July 30, 2007
Name: CAPT Benjamin Tupper
Posting date: 7/30/07
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, New York
Ski and I met on a hot summer morning in Ghazni, Afghanistan. I was inspecting one of our base's fighting positions when a tall, thin kid with glasses and a pencil-thin moustache ambled up to me. His camouflage boonie cap sat cocked sideways on his head, and his pistol belt hung low off his hip.
He didn't salute me. He didn't even stand at parade rest. He casually reached into his pocket and pulled out his lighter and lit a cigarette. Then, with a thick Polish accent, Ski mumbled his first words to me.
And so began our partnership as Embedded Team Trainers within the Afghan National Army. Ski was assigned as my NCO for leading and training an Afghan infantry company. In the Pashto language, and among the Afghan army officers, our company was officially known as "Too-Lay-Say", which translated means Third Company. But Ski and I quickly nicknamed them "The Third Herd". This seemed appropriate given the cloud of dust and gunsmoke they kicked up whenever we rolled out on a mission. At times they acted more like a wild cattle stampede than an infantry company, but they got the job done when it mattered, so we didn't complain too much.
Our Company went out on more missions, was in more combat engagements, and probably killed more enemy than any group in our Battalion. Third Company was just like Ski and I: laid back and easygoing, but serious when it was time to do the heavy lifting in combat.
We seemed to have a knack for finding danger, and for being in the wrong place at the right time. And as I got to know Ski, I found that this pattern of finding trouble was a continuation of his pre-war life back home in the States.
On the streets of New Jersey, Ski blended into his troubled urban landscape as just another kid on the corner. As a Polish immigrant in a tough neighborhood, he had a hard time navigating in his new homeland. He eventually ended up joining the Army National Guard to escape a downward cycle of problems at home and with the law. In time, he ended up in the heat of Afghanistan.
How it happened, or why, I don't know, but there he instantly, and seemingly effortlessly, was transformed from the role of troublemaker into a noble American Hero. Selfless. Compassionate. Brave.
But his kindness and good nature to those around him was only one side of the equation. Ski was lethal in combat, and he remains the bravest machine gunner I've ever seen in action. During one difficult ambush sprung on us by the Taliban, Ski was shot in the ear while manning the 240Bravo Machine Gun. He ducked down from the incoming fire just long enough to let me know he was hit, that he was pissed, and that he was going to get the guy who shot him. Then he popped right back up in the turret to unleash a torrent of bullets and f-bombs.
You may recall from a previous Sandbox essay how Ski treated a wounded Taliban soldier. Upon seeing the wounded man, Ski immediately grabbed his Combat Life Saver medical bag and moved to begin treating the fallen enemy. Ski told me how the wounded enemy was looking at him with fear in his eyes, expecting Ski to finish him off. When the Taliban realized Ski was trying to save him, he relaxed and put his hand over his heart. In Afghanistan, it's customary among men to put their hand over their heart as a sign of deep respect and thanks. This image of mutual compassion from unlikely sources, in an unlikely place, summed up what having Ski as a partner was like. No matter what the circumstances, Ski would choose the right path and do the right thing. Here, in the heat and dust of war, despite the mental and physical fatigue that cracked our minds and bodies, his moral compass was always pointing in the right direction. In Afghanistan, it never faltered when it mattered.
And then we came home. And for Ski, and for many like him, the transition was perhaps harder than the war. The return to the civil and mundane life was like a withdrawal from a powerful drug. And in his case, this withdrawal brought out some demons, bad choices, and ultimately tragic consequences.
I visited Ski yesterday. I hadn't seen him since we returned from Afghanistan. I knew he had been having problems, but my plate was too full with my own "transitional issues" for me to be there for him like I should have been.
So I sat there with him, and told him in no uncertain terms that he needed to get his shit squared away. I reached into my social worker bag of tricks, and mixed good mature adult advice with salty infantry threats and obscenities. As a Platoon Leader, and Commander, it was a technique I had used many times on my wayward soldiers with good results.
But unfortunately my words were falling on deaf ears. Ski, the vibrant, supercharged soldier, lay silently in a coma, unaware of my pearls of wisdom, and for that matter, unaware that I was even in his presence. The only response to my profanity-laced lecture was the hum of medical equipment and the rhythmic pulse of a ventilator.
Good news update: Ski is out of the coma, off the ventilator, and pretty much seems back to his old self. Thanks for your prayers and messages of concern.
Tupper and Ski.