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'Game with a purpose': Vietnam vet, teen bring Scouting and help to Afghanistan

Keith Blackey, a veteran of the Vietnam War, has a lifelong involvement with scouting. He has brought his passion for scouting to Afghanistan as a way to say thank you and make a difference. NBC's Mandy Clark reports.

KABUL, Afghanistan - A 68-year-old Vietnam veteran and an idealistic 13-year-old boy might seem unlikely partners. But these two Boy Scouts -- 55 years and 7,000 miles apart -- joined forces to help some of the poorest people in Afghanistan.

Maryland teenager John Ferry needed a project to become an Eagle Scout, the highest rank attainable in the Scouts. He learned that Army Maj. Kenton Barber who was serving in Afghanistan needed donations of shoes to give to Kabul street kids.

Ferry emailed Barber to see how he could help. The boy did not want to stop at shoes, and so contacted schools, local businesses, churches and senior centers for help collecting more than a ton of winter clothes. He says he could not believe there were kids his age that still froze to death every winter in Afghanistan.

Keith Blackey’s path to Afghanistan began 40 years ago as a fighter pilot in Vietnam. In Sept. 1968, he was shot down during an intelligence gathering mission over North Vietnam.

“My wingman was with me and he could have escaped because we were under terribly heavy fire from surface to air missiles but instead he risked his life, followed me in and saw where our parachutes landed,” he said.

A3 Warrior pilot Blackey was taken captive by the North Vietnamese. A Marine unit launched a rescue operation within three days, and Blackey’s wingman, Lt. Cmdr. Chip Beck, rescued him. Over the years the two stayed in infrequent touch.

Courtesy Barbara Ferry

John Ferry, a 13-year-old Boy Scout from Kensington, Md., helped get about a ton of winter clothes to some of the poorest people in Afghanistan.

Forty years later, Beck asked a favor.

“What do you say to someone who has saved your life and he asks you to do something? There is no answer except yes,” Blackey said.

Beck asked Blackey to help build up the Iraqi scouting program. Six years later, Blackey had built a network of 150,000 Scouts.

Today Blackey is in Afghanistan hoping for the same success.  After three months in Kabul working with the Afghan charity PARSA, 2,000 Scouts have been signed-up -- so far, all orphans.

Blackey calls the program “a game with a purpose.”

It is about having fun but also about learning guiding moral principles, manners, teamwork and leadership – skills orphans badly need, he says.

Back in Kensington, Md., John Ferry had a ton of clothes but could not find a way to get it to Afghanistan.

“I was never discouraged, there was times it was slow going but I was not discouraged,” Ferry said.

He finally got in touch with a U.S. military program that agreed to ship them for free.

Enter Blackey. Once all the clothes arrived in Kabul, Blackey and his Scouts took over.  They loaded the shipment onto a truck bound for the Northern province of Bamiyan.

“The Scouts that helped both in Kabul and in Bamiyan, they are all orphans, many of them are living in poverty, and their scout uniform is the nicest thing they have,” Blackey said.

Despite their own poverty, the Scouts in Bamiyan wanted to help those in the most need, so Blackey handed out the clothes to some of the poorest people – those who live in caves in cliffs where the famed Bamiyan Buddhas once stood.

“It is a really depressing lifestyle. It is cold, they have no heat,” he said.  “They share a room with their animals.”

Courtesy Barbara Ferry

John Ferry stands alongside the truck loaded with clothes bound for Afghanistan in Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County, Md.

The Scouts spent hours stuffing garbage bags with jackets, sweaters, shoes, hats and mitts for each family member living in the caves. The help reached over 100 families, or around 600 people.

What touched Blackey was, “how gracious they were and their gratitude for these gifts.”

In Maryland, Ferry waited eagerly for news. The best part for him was seeing the photographs.

“I recognized some of the clothes,” he said.

Asked why he took on such a big project, Ferry said, “If you do a good deed for a stranger, maybe they will do another deed for another stranger.  But this was the right thing to do. It is just natural to help out those in need.”

Blackey’s motivation runs deeper.

“For two wars I have proven to myself that bombing adults does not solve the problem. For my last two wars instead of wearing a military uniform, I’m wearing the Scout uniform,” he said.

“I really believe we are going to do more for the future than I was ever able to do for my first two wars.”