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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, June 17, 2004

Crew helps shoeless children in Afghanistan

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

In addition to soldiers and supplies, Marines and mail, 1st Sgt. James Thomson, who's with a Schofield Barracks helicopter unit in Afghanistan, wants to drop off something else.

First Sgt. James Thomson of Company B, 214th Aviation, says it's heartbreaking to see Afghan children too poor to have shoes.

Thompson family photo

Shoes. Yours.

"Just about every flight engineer and crew chief has noticed over the course of flying across ... Afghanistan these past months that a large percentage of the children have no shoes to wear," said Thomson, who is assigned to Company B, 214th Aviation Regiment ("Hillclimbers").

The company's answer: Operation Shoe Fly.

Thomson and his "crew dogs" are soliciting shoes, used and new, for children 14 and under. The CH-47D Chinook crews plan to give them out on the many stops they make in remote parts of Afghanistan.

Thomson's wife, Jen, who's here in Hawai'i, said it's one of the many good things soldiers are trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"What strikes me is we hear about the prison scandal and bad things soldiers do, and that's not how most soldiers are," she said. "Soldiers have kids, and they see other kids not having simple things like shoes. It breaks your heart."

The big CH-47Ds are workhorses in a mountainous country where roads in many regions are nothing more than rocky Jeep trails or dry riverbed wadis.

Mailing address

Sgt. James Thomson is asking for shoes to be mailed to: Operation Shoe Fly, Company B, 214th Aviation Regiment, Bagram, Afghanistan, APO AE 09354-9998. Schofield Barracks spokeswoman Pat Simoes said that because the address is an APO, postage is the equivalent to mailing something within the United States.

The Hillclimbers, the only active-duty Chinook unit in Hawai'i, arrived at Bagram Air Base on March 20. When the Chinooks land near villages, smiling and waving children run toward the choppers, stopping only when the strong rotor wash hits their faces, Thomson said.

Flying on the Chinooks in place of an injured crew member, Thomson, 40, has seen firsthand the poverty and desperation of children who have so little.

"While the cargo was being unloaded from the ramp of the Chinook, I walked over to a small group of kids and handed out some hard candies, much to their delight," Thomson wrote in a web log he maintains. "Just as I was about to walk back to the helicopter, I noticed a little boy meanly grabbing a candy out of the hand of a little girl whose blue eyes had sparkled as she smiled a 'thank you' just moments before."

Other crew members of Company B, 214th Aviation, clued him in on how to get around that problem. Thomson said one of the crew chiefs told him: "You got to unwrap the candy first when you give it to the girls. That way, they can pop it in their mouth right away before the boys can get to it."

Thomson said he and his crews will fly out what shoes they collect.

"In addition to protecting the feet of these young innocent children, we might even win some hearts and minds among their parents, and who knows where the shoes might take these kids."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.