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'A hundred rockets a day was a good day,' doctor's widow says

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Afghanistan medical mission ends in death
  • Her husband was working to end preventable blindness in Afghanistan
  • Optometrist Tom Little and nine others were killed by gunmen in a remote area
  • The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack

(CNN) -- Risking their lives to help disadvantaged Afghans became almost a norm for Tom and Libby Little.

"We raised our three daughters through what was, at times, just hell," Libby Little said. "A hundred rockets a day was a good day."

Family members lived underground to avoid bombings, she said. Yet they stayed out of a love for the people and a passion for providing eye care for the needy.

But violence prevailed on Thursday.

Tom Little, a New York optometrist, was among 10 people killed by gunmen in Badakhshan, a remote northeastern region of the country. The mostly foreign members of a medical team were robbed and shot one-by-one on a remote road. Their bodies were transferred to Kabul early Sunday, authorities said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

"He died right where he loved to be -- and that was doing eye care in remote areas," Little said from her home in New York. "Our daughters are missing him terribly. But I think their feeling is, too, that this is a real passion that he had."

More than 400 people gathered Sunday at Loudonville Community Church in Loudonville, New York, to honor Little. The church supported his trip financially and emotionally.

Video: 6 U.S. aid workers killed

"Four weeks ago, Tom Little stood right here," an emotional Stan Key, senior pastor, told the congregation.

The church had printed Wednesday in its weekly worship guide, "Praise the Lord that Tom's ministry in conducting outpatient clinics ... in a remote village was successful. God protected Tom and his team." Key said he decided to leave it in the guide even after hearing the news of Little's death.

Dr. Tom Hale, a medical relief worker himself, told the crowd Little's death was not in vain. "This was not a waste," he said emphatically. "This is an enormous loss. Many of us are angry."

The British Foreign Office on Sunday confirmed that Dr. Karen Woo was another medical worker killed in the attack.

It was the remote areas of Afghanistan, Libby Little said, where the need for her husband's services was often greatest.

"Huge populations were in these remote valleys," she said. The Littles would sometimes hike 40 miles one-way -- over mountains -- to access villages to host eye camps.

Little said her husband had recently become involved in a program to eradicate preventable blindness by the year 2020.

"There's a lot of preventable blindness in Afghanistan -- blinding eye diseases that can be solved with just very small work," she said.

Tom Little was heavily involved with training in optometry overseas, "enabling Afghans to start picking up the work of eye care, because it wasn't there," his widow said.

His passion for helping Afghans ran deep, she said.

"He would come back to the States and get throw-away optical equipment, then refurbished it, then would send it over to set up a little optical manufacturing factory, so they could make their own eyeglasses there."

When the couple married, they didn't foresee devoting much of their lives in Afghanistan.

"We did feel we wanted to serve God with our lives when we were married. We wanted to serve him. We didn't know what that meant."

So the couple decided to make use of tools and specialties they had -- specifically, Tom's optical tools and Libby's teaching skills -- and took part in a program helping disadvantaged Afghans.

"We went, and we thought it was going to be two years, and it was 33," Little said. "We loved the people. ... The Afghan people were wonderful, absolutely wonderful to us. And they would be the first ones to protect us. So this is not the usual state of things, where they would murder all these people."

Little said warfare in Afghanistan didn't deter her or her husband.

"If you're in medicine, I think you feel you can't leave," she said. "If you're propping up a hospital that's the only hospital, then you can't leave when it gets bad."

Despite the circumstances, Little kept her composure while reminiscing about her husband.

"We had 40 wonderful years together -- of serving together, all those years, doing what we thought we should do. And that's enough for a life."

CNN's Holly Yan and Ross Levitt contributed to this report.