THE TALE OF TWO MOUNTAINS |
February 07, 2008
THE TALE OF TWO MOUNTAINS
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.
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.