the iron grip of the Taliban, the south of the country was dragged back into the Stone Age. Sports, school, and even music were outlawed. Economic development crashed to a halt, and any kind of health care system was entirely unheard of. This meant while we were on our patrols conversing and mingling with the population, we saw all sorts of horrific medical issues that people just lived with as if it were a part of everyday life.

There was an old man who worked a farm near our outpost who always waved to us when he walked by. He had an index finger that was so badly broken and twisted it hung limply from his hand. When he waved to us, it would flap uselessly in the wind.

Another young girl near us had her face almost entirely fused to her neck due to scars from a horrible acid burn.

About a quarter of the kids who milled around us while we were on patrol had visible birth defects and mental disabilities. It seemed as if the majority of the children were cross-eyed and limping.

Some of us were compassionate. We at least tried to treat all the kids the same. I learned quickly not to show any special treatment toward the obviously messed up ones, but I was one of the few people who would still give out the candy my mom sent me in the mail. That was mostly because she asked me to, and only a real asshole doesn’t listen to his mom.

At first, I would try to hand out the good pieces to the little girls. I really can’t think of a worse life someone could have than being a girl in Afghanistan. Maybe I could brighten it for a few seconds with a Jolly Rancher.

I learned that was a big mistake. The little boys and even some fully-grown men would beat the ever-loving shit out of the little girls and take their candy. The same thing would happen if we purposefully gave out anything to anyone else. After a while, we just stopped giving anything out. I’d rather that they have no candy than an ass whooping.

Long after our compassion had died from seeing one too many toddlers get their face smashed in over some Dollar Store suckers, Sal rekindled it. Sal would stop and bandage up people’s cuts and bruises whenever he had time.

He always got Hamid to ask people if they had any medical issues. He couldn’t do a whole lot to help most of them. Yet many of the people left him looking a lot happier than when they arrived. His kindness was infectious, and soon I was helping him check over the local populace on our patrols.

Working with Sal was one of the few times I felt as if I was doing something to help those poor people. Most of the people we helped were raised thinking Americans were pure evil. We were the cause of everything bad that had ever befallen their country.

We were trying to dispel that notion one Band-Aid at a time. The idea that we were going to win over Afghanistan one village at a time by dispensing Tylenol and smiles was total bullshit. But the idea that I could make some kind of difference in these poor, miserable people’s lives was enough for me.

One day, Sal and I were posted up near an Afghan police checkpoint talking to the locals through Hamid. The rest of the squad was spread out throughout the area stopping and searching people in a vain attempt to try to find smugglers. Sal and I had looked over a few people. It seemed that they just wanted to say hi to the Americans who weren’t going to rifle through their pockets.

A young boy, no older than ten, walked up to us carrying something small wrapped in a blanket. He pulled the blanket back to reveal a newborn girl. She was sound asleep and wearing a knitted hat even though it was easily over one hundred degrees outside. The little boy said something to Hamid.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“His sister has a headache,” Hamid said.

“A headache? She’s sound asleep,” Sal said puzzled.

The boy said something else and reached up and took the knit cap off the little girl. A bright red rash covered most of the girl’s scalp.

“Oh,” Sal laughed. “That kind of a headache.” He leaned in close to look at the rash and immediately leapt away from the little girl, retching. “Ah! What the hell is that smell?” he choked.

I leaned in and looked. The girl’s head smelled like rotting meat that had been left out in the sun. The smell burned my nose, and I saw tiny little black holes in the middle of the rash. Something wiggled inside the holes. I reeled back. “What the fuck?” I screamed a little too loudly.

“What?” Sal asked.

“Something is in her fucking head!”

Sal shot me a look like he didn’t understand and leaned in for another glance, that time breathing through his mouth. He slowly turned his head and gave me one of the most horrified looks I think I’ve ever seen. “She…she has maggots in her head,” he stuttered.

“No fucking way,” I gasped.

“The rash must have gotten infected, and they never got it looked at. I can imagine how an infection would run rampant in an area like this,” Sal said rubbing his chin. He took off his medical bag and dropped it on the ground. He unzipped it and started picking through it.

“What can we do for her?” I asked.

“Not a whole lot. Something this far gone probably needs to be seen in an ER, like…well, probably before the maggots got there,” Sal said, still fishing through his bag. “We can at least clean it up and send them to the hospital.”

“Clean it out? Oh, baby is not going to like that.”

“Not even a little bit,” Sal said ripping open an alcohol preparation wipe. He started cleaning away dried blood, puss, and maggots. It all came off in a red-black smear and the little girl screamed bloody murder. Sal wrapped clean gauze around the girl’s head and gently placed the knitted cap on top of it to keep it in place.

“Tell him his sister needs to see a doctor as soon as he can get her to one,” Sal instructed Hamid.

Hamid quickly translated, patting the little boy’s shoulder. The boy smiled and ran off, baby in arms. He got to the corner, took the girl’s cap off, ripped off the gauze, and threw it to the ground. He placed the dirty cap back on the open, infected wound and strolled away down the road.

“Why do I even bother?” Sal shook his head.

“Because you’re a good guy. Don’t stop being a good guy,” I said.

“Why? It’s so much work.”

“Because if you do you’ll end up like one of us.” I gave him a weak smile and lit a cigarette.