Remembering One of the Taliban's American Victims

By Jeffrey Goldberg

This was sent to me just now. It's by a lawyer named Mark Matthews, and it is worth reading in its entirety:

Please pardon the indulgence of my writing to you about my friend Tom Grams, who was one of the ten aid workers killed in Afghanistan a couple of days ago.

I first met Tom last May when I volunteered to go to Leh, Ladahk, India, with Global Dental Relief, the charity organization my sister founded and helps run that provides dental care to children in certain Third World countries.  Tom was GDR's first volunteer in 2001, and has since served on more than a dozen trips and treated as many as 25,000 kids.  My sister and Tom became best friends during that time and, almost literally, travelled to the end of the World together.  In 2002, for example, Tom, my sister, and a couple other GDR volunteers hiked half way up Mount Everest to the Tengboche Buddhist Monetary with dental equipment loaded on yaks. They treated monks and about 100 other people in a room lighted by a single bulb.

Tom and I were the early birds in our group.  We talked every morning for at least an hour while the town of Leh awoke around us.  We spoke of usual things for new friends -- work, family, our past.  Tom also spent hours talking of his trips to Afghanistan.  Since retiring from his lucrative dental practice in Durango, Colorado, in 2008, Tom spent nearly all of his time providing dental care in that country when he wasn't staffing a GDR trip.  Tom started going to remote villages five years ago where the local warlord could offer him protection.  Everywhere he went, he wore native dress, learned the native customs, and even spoke some of the language.  Tom knew of the risks, but nothing could keep him out of the country.

In the clinic, Tom was a marvel.   As the intake dentist, Tom diagnosed the dental condition of each child, including which teeth could be saved and which had to be pulled.  This is a staggering decision considering that none of these kids has access to meaningful dental care, let alone cosmetic dentistry, but Tom handled it with unerring technical competency, compassion, and energy.  He inspired every volunteer in the clinic.

Tom's group, working under the auspices of the International Assistance Mission, was returning from a two week mission in the remote Parun Valley about 160 miles north of Kabul when it ran into a group of Taliban gunmen.  The Taliban forced Tom and the others to sit on the ground while they looted the group's vehicles.  They then shot the volunteers where they sat.  Only the driver survived, apparently by reciting verses from the Koran during the shooting.

I imagine there are as many responses to tragedy as there are people in the world.  In the few instances I have faced it, I have responded by plodding ahead and thinking about it as little as possible.  But a better response for those of us who knew Tom or who have lost someone like him would be to use his memory to try to become a little more like him -- to try to care more for those we take for granted, to take a few more risks to help others, to not turn away as often from those in need. 

If I can presume to speculate in memoriam about someone I have known only since May, I think Tom would appreciate the fact that the memory of his life and work helped a few people make small changes in their lives to become more caring. Certainly he will continue to serve as beacon for those of us privileged to know and work with him, as well as for the thousands of children he helped throughout the world.  May we all live a life as full and rich and significant.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/08/remembering-one-of-the-talibans-american-victims/61164/