The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.


February 07, 2008

Name: CAPT Benjamin Tupper
Posting date: 2/7/08
Returned from: Afghanistan

I've told and retold this story many times to friends, counselors, and family. Unfortunately, repetition has not cured me of the need to continually bring it up for reflection and comment.  Even though the events occurred over 15 months ago, they still feel fresh, and urgently in need of expression. They beg an answer, an explanation, which to date no one has been able to provide me.

As any good storyteller knows, a story needs a title. I call this one "The Tale of Two Mountains". One mountain produces a tragicomedy of my own errors that ends in accidental success. On the other mountain a similar mission, well planned and aggressively executed, ends with my buddy dead.

The two mountains lie in Eastern Afghanistan. SFC Bernard Deghand (or "Deg" as we called him) and I were tasked with nearly identical missions. Our objectives were straightforward: to assault the two mountains, destroy Taliban base camps, and kill or capture Taliban fighters. We were both leading Afghan and American soldiers in these assaults. We had both conducted similar missions in the previous months in the same general area. But the similarities end there.

My Afghan and American soldiers attacked a Taliban camp we discovered on a mountain named Tand Ghar. The enemy was routed and their base was destroyed by artillery we requested. Word of this successful mission spread quickly through the media pool, and reporters desperate for a story were summarily embedded into my small group. Within days, my merry band of warriors were heroes in my hometown press. I made it into the pages of newspapers across my home state, and my ugly mug was even on the nightly news in France.

On the other side of the mountain range was my buddy Deg, who by all accounts did everything correctly and by the book on his mountain assault. Yet when his mission ended he lay dead, through no fault of his own.

Artillery shell exploding on the Taliban camp on Tand Ghar.

As I previously mentioned, the details of my success are both comical and embarrassingly sophomoric. For the mission onto Tand Ghar, I had a couple of American soldiers and about fifty Afghans under my command. Despite high hopes for contact, a day had passed in our search without a single enemy encounter. The lack of action, coupled with the heat, pushed us into a careless and carefree mindset.

While having Chai in yet another nameless village, we got intel from the elders that the Taliban in fact had a night camp literally right next to us, on the top of Tand Ghar, a modest but impressive rocky mountain. We checked it out with binos. We had A-10 fighters do a flyover.

Nothing moved. Nothing was spotted. Our initial excitement wilted in the noonday sun.

Despite the lack of activity, I was inclined to lead a climb up Tand Ghar. My fellow American soldiers were skeptical, and pleaded with me not to bother.  Being the Commander, I got the final say in the matter, but I issued a compromise order and said only two squads of us would bother climbing to the top. The majority of Afghans and Americans would remain at the foot of the mountain.

By the time we made it three-quarters of the way up the rocky slope, my group had shrunk from about twenty Afghans to only five, one fellow American, and an interpreter. Having succumbed to the group-think of low expectations, I didn't even bother to bring a radio, or extra ammo, or to advise higher that we were embarking on this climb. I pretty much broke all the rules in the book, due to a complacency honed by months of wild goose chases that turned up nothing. The other American and the interpreter, equally uninspired, decided to shift to the right to get a better view of the valley, and were out of eyesight and earshot.

So it should be no surprise that I nearly dropped a deuce in my ACUs when all the Afghan soldiers, who were about forty meters ahead of me, began firing their AK47s once they crested the ridge.

It was then that I fully realized the depth of my folly. I was on a wide open rocky mountainside with nowhere to take cover, no radio, no interpreter, undermanned, and physically exhausted by the climb and the altitude. And to dramatically add a heaping dose of tragicomedy to this perilous situation, the Afghan soldiers who I'd left down at the base of the mountain mistook me for a Taliban, and fired hundreds of medium and heavy machine gun rounds at me as I moved along the ridge line.

In the end, for reasons that remain unexplained and unknown, the larger, dug-in, and well-defended Taliban force on Tand Ghar decided to run. We routed them off the mountain and destroyed their camp with artillery. Despite my errors, we didn't suffer one friendly casualty.


Deg, on the last mission the two of us did together.

And then there is my buddy Deg.  He had many things going for him for his mission.  His mountain assault was well planned, as he had days to prepare for it. He and his Afghan soldiers had even war-gamed the assault with the American units that were also involved. He had a larger force of Afghans in the fight than I had, more Americans on his left and right, and an interpreter literally by his side. He had radios, ammo, and everything that should have guaranteed success.

But it didn't. He was shot and killed by enemy small arms fire as he moved up his mountain.

At this part of the story I ask myself, "Why? Why did I live, and Deg die?" A good story should have a proper ending, an explanation that puts everything in place and makes sense of the facts presented. A "moral of the story", if you will, seems necessary here given the severity of the outcome for Deg. Yet my story doesn't have these things. Instead it leaves the audience to consider such an unlikely outcome for both parties, and an equally frustrated, guilt-ridden and confused storyteller.

In the end, I'm left with some pictures I took of Tand Ghar, some newspaper clippings of my "success", coupled with some of articles about Deg's death, and a sense of remorse that maybe the wrong guy made it home alive.


Thank you for your life,
thank you for your contribution. May God please bless your precious soul and give you grace and peace!

It's not unusual that you feel that way. I remember a high school buddy who got his head (well, the top of his head, but it was enough of his head to kill him) shot off in an ambush. For years I felt guilty for living when Bob, clearly the better man, died. I tried to live up to his example. It was sort of like the first part of 'Saving Private Ryan'. None of it worked.

In the end, you just (at least I just) have to admit it happened. God, Gawd, Bhudda, Whatever, decreed it, and Whosomever knew a hell of a lot more than I did. One of those "Out of my pay grade. . ." things. It nagged me a bit. This seemed a bit chickenshit, just to let the guy be dead, and go on with living. But, in the end, it was the only thing that worked. I stopped trying to be Saint Bob, and the world around me relaxed immeasurably.

Hard to realize that trying desperately to live up to a dead guy can make you a real asshole, but that was how it washed out, in the end. Hope it doesn't have to get that far for you.

Glad you made it back.


There is a saying in Vegas: The dice have no memory. Whenever a firefight starts, there is a random chance of someone being killed.You being in a firefight and your buddy being in a firefight have no relationship to the dice rolls that determined life or death.

Life is random. That randomness is what keeps things from getting stuck. Just when nature has found some really, really stable ecological setup, some random element will crawl in and send the whole thing spinning. It often sucks to be on the receiving end of that randomness.

Being a soldier means that you accept a higher than average risk of dying or being wounded. You did your job, as did your buddy. Luck was with you, but I expect there was a lot more going on than you brief synopsis here describes. Where was you bud when he got hit? Why did the Taliban in your basecamp run, but in the other basecamp stay? Or did they? Perhaps because you were scared shitless at the unprepared situation, you were more in the prone, trying to figure out how to deal with the situation. Your buddy, in his well prepared attack, may have gotten over cautious and made too big a target of himself.

But maybe it was just the same random chance that guides the rest of the Universe.

Survivor's guilt, one of the consequences in war. It is one of the reasons those WWII vets haven't share much information about their experiences. At least you are talking about it which may help you and others. What Deg would want is for you to remember him, and enjoy life. It is OK.

Wow. Wonderfully written. Enough said.

Tupper, listen up.
The bottom line: It is what it is. I understand you have guilt. I understand you wish your bud was still alive. You may even wish it was you instead of him. But what would that accomplish? The fact is that both of you honorably made a decision to serve your country. Circumstance brought both of you to the hell known as Afghanistan. Many have died there some because of carelessness, but most because it was their time. That is the only way to explain your situation. The proverbial bullet that passes inches from your head only to take the life of the buddy next to you. It cannot be explained. It just is.

For whatever it's worth, I'm glad you made it. The best thing you can do to honor Deg is to carry on. Be the best you can and be honest with yourself.

God bless…

Read Tim O'Brian's book about Vietnam, The Things They Carried. One of his conclusions is that real war stories have no moral, no message, no "proper ending." They simply are what they are; a war story with a moral is bullshit.

You need to trust in God to know when it is time for someone to die, you just don't have all the data and are only a human being - there are people you are sure should die but they won't until God says so. What you can do, is your very best to live and remember Deg for who he was before he was gone.

You need to trust in God to know when it is time for someone to die, you just don't have all the data and are only a human being - there are people you are sure should die but they won't until God says so. What you can do, is your very best to live and remember Deg for who he was before he was gone.

In the Jewish community we faced a huge, titanic wave of this issue after WWII. Many people survived the camps, many did not, and it was not clear why. People were burdened down with guilt and pain. Guys like Primo Levi, Eli Wiesel, they ultimately built whole careers out of working through those feelings. You're in the company of a Nobel Laureate, sir, not to mention a whole generation of men and women who've mostly passed on by now. They are all smiling at you from beyond the Veil, nodding in understanding. They were saved, in part, by hard-working soldiers just like you. I hope the knowledge of the hundreds of thousands of people who shared your feelings might comfort you a little bit.

So don't try to get rid of those feelings or rush through them. Just take it slow, let it happen and let yourself move through it at your own pace. You'll eventually come out the other side.

No, it wasn't the wrong guy that made it home. We are lucky that you made it home; and we are unlucky that Deg didn't make it home. We need both you guys, but we got one. Nonetheless, his friendship will continue to shape you for the rest of your life, and the friendship will outweigh the grief.

Why should I live and he die? This is essentially what you are asking.
There is no answer. You are reliving the situation and trying to determine if you have done something wrong. You did, but came through it. He followed procedures and did not. Life is a probabilty function You follow certain procedures and they often or usually turn out better than other methods. You got to school, study and get into and through college. This helps you get a good job and develop a career. Yet everyone who did this knows people who have done exactly that and have not achieved career success or even employment.
War is even more unpredictable in this way. If your friend had moved left or right, advanced faster or more slowly, he may have not been in the path of the bullet. He might have gotten in front of another. The result could have been the same, or completely different. Or it could have been you. Or both of you. Life has a certain randomness. Consider World War II and the Dresden air raid. The citizens of Dresden took shelter. This normally worked and was the established standard for safety under such conditions. Yet the situation changed, both in quantity and type of bombs and the particular weather conditions of that time and place. A new conditon appeared: the firestorm. Those in the shelters were literally baked alive. Asphalt streets turned to a sticky gel, trapping the few who ran out like flypaper. Casualties were beyond any expectation. They did everything right. And it failed them. The procedures for air raids did not change and normally worked even after this raid.
You could have died and he lived. Both of you could have died. You assaults could have failed. You could have taken heavy casualties. Your men are important, at least to each other and their families. There are so many possibilities that there is no point speculating.
Consider the Battle of Quebec. The assault was due to an unprotected cliff, which supposedly could not be climbed. Yet it was. The British got onto the Plains of Abraham , the French came out to fight instead of staying behind prepared defences, and the future of North America was determined.
The sinking of the Bismarck, the German battleship, was due to a torpedo damaging its steering system, which slowed the ship and permitted the Royal Navy to bring a task force into range. The torpedoes were launched by obsolete biplanes that supposedly had no chance of success. Ironically, they were so slow that anti-aircraft fire often passed ahead of them, contributing to their victory.
The man was your friend. You shared many experiences and activities, and a level of trust that few will every have.
You are reliving the events, searching for what went wrong. This is failure analysis, used by competent people in all fields, with the intention of not repeating mistakes. If you continue to fixate on this event, it will reduce your efficiency. You will be afraid of making mistakes and tend to take no action, or act reluctantly. You will overanalyse situations, vacillate, choosing one action, stopping and doing another. Your sleep will be interrupted, with exhaustion resulting and decision making ability reduced.
This reaction is common- plane crashes, ship sinkings, earthquakes, floods. Why do some survive and others in the same situation not? Survivors often ask this, or are asked it by others. You were in the wrong/ right place at that time- close enough to be involved (wrong) but not in the path of the event(right). The plane crashes but you get out the door before the fuel ignites. You make it into the lifeboat but others do not. You get out of the building before it collapses and do not fall into a large hole. You make it to high ground while others are caught by rising water. Your injury is psychological. You think you could have changed the situation ( doubtful) or saved someone or, alternatively, more people- a Hollywood type expectation of becoming a hero, which is at best wishful thinking.
Talk about it to people you trust. GET SOME SLEEP. Do not crawl into a bottle.
Mourn you friend. Remember him. Help his family. They have a loss in their lives too. Be the kind of man he would look up to. Be the kind of leader he would admire. You have a command, and they need a good leader. Soldiers look to their commander- with respect or scorn. Lead by example. Remember- if they see you doing something it is more likely that they will do it when no one is watching( this is one definition of ethics). Your men are volunteers. Know their capabilities and keep your requirements within them. Develop your men. Make them feel important, as if they are improving their skills in your service. Be the kind of man who brings prestige to the army.

My brother was killed in a car accident when I was 16. I felt the same way as you do at losing your friend. And it is a common experience shared by those who survive. Your survival did not condemn your friend to death. As others have said, it just happened that way. It just is. Grief has its own timeline and you must simply accept it. It will get better, or softer, but you will always remember Deg, as you should. But I can guarantee that he would not want you remembering him with guilt. You were his friend, you did him no harm. God and peace be with you.

My situation is very different from yours, but the pain is similar, I think. Years ago my son was killed when a truck ran off of the road and struck him as he stood on the shoulder of the road. My daughter, nearby, was unharmed. I, too, wondered, "Why him, why couldn't it have been me?" I was his mother, it was my job to protect him, and I didn't. It took a long time before I was able to accept that there were no answers. It is always easier to be dead oneself than to survive a loved friend of family member. The only thing that helped was that I was able to change the question from "Why did he die?" to "How did I get/deserve such a spectacular son?" I celebrated the time we were given together. It takes time, way too much time. Hang on. Accept that you were given life for a reason, and that it will probably make no sense to everyone else when you die. Live a life that will give others a reason to celebrate the days they had with you. Life isn't fair, but is is, once you get past expecting it to make sense, incredibly good.

Benjamin Tupper, I just read your book, "Greetings from Afghanistan". Glad you wrote it, glad you survived.
You and others talked about the desire to stay in the "war ready mentality" and how difficult it was to transition to civilian life. I am an amateur primatologist and athiest. The natural state of humans in the jungle 70,000 years ago is like war. Predatory animals, fatal diseases, shortage of food, no place to call home: these are the standards of living that our bodies and brains were designed to thrive on. We need stimulation and challenge on a physical level that is missing in a 9to5 existance. The best non violent method of "feeling alive" that I have found is racquetball. I suggest 60 to 90 minute sessions 4 times per week. I am willing to bet it will be better than any therapy you can find. Good luck and thanks for the book.


If I had to guess how Bernie would leave me 20 years ago (hoping that he never would), it would be just this way. I spent my early years in his shadow and have always ensured that choices in my career would be approved in his eyes. I can never imagine how I would ever be the man that I am today without being mentored by him. Be rest assured that Bernie loves you and is with you every day. My only regret is that I never got to pay him back for the 15 stitches I got playing golf with him in Manhattan, KS...long story that still brings a smile to my face.

I guarantee that God has a plan for you.

Love you Bernie...
a.k.a. MAJ Plankinton

I was with Deg the day he died in Spira. He was an incredible man and an even more amazing soldier. He was the true embodiment of what it meant to be a soldier. I watched him on the hillside and he had such a presence in front of those Afghan soldiers he was leading. For the brief time that I knew him, I am proud to have served with him and call him a friend.


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