The Hard Places: The Tom Little Story

Hard Places Sign.jpg

The late Dr. Tom Little is the subject of an upcoming documentary.

In August 2010, Tom Little -- an optometrist from Delmar -- was part of a group of ten humanitarian aid workers killed in Afghanistan. The Taliban later took credit for their deaths. Dr. Little had spent most of his life there, and made it his mission to bring eye care to Afghans in need. He was known in humanitarian circles around the world, and in Afghanistan there's a hospital wing named after him. In 2011 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But here in the Capital Region, where he and his family maintained a residence, he appeared to be an everyday guy -- until news spread of his death.

Capital Region public television producer Dan Swinton never met Tom Little, but he remembers being very moved by reports of his death. He couldn't stop thinking about it. Later that day he found himself in the grocery store. "I was looking at this wall of ice cream debating about what flavor I should get," says Swinton, "and suddenly I was so deeply affected by how much I have and how spoiled I am -- how I lack for nothing -- and how what kind of ice cream I get is the kind of choice I make. And here was a guy who died in another country for something he cared about and who deprived himself of so much."

For a lot of people, that would be the end of the story. But two and a half years later, Dan Swinton is now preparing to go to Afghanistan with Little's wife, Libby, and a pair of German filmmakers, on a mission of his own. They'll tell the story of Tom Little, and of the people and the place that became so important to him in a documentary called The Hard Places.

Hard Places poster.jpgWho was Tom Little?

Tom grew up in Kinderhook and went to work in Afghanistan in the late 70s "rescuing hippies" for a humanitarian group. There were all these kids back then who were taking this "hippie trail" from Europe to India, looking for enlightenment or drugs or whatever, and they had to go through Kabul. Tom was one of the aid workers who would help get the kids out of jail and back home if they got into trouble. But about a year after he arrived, Afghanistan got sick of the hippies and canceled their visas, so Tom didn't have a lot to do. His dad was an ophthalmologist and he had some background in eye care, so he started working at an eye care hospital nearby.

Eventually he became an optometrist. His name is on a hospital over there. Afghans called him Dr. Tom and a brand new eye facility they're opening has his name. His big thing was sustainable development -- he didn't do surgeries, he trained Afghans to do them. It's sad that he died, but he accomplished his goal, because even if all Americans get thrown out, Afghans will have access to quality eye care.

Hard Places -Teaching hospital .jpg

Tom and his wife spent more than 30 years in Afghanistan and raised their three daughters there. They had a home in Delmar and came back once or twice a year to raise money for their work. When the Soviet invasion took place, it didn't seem fair to him that he had the luxury of abandoning them when it was convenient while they couldn't leave, so they stayed.

Hard Places --Tom, Libby and kids.jpg

Tom said, "I'm going to live on your street and make you my neighbors." And that built a real deep genuine lasting trust. He had the human capital and relationships so he could get things done that bigger NGOs couldn't. It's not a romantic Dances with Wolves thing. He wasn't truly one of them -- but people trusted him. He was motivated by faith, but he wasn't proselytizing.

He's buried in Afghanistan. He's got Bob Dylan lyrics on his tombstone: "Die in My Footsteps." He traced his life through Bob Dylan songs. He loved NPR and Prairie Home Companion. You can imagine this guy driving this Honda around a war zone listening to PHC.

Are you trying to tell Tom's story specifically, or are you hoping to say something broader about Afghanistan.

I think it's both. I want to use Tom as a lens to understand Afghanistan. This is a guy who -- in a way he was an old man by Afghan standards and had lived most of his life there. He'd seen more Afghan history than many Afghans had seen, so I think his story can serve as an anchor for a larger story.

It seems we spend so much of our time running from one disaster to the next in the 24-hour news cycle. Ten dead aid workers is big news today, but tomorrow it's swept away by the next natural disaster or election. A documentary makes you think for 45 minutes about a single topic.

What surprised you or what realizations have you had researching Tom's story.

Everything is surprising. I think about how ignorant I am -- what I don't know. And I don't think I'm in a much better boat than most people when it comes to that. We've been there for going on 12 years and I don't think -- beyond the front page images -- we know anymore then we did back then. And I think when we leave in 2014 a lot of people will be completely willing to let that country just evaporate because we are so heavily steeped in domestic issues. But there are people who you don't know about who will be toiling there to provide basic services and they will be doing it because they believe in it. One of the things we want to do with this project is to help people to see Afghans as real people -- to get people to see them the way Tom saw them.

Hard Places outdoor eye check ups.jpg

I think a big question that a lot of people will ask in this film -- because he had three daughters and a wife, and the kids were all raised in Afghanistan -- I think a lot of us can imagine being subjected to discomforts and all sorts of things for something we believe in -- but it's another thing to ask your family.

It's a big leap from being touched by someone's story to going to Afghanistan to tell their story? What made you want to do this?

I think I personally connected with Tom's story and that has made me want to pursue this. But there are certainly easier stories to tell, right? But I wanted to follow in his footsteps -- even if it was just for a few weeks and a year of editing. And I would love it if this film inspired someone who wanted to dedicate part of their lives to a humanitarian cause. Not everyone is going to be a Tom Little and get the Medal of Freedom, but in the rush to the exit from Afghanistan in 2014 I want to have people remember that there are so many folks working there. Tom worked with eyes but there are people using other talents. I want this to inspire people to use their gifts any way they can to help people.

Are you nervous about the trip?

Oh yeah. But I'm planning on going with Libby and with two German filmmakers -- Lukas and Salome Augustin -- who did another film about Afghanistan, which was amazing. That film, in five minutes, revealed more about the character of the Afghan people than I'd learned in 12 years. Lucas knew some of the people killed with Tom and said he would love to go over there and help.

Dan Swinton.jpg (Producer, Dan Swinton)

There are whole worlds I know nothing about, and people who inhabit those worlds every single day, and wanting to go there, for me, is to just get a taste of that. I'm not going to move my family there, but Libby said it to me. She said, "I don't think you can understand it without going for yourself."

And I think about what Tom said-- that you just can't live in that environment of fear. Am I gonna put my money where my mouth is? I don't want the point of my life to be creating this perfect little bubble of security for myself. Love is tangible, it's not abstract. I can't pretend to care about these people if I'm not willing to subject myself to some measure of risk. Otherwise it's still abstract.

The Hard Places is being funded through Kickstarter. So far they've raised about $11,000 of their $20,000 goal.


Wow, what an amazing man. Can't wait for the DVD, hope they do well with the Kickstarter campaign. Thanks for sharing this story.

Update on fundraising for The Hard Places - We are at now at 85% of our initial goal!

Such a sad ending for a guy who gave so much that Afghanistan could be a better place. Stayed with Tom and Libby in Kabul in the late 80's before and during Taliban times while I was on an aviation safety Project scoping and eventually a completed Project. So inspiring to be able discuss Afghanistan's past, present and future with Dr Tom. Good luck with the Film.

just learned about this film. is it still in the works?

I had the privilege to have known Tom; a down to earth man. One Friday, he appeared with his wife at my business telling me that he was looking for a complete lab to make lenses in Afghanistan to make the story short; within a month, machinery to make prescription lenses in Afghanistan was shipped in a container to Pakistan; Tom and his crew picked the machines with three trucks and took them to Kabul. By the grace of God, I was able to help that man with equipment, supplies, etc.; the last machine I sent to him; he was not able to see; he was grossly massacred with the team of doctors helping people there.

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