Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Las Vegas — They were a disparate group of American altruists who had long cared for the poor and ailing, thrown together on a mission to provide medical help in the most daunting and needy of places.
Last week, the six Americans were among 10 volunteers shot to death in a remote swath of Afghanistan while returning from an aid mission, a tragic end to their years of risk-laden service in the war-ravaged and impoverished nation.
Tom Little, for one, remained in Afghanistan through its brutal civil war in the 1990s, talking his way through checkpoints manned by various ethnic militias, and saving the lives of co-workers who might otherwise have been dragged from the car and killed.
Colorado dentist Thomas Grams often traveled with a bodyguard and told friends how he'd persuaded a tribal leader to bring his mother in for a dental exam by agreeing that she'd peel back as little of her burka as possible.
"He was just there out of kindness," Katy Shaw, a friend of Grams, said Sunday, her voice catching. "I can't get my arms around why someone would do that to a group of people trying to be helpful."
The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the ambush in a rugged, isolated valley, which also killed two Afghan men, a German woman and a British woman working with the International Assistance Mission. The Taliban accused the Christian group's volunteers of proselytizing and spying for Western military forces, which the charity vehemently denied.
The charity team, which had been providing eye care and other health services to villagers, had hiked over a steep mountain pass into neighboring Nuristan province, where insurgents had been battling Afghan and Western forces. Police theorized that the assailants might have followed them back from there.
Two other Afghan members of the group escaped the massacre: an interpreter who had left before the ambush and a driver who told police he recited verses from the Koran as he pleaded for his life. Afghan authorities are still questioning the driver about his account of the incident, and police said it would take two days for investigators to reach the scene of the killings.
The Western military condemned the attack as part of a pattern of insurgent behavior that exacerbated the suffering of Afghan civilians.
"This is something the Afghan population has to face," said Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force. "Because of these brutal, indiscriminate and absolutely deranged tactics and activities of the Taliban, international aid workers and nongovernmental organizations can't do their job, which is so necessary for this country."
The bodies of the slain American volunteers were flown by helicopter to the Afghan capital on Sunday from Badakhshan province, in Afghanistan's northeast, the U.S. Embassy said. FBI agents in Kabul helped identify the victims and aid groups released most of their names. One American had not yet been publicly identified.
"We are heartbroken by the loss of these heroic, generous people," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Washington.
Even before deplaning in Afghanistan, the team's members had devoted themselves to helping the world's most destitute. Grams, 51, was a prime example.
In 2001, he became the first dentist to join a volunteer group in Denver that whisks teams of dentists around the world. At weeklong clinics, they provided children free cleanings, fillings, extractions and tooth-brushing lessons — always without toothpaste, in case the villagers ran out.
Tall, blondish "Doctor Tom," who usually manned the first of six chairs, stuck out among his thousands of Indian and Nepalese patients. But he'd put them at ease by pulling down his mask and sharing a toothy grin.
"In America, the view is that the dentist gives you pain," said Laurie Mathews, Global Dental Relief's director. "In these countries, he only relieves pain."
Grams so enjoyed aid work that, a few years back, he gave up his dental practice. He'd also started traveling to Afghanistan periodically with other charity groups. It was no surprise to Mathews that Grams ended up in one of the country's far-flung corners: Once, to treat patients on Mt. Everest, they'd hauled dental equipment to a Buddhist monastery on rented yaks.
"His life mattered," Mathews said. "He is defined by more than how it ended."
Another victim, Cheryl Beckett, 32, was a former senior class president in Ohio with a sharp sense of humor and a strong Christian faith, said her grandmother Jean Fink. Both characteristics helped the aid worker power through the last six years, with Beckett educating Afghan villagers in nutritional gardening and mother-child health, and herself in the local languages.
"She had this love for the people and she immersed herself in their culture," Fink said. "Cheryl was as beautiful inside as she was outside."