As Americans forget about a war, a veteran campaigns to help its victims


In the end, Stephen Verges collected hundreds of pairs of shoes, even if some were high-heeled or otherwise inappropriate for the intended recipients: needy Afghans in their dusty, rocky, war-torn country.

And then there was a bit of a brouhaha with a health club that participated in the shoe drive - Verges says it didn't want to tell members the footgear would go to Afghanistan; the club said it just doesn't want to get involved in anything "political."

But in any event, they'll soon be on their way to Afghanistan, and, perhaps so too will Verges, 40, who lives in Joppa - although it seems that the remote country hasn't been far from his thoughts and efforts since he returned in 2003 from serving with a special-forces unit there. He organizes charitable drives for it, he paints scenes of it that have been exhibited and, now, he plans to re-enlist and return.

"He's very passionate about Afghanistan," says Pat Karzai, the sister-in-law of the country's president, Hamid Karzai, who has worked with Verges on charitable projects.

Karzai understands that passion. It's one that she shares, of course, having married into the prominent Afghan family 38 years ago. And it's one that she sees regularly when American veterans like Verges approach her to help with the nonprofit foundation that she and her husband, Qayum, run, Afghans for a Civil Society, or simply show up at their restaurant, the Helmand in Baltimore.

There's something almost "mystical," Pat Karzai says, about the pull that those who have been to the country feel toward it.

Unfortunately, they may be the only ones who feel that way. Last month, despite the fact that both presidential candidates were calling for more troops to be sent there, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 45 percent of Americans don't think the war in Afghanistan is even worth fighting.

Imagine: Less than seven years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted the U.S. to attack the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and drew nearly 90 percent support here on the home front, the sense that this is a righteous war has been cut in half.

Perhaps it's war fatigue, or war blur - the disenchantment over Iraq spilling onto Afghanistan. Perhaps it's just part of being an inward- rather than outward-looking country. Perhaps all these years of wars that seem to have no end have left the country, facing its own economic woes, simply too tired to care.

And perhaps that is why Verges had a tiff with a health club in Harford County that, in his eyes, wanted to "censor" where the shoes were going to go. I could spend the next couple of pages of this paper going through the whole he-said-they-said thing, but basically, the point is that, increasingly, the country is still fighting two wars even as its citizens have tuned out.

Anyway, Verges has his shoes, and he continues to work with Karzai and with Charm City Run, a Bel Air store that collects used shoes for him and other groups, such as those who work with the homeless.

Verges, who has held jobs including a bicycle courier and a punk band roadie, joined the National Guard and was attached to a special-forces unit that served most of 2003 in Afghanistan. He comes from an artistic family and has sketched and painted scenes from the country that are on exhibit at a veterans museum in Chicago and were previously at the Afghan Embassy in Washington.

It's not the typical background for a soldier, and initially, even the unit he was attached to thought him a bit unusual.

"He seemed like a strange cat," said Sgt. David Cardenas of the Chicago-based special-forces unit with which Verges served in Afghanistan. "I don't use this term lightly - he is eccentric."

But Cardenas said Verges is sincere about his charitable work for Afghans. Verges has helped collect, in addition to the shoes, medical devices and other supplies for the Karzai family's foundation. The group sponsors education programs, jobs training and other entrepreneurial projects.

"The need is so great, and so varied," Pat Karzai, a native of Pittsburgh, says.

Seven years into the conflict, she hopes her husband's country won't be forgotten by war-weary Americans.

"After 9/11, we saw what can happen if you abandon a country," Karzai says, referring to how the Taliban was able to come to power in Afghanistan and provide haven for al-Qaida. "We need to understand that the Afghans are the victims."

Jean Marbella's column also appears Thursday.

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