Peering through windows at a runway strewn with burned out airplane hulls was a stark eye-opening clue for 13-year-old Ben Inks and his mother that they were entering a war zone.
They had come to distribute baseball equipment Ben had gathered earlier in the year as part of an Eagle project called Operation Home Run. Ben had learned from news reports that Afghan children were trying to reclaim some sense of normalcy in their lives by playing American baseball, said Kim Inks in a Church News interview.
A baseball fan himself, Ben felt for their plight and began soliciting donations. Response was incredible. Within weeks he'd collected 6,000 pounds of baseballs, bats and mitts from area schools, as well as many people around the country who learned of his project.
Working with the military, the goods were shipped to Afghanistan. Generous donors paid for their air passage from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Kabul, Afghanistan.
Their descent into Kabul on the Afghan airliner was more of a white-knuckle, kamikaze dive than the conventional landing. Catching their breath just before touching down, they looked out their windows to see bomb craters around the landing strip. They also noticed rows of bullet-riddled or burned out aircraft littering nearby fields.
Prior to their trip, Ben's donation of baseball goods had been accepted by the military with the hope of building goodwill among the Afghan people. With proper equipment the military planned to outfit a variety of teams and organize a baseball league.
Because the military planned to use the equipment in regions where Taliban rebels posed a danger, Ben and his mother were not allowed to participate in the distribution.
Instead, they stayed in the cinder block home of a former Afghan Freedom Fighter who operates a relief agency in Kabul.
During their four-week stay in Afghanistan from mid-June to mid-July, Ben and his mother, who reside in the Battle Creek 5th Ward, Pleasant Grove Utah East Stake, came to know the travail of a war-torn country. Living conditions were rudimentary. Most homes were without plumbing. Homes with electricity amounted to one light bulb which was dimmer than the candles on a birthday cake. Water was a charcoal gray with the stench of rotting fish and sewage.
"It was dangerous driving through Taliban occupied areas," Sister Inks said. "This was not the time for an American woman to be a tourist in Afghanistan."
Yet, Afghan people were generally grateful to see them. "People were curious about our visit. Some parents thanked us with tears," Sister Inks said.
On one occasion, after traveling five hours over a road that was mostly a goat trail, Ben and his mother arrived at a school where they distributed pencils, paper and 2,500 pounds of hygiene kits provided by LDS humanitarian aid.
Small children and adults, hungering to learn after years of deprivation, responded with big smiles.
Sister Inks said she was happy to find Afghan people "doing better than expected. They are not flat on their backs. They remind me of our pioneers, creative, resourceful, working to rebuild. They are hardy and industrious, eager to learn.
"They desire a better life, but lack the experience and knowledge to know how."
In an area of the world lacking in good news, Operation Home Run hit a home run.