Recovering the Hope of Children

TJ Turner - Yellow Springs, Ohio
As heard on NPR’s Weekend Edition, November 9, 2008
TJ Turner

While serving with the Air Force in Afghanistan, TJ Turner saw a country scarred by years of conflict. Yet in the faces of Afghan children, he saw a glimmer of optimism. Turner believes nurturing their hope can help bring an end to terrorism.

Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: hope, war
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I believe in the power of teddy bears. I know that sounds a little funny coming from a military man, and I’d be laughing myself if I hadn’t seen the power of teddy bears first-hand.

Two years ago, I was deployed with the Air Force to Bagram Airfield in northern Afghanistan. The area around Bagram is filled with extremes. It is both ruggedly beautiful, and desperately poor. It is peaceful and serene, but punctuated with unbelievable violence and the scars of decades of conflict. It is an area where landmines coexist with children playing in the fields.

One day, we were driving back home through the Panjshir Valley. As we went along, I saw the destruction left from the seven-year conflict with the Soviets. I saw the damaged houses and damaged bodies of the people and, written on their faces, I saw their despair. It occurred to me that this is what hell is like — not a place that’s destroyed, but when hope is destroyed. I saw this in the faces we passed.

Except for the kids. The kids still played and their faces were alive, not infected with despair. They were the hope amid the Hell.

On our way out of the valley we passed an old man and what I guessed to be his grandson. He heard the vehicles coming and pulled the child in close. His expression seemed hostile, but maybe it was just the snow and the cold. As we slowed down to pass, I held a bright blue teddy bear out the window. I remember feeling bad that the bear was so bright, more of a girl’s teddy bear than a boy’s. The little boy didn’t care. He grabbed it right away, and hugged with both arms. The old man looked right at me: “Tashakkur,” thank you, he said.

I watched until they disappeared around a bend behind us, the child still hugging his bear. I can still see the look on the old man’s face. Maybe it was just a smile, but it looked more like hope — hope that his grandson wouldn’t live in the same world he did. I guess we all hope for that.

I hear lots of talk in our nation about the global war on terror, and my opinions evolve with that debate. However, we seem to miss the root cause. Hell is what causes terrorism. It’s about pure desperation, and feeling like there’s no way of recovering the hope of childhood. I’m not saying that we’ll be able to win this conflict with teddy bears alone, but when I deploy next I’m packing a bag full of them just in case.

TJ Turner served nine months in Afghanistan with the 455th Expeditionary Mission Support Group. He now volunteers for an NGO aiding civilian war victims, and hopes to return to Afghanistan. Turner lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with his wife and children.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.