March 19, 2008

Name: CAPT Benjamin Tupper
Posting date: 3/19/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse

Syracuse has a gem of a night life area known as Armory Square, named for an old National Guard Armory that sits in the center of a small business district. It's not hard to find historical photographs of this Armory, that span a century of history. I've seen pictures of young Doughboy soldiers, literally on the front steps of this same sturdy Armory, marching off to war in Europe. The black and white photos show smiling men shrouded by the flags and bunting that adorn the large stone building. Throngs of smartly dressed men and women form the backdrop, waving enthusiastically in support.

Today, almost one hundred years since these pictures were taken, festive crowds still flock to the Armory's environs. But times have changed, and today they come to drink and socialize, and not to celebrate their community's sons and daughters going off to war.

This historical irony was not lost on me as I sat in my favorite bar awaiting the arrival of my friend Paul, who is also a National Guard soldier. From the corner windows of the bar I could see the Armory's stone walls, grey and cold in the Syracuse winter night. When compared to the neon beer signs and trendy facades of neighboring bars, the Armory's architecture of armored doors, barred windows, and gun-slotted towers gave it a hostile and menacing aura. On this night, the Armory felt like an alien creature. It was an unwelcome habitual offender, guilty of reaching into generations of youth and plucking them out of their comfortable world of drink and friends, and casting them off to war.

Yet this impression would have been lost on the casual observer passing by. The Armory was a forgotten backdrop to streets and sidewalks warmed by  neon lights and cheerful tipsy groups wandering from bar to bar. I could easily have been mistaken for a member of this carefree crowd, yet my purpose at the bar was more in line with keeping true to the legacy of the Armory. This evening marked the first time my soldier friend Paul and I had gotten together since I returned from war in Afghanistan, and it was the last time we would get together before he left for Afghanistan in the coming days.

Outside of the soldier connection, Paul and I have a lot in common. We are both thirty-something guys with four kids. We talked about the family stresses he could expect to evolve out of the prolonged emotional and geographic distance. He was optimistic all would pan out well with his wife and children. I remembered feeling the same way before I deployed, but I returned home to a summary separation and pending divorce.

I decided not to dwell on my circumstances, and shifted the conversation to lighter Army gossip of who was getting promoted, transferred, or leaving the Brigade due to the upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. After the second round of drinks, we got down to the brass tacks of the evening: what should he expect in the heat, sand, and stress of war?

I was well suited to provide him with good advice. I had just completed a yearlong tour as an embedded trainer within the Afghan Army, and Paul was about to begin the same specialized mission. I spun through a year of rules on how to maneuver through the figurative minefields of culture, language, and religion, as well as the literal minefields of IEDs and ambushes. I offered my suggestions on winning and keeping the loyalty of the Afghan soldiers he was going to lead. By the end of the night, my voice was hoarse from countless vignettes of battles fought and lessons taught.

Throughout more than five hours of conversation, despite our comfortable tavern setting and being warmed by quality beverages, the Armory was always there in the back of my mind, serving up bittersweet reminders of my time in Afghanistan, and taunting Paul with the unknown of his upcoming year at war.

When the night was done and the bar was poised to close, we exchanged handshakes and a hug. Our quiet, anonymous evening was unlike the celebrations that the Armory had witnessed in previous generations. But Paul and I didn't need any waving flags or cheering crowds to commemorate the occasion. Our camaraderie and hours of conversation had been enough to mark the coming and going of two soldiers.


Good to hear from you. Sorry to hear about the home life.

Yes, I'm sorry to hear about your impending divorce. It seems so unfair. No, it IS unfair, but life isn't fair, is it? And you would know this first hand. All of us who admire your writing send our utmost support.

This is really a very solid account that helps characterize one of the fundamental ironies of our current war - the fact that it only touches the select few who have chosen to serve. This may be a first in our nation's history that we are told that during wartime we have to go along with policies we may or may not agree with, while being asked to sacrifice nothing else - not even taxes, not even a little support for the courageous men and women who perform the tasks so few of us are willing or able to.

My hats off to you, and my sincerest hopes that things pick up.

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