In a big war, Army Spec. Cherry Maurice believed that one small gesture could make a difference.

Temperatures at her mountain base plunged to 20 degrees below zero in January, and snow covered the ground. Maurice noticed that the eight Afghan workers on the outpost were coming to work in rubber flip-flops. The 35-year-old soldier labored with the men in the outpost’s kitchen, which is not much bigger than a walk-in closet. She dug into her personal savings and spent $135 to buy them eight pairs of boots.

“They are humans like us,” Maurice said of the Afghans. “And friendship means a lot to them.”

Maurice, who stands a little over five feet tall and favors shiny pink lip gloss, is one of the lowest-ranking and lowest-paid soldiers at this base in Wardak province, south of Kabul. Her life is a glimpse into the American-Afghan partnership at the bottom rungs of the U.S. military, where even the simplest acts of kindness do not easily translate across a wide linguistic and cultural divide.

Before joining the Army, Maurice earned a college degree and spent seven years working for a real estate company in Southern California. The housing market and her two-year marriage collapsed at about the same time.

Spec. Cherry Maurice, right, and her supervisor Staff Sgt. Tawana Roberts get ready for the dinner rush at Combat Outpost Sayed Abad. (Greg Jaffe/The Washington Post)

She sold beauty products to salons for a few years before joining the Army last year. “Everyone was shocked,” she said. “To go from the beauty business to the Army is a pretty big jump.”

Her father, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam era, tried to talk her out of enlisting. He worried that Maurice, who is petite with fine black hair and delicate, doll-like features, wouldn’t be able to compete physically with younger, tougher soldiers.

She trained as a truck driver, hoping that she would get out on the road in Afghanistan and possibly see some combat. Instead, she was assigned to a headquarters job monitoring radios on the outpost. Desperate to see Afghanistan, she volunteered to serve on a Female Engagement Team, a four-woman unit that patrols alongside male combat troops and tries to win over rural Afghan women. “I begged and pleaded for two months for that job,” she said.

Because her team is used only once or twice a month, Maurice spends most of her days working in the outpost’s kitchen, a steamy, gray metal trailer that smells of dirt, diesel exhaust and reheated cafeteria fare.

“What’s for lunch?” she chirped recently as she arrived for work.

“Food,” replied Spec. Tavon Terry, the cook.

She shot him a mock angry look.

“The same food we eat every day,” he clarified.

Harsh conditions

The hours in the kitchen are long, and the work, heating up tubs of food delivered to the base in clear plastic bags, can be stultifying. “I want to be out there,” Maurice said, gesturing to the snow-capped mountains and dun-colored valleys beyond the base’s cement walls and razor wire. She hopes that her engagement team will be used more as the weather warms.

Life is much harsher for the Afghan kitchen workers, who earn about $200 a month and are able to visit home only a handful of times a year. In September, a few months before Maurice arrived in Sayed Abad, a suicide attacker blew up a truck bomb at the outpost’s main gate, leveling the kitchen workers’ living quarters. Several quit their jobs.

Those who remained moved into hovels fashioned out of Hesco barriers — essentially reinforced containers filled with dirt — with sheets of plywood stacked on top.

When Maurice arrived at the outpost in December, temperatures plunged so low that the sludge froze in the base’s Porta-Johns and some of the diesel-powered generators locked up and quit. The Afghan kitchen workers heated their makeshift shacks by burning wooden pallets in rickety metal stoves.

Eager to connect with her co-workers, Maurice asked Safiullah Azizi, one of the Afghan interpreters on base, to help her buy them boots.

Azizi queried the kitchen workers about their shoe sizes, collected the money from Maurice and went to the local bazaar just outside the base to buy them. Because he was worried that the Taliban might recognize him, he covered his face with a scarf and put on sunglasses. In his wallet, Azizi carries a thumb-size photo of his older brother, who was killed two years ago while patrolling with the Marines in Helmand province.

“I told [the merchant] in the bazaar, if you give me shoes too expensive, you will be in trouble,” he said.

U.S. soldiers are issued rugged leather boots with thick rubber soles. In Afghanistan, American troops are permitted to purchase warmer and sturdier hiking boots. Azizi bought eight pairs of black vinyl boots with imitation-fur lining and gave them to the Afghans. Maurice passed along extra pairs of donated tube socks that she picked up from the base chaplain.

In the days and weeks after Maurice’s gift, relations between U.S. troops and Afghan personnel countrywide came under intense strain. In January, a video of Marines urinating on Afghan corpses surfaced on the Internet.

A few weeks later, U.S. troops at Bagram air base, near Kabul, accidentally burned several Korans, setting off riots and reprisals in which Afghan soldiers killed at least six Americans. Last month, a U.S. soldier allegedly shot 17 Afghan villagers to death.

The Koran burnings, in particular, remain a sore spot for the Afghan laborers at the Sayed Abad outpost. “We all wanted to quit,” said Mohammed Aziz, a 37-year-old kitchen worker. “The Koran is from our God. We stayed because their government apologized and we needed the money.”

Tension and good will

The Americans have been on edge, as well. One of the Afghan kitchen workers was fired for brandishing a knife at some of the soldiers in the chow hall, said Staff Sgt. Tawana Roberts, who runs the kitchen.

Despite the tension, there have been genuine moments of wordless warmth. Before Aziz went home on leave, the outpost’s American medics gave the kitchen worker vitamins for his pregnant wife and six children.

About once a week, Mohammed Ashraf, who runs the small bakery on the outpost, will knock on Maurice’s trailer door and invite her and the other soldiers from the kitchen to eat fresh Afghan bread made with garlic, sugar or a sweet cheese.

Ashraf, 45, communicates with the Americans using a worn paperback book titled “30 Days English.”

“Share food?” he asks, his black beard dusted with flour after a long day’s work.

Even if Maurice has already eaten, she will gather her friends and walk over to his dimly lit shop, which doubles as his bedroom.

“They have so little, but they will give it to you,” Maurice said of the Afghans.

The boots that Maurice purchased in January for the Afghan kitchen workers have gradually disappeared from the base. Several of the workers quit their jobs over the winter, alleging that the subcontractor who hired them did not pay them on time. The Americans said they are trying to get to the bottom of the complaint.

The remaining Afghans said they did not realize that Maurice had paid for the boots. Azizi, the interpreter, did not clearly tell the kitchen workers that Maurice, who makes about $24,000 a year, dipped into her personal bank account to buy them. Although he is a full-time interpreter, his English is not strong.

Maurice did not rush to take credit for the gift. She worried that she might be taken advantage of for having money and said she was reluctant to boast about her good deed.

The result: A critical aspect of the small, kind act was lost. The Afghan kitchen workers on the base stopped wearing the boots earlier this spring when they started to come apart at the seams. Today, most assume that the wealthy American government bought them poorly made shoes.

“We are happy for the shoes,” said Sher Ali, a 27-year-old kitchen worker. “But they did not last.”