Capt. Tupper Sends 'Greetings From Afghanistan'

Capt. Benjamin Tupper i i

hide captionCapt. Benjamin Tupper served in Afghanistan as a member of the Embedded Training Team.

Nick Strocchia
Capt. Benjamin Tupper

Capt. Benjamin Tupper served in Afghanistan as a member of the Embedded Training Team.

Nick Strocchia
Greetings From Afghanistan, Send More Ammo: Dispatches From Taliban Country
By Benjamin Tupper
Hardcover, 272 pages
NAL Hardcover
List price: $24.95

Read An Excerpt

Capt. Benjamin Tupper trained Afghan forces, and fought on the ground against the Taliban and their allies.

In his book, Greetings From Afghanistan, Send More Ammo, Tupper shares what he learned about Afghan culture, and life as an American soldier.

Tupper describes what he calls the three guarantees of Army life. No. 1: Someone in the unit will have a hard-to-pronounce, multi-syllabic, Eastern-European last name. In his unit, he tells NPR's Neal Conan, that was his partner, Cpl. Radek Polanski.

Secondly, Tupper says, you'll have a man from Texas. In his unit, the Texan "was a chuck wagon circuit enthusiast — all things donkey and mule related. We would be out on a mission and he'd see a mule a mile away and stop the vehicles to go get a look," and talk to the Afghan owner about the animal's provenance.

Finally, nicknames are inevitable in the Army. Tupper had a "flurry" of nicknames, which are typically the result of "a comedic or stupid action ... or an opportunity just to poke a good-natured jab, lighten up the mood in a very stressful environment." So, at various points, Tupper was known as Capt. Prozac and Capt. Carebear, but the nickname that stuck was "Ring," thanks to an unfortunate ringworm infection Tupper suffered.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

While he served in Afghanistan, Army National Guard Captain Benjamin Tupper broadcast commentaries on MORNING EDITION.

Captain BENJAMIN TUPPER (Army National Guard; Author): I was the lone atheist, surrounded by equally convinced Christians and Muslims. There was one thing they could all agree on, that I was going to hell.

And then there was Fayez(ph), one of our Afghan interpreters, who was the most eloquent in explaining the pillars of Islam. One night, I described my faith that men could do good deeds without interference from God and my fear that religion caused much of the strife we witnessed daily in Afghanistan.

This was met by a chorus of condemnation. Fayez floored everyone by interrupting to say that they all should consider the possibility that I was right. This was a brave thing to do in a country where even today, people face death for questioning Islam.

CONAN: Captain Tupper also chronicled his tour in a blog on Slate and expanded all those essays into a book, "Greetings from Afghanistan," about his experiences as a member of an ETT, an Embedded Training Team, where small groups of U.S. troops serve alongside soldiers of the Afghan National Army.

In one essay, he describes what he calls the three guarantees of Army life: One, your unit will have some guy with a hard name to pronounce, multi-syllabic, Eastern-European, usually Polish. Two, your unit will have a guy from Texas. And three, you will get a nickname.

Well, if you've served, call and tell us about your unit and the guarantees of military life. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we want to hear about who you remember on this Memorial Day. You can send us email now. The address again is talk@npr.org.

But first, Benjamin Tupper joins us from member station WAER in Syracuse, New York. He is a captain in the Army National Guard and author of "Greetings From Afghanistan, Send More Ammo." It's nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Capt. TUPPER: Thank you. Nice to be here.

CONAN: So the guy with the impossible Eastern European name?

Capt. TUPPER: Polanski.

CONAN: That's not so hard.

Capt. TUPPER: Corporal Radik Polanski(ph).

CONAN: Polanski's not so hard. He was, in fact, your partner.

Capt. TUPPER: Yes, he was.

CONAN: And then number two, the issue of a man from Texas.

Capt. TUPPER: Yes, we had Sergeant Green, who little be-known to me was a chuck-wagon circuit enthusiast, all things donkey and mule-related. We would be out on a mission, and he'd see a mule a mile away and stop the vehicles to go get a look and talk to the Afghan about the age, et cetera, et cetera. But it was all Texas, and it was all mules all day with Sergeant Green.

CONAN: And should I call you Captain Prozac, or perhaps Captain Care Bear?

Capt. TUPPER: You can call me anything you want. Ben is fine. But, yes, I had a flurry of nicknames, also.

CONAN: Nicknames, as you describe it, can sometimes take a while to stick.

Capt. TUPPER: Yes, they can. And they're usually stuck with something less than desirable. They're usually a result of a comedic, yet stupid action or error or, you know, fumble at the worst possible moment, or an opportunity just to poke a good-natured jab, lighten up the mood in a very stressful environment.

CONAN: And Captain Prozac because of some medication you were taking, Captain Care Bear because you got a program together to distribute stuffed toys to Afghan children.

Capt. TUPPER: Toys, clothing, yeah.

CONAN: Neither one of those stuck.

Capt. TUPPER: No, well, they stuck for a while, but again, I think it's safe to say with the average guy in the infantry, our unit, you want to gravitate towards the lowest common denominator. And the nickname that stuck was Ring, and it had to do with a nice ringworm infection I got on my leg after a slight injury during a patrol one day.

CONAN: So an opportunity to remind you at every turn of a fungal infection.

Capt. TUPPER: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The - a lot of the book, you describe yes, there are harrowing scenes of combat. There are moments of courage and moments of incredible luck and very bad luck, too. But you also describe how humor, laughter is something that gets everybody through as they - well, you're not the only one to use the expression - embrace the suck.

Capt. TUPPER: Exactly. I think a lot of people, you know, who've come to me who don't come from a military background have been maybe not put off but confused why humor played a good portion or has a role in the book. You think of war, you know, it's tragic. People's lives are lost. People's lives are changed for the duration. But that one ingredient that makes it - keeps us from going insane in some ways is just the ability to look at a horrible situation and find some light in it, find some humor in it to get, you know, that laugh.

At the end of the day, some stressful mission, it's been 100 degrees, everybody's made it back. You know, maybe something bad had occurred. You've got to lighten up the mood somehow. You've got to point out that one time where, you know, that one sergeant was running across an alleyway and just tripped face first, laying there, bullets are scattering around him. You know, it wouldn't be funny if he got shot, but the fact that he made it to the other side of the alleyway, you've got to take light in that and get a chuckle out of it.

CONAN: You describe, for example, your partner, Ski. He's taking a shower one day in the FOB, the forward operating base, and they hear some incoming, and, well, he gets out of the shower and goes - hears an explosion and goes to investigate and finds out there's shrapnel that has riddled his sleeping place and then realizes the second round hit the shower.

Capt. TUPPER: Again, you know, that's a great story we tell all the time, that he just was always in the right place - or the wrong place at the right time. But, you know, that's common, and I think most soldiers who are downrange will share that there is a lot of humor, and it's one of the ingredients we need to keep on going and to keep sane.

CONAN: Downrange. There's a difference between the lonely trigger puller, as you describe yourself, and people you describe as fobbits. What's a fobbit?

Capt. TUPPER: Well, before I get into this, I don't want to start a civil war amongst the ranks of the service members out there. Everybody plays an important role in the United States military, be it at home or at war.

However, when you're downrange in a combat environment, some people have a little easier living, a little lifestyle. The fobbit is a term that's really evolved since the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to refer to a person who predominately has a job that keeps them on a large base, a FOB, a forward operating base, and thus they're allowed access to all the creature comforts that exist on these large bases.

Some people may already know this, but you may be surprised to know that in Afghanistan, you can take salsa classes and college lectures and Burger King, although I think - I heard they're closing the Burger King - but Popeye's, pizza, the galore is available on these large FOBs.

And those of us, especially who are on ETT teams who are living - excuse me -living on these small Afghan bases, we resented their creature comforts as we were eating whatever we could get our hands on and dodging bullets every day. It really got under our collar.

So there is a little bit of stress between people who we refer to as fobbits and people who are, you know, on the front lines, but I don't want to start a civil war. I respect fobbits. They're the ones who are getting the ammo shipped to me. They're the ones who are getting the medical supplies shipped to me, et cetera. So it's really not - it's a tongue-in-cheek jab at the guys and gals who are having a good time on these big bases.

CONAN: We're talking with Captain Benjamin Tupper about his book "Greetings From Afghanistan, Send More Ammo." If you'd like to join the conversation, call and tell us what your unit was like: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. John's on the line from Columbus.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: Okay.

JOHN: Fantastic. Well, I'm just calling about the nicknames. I had one. It was Dubs, which is short for my middle initial, W, but I just that camaraderie is -the longer I'm out, the more fortunate I feel that I was able to make all those connections.

CONAN: And when were you in?

JOHN: Way back '88 to '92, Persian Gulf for the first go-around, I guess.

CONAN: The first go-around for the Americans, anyway, yeah.

JOHN: Yes, yes, yes.

CONAN: And when you get together with your buddies, I don't know if you still do, but do they still call you Dubs?

JOHN: Well, thanks to Facebook, I've located a few recently. And so - I didn't mean to plug that, but, you know, however we can get together with old friends.

CONAN: I think a few of our listeners have probably heard of Facebook. So don't worry about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHN: Well, thanks for the great program.

CONAN: All right, John, thanks very much for calling. Do you use Facebook, Captain Tupper, Ben?

Capt. TUPPER: Yes, sir, I use it, though, for informal, social, nothing serious.

CONAN: But do you keep in contact with the people you served with?

Capt. TUPPER: To be honest, I usually am more inclined to write a longer, personal email, telephone call, regular text messages to make sure my buddies are doing all right. That's kind of how we operate.

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get another caller in on the line. Let's go next to - this is Jay, Jay with us from Oklahoma City.

JAY (Caller): Yes. Just in response to the captain, I'm retired Navy, but I started life as an enlisted Marine, working on aircraft. And we had a young man in our squadron, the Eastern Polack, Eastern European. His name was Skrypjyk(ph), with no vowels. We called him Alphabet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY: My nickname was Mouse, because I was the largest guy on the squadron football team.

CONAN: Yeah, that's exactly like on an airplane, you never want to be seated next to a guy nicknamed Tiny.

JAY: Yes. And we had - I do not remember his name, but we had a Texan in our unit who, the day - he was scheduled to go overseas, and the captain should remember this, as well. Just before you go overseas, they give you a bunch of shots.

Capt. TUPPER: Mm-hmm.

JAY: And this guy decided, well, you know, he wasn't going to let anything interfere with his physical fitness. So he went in in the morning and got his shots, and then he went out in the afternoon and ran two miles, and he was back at the base clinic by the - more than - a little more than halfway through his run because just something about getting all those shots was not going to let him finish that run.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Jay, do you keep in touch with your pals?

JAY: Well, I haven't - I keep in touch with some of the people that I worked with when I was later on in the Navy. I was '72 to '92, and some of the people I worked with my last few years in the military, I keep in touch with. And I was - I was even - as far as the captain's concerned, I was even worse than a fobbit because since I was a techie, I never even saw a forward operating base.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY: So the worst complaint I had was when they put me on mid-ship during Desert Shield-Desert Storm because they didn't have to pay me shift differential.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So they got you cheap.

JAY: They got me cheap. They got me cheap for mid-ship watch standard, yeah.

CONAN: All right. Jay, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JAY: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking about the guarantees of military life. One: There will be a guy with an unpronounceable, Eastern-European name. Two: There will be a guy from Texas. Didn't it used to be there'd be a guy from Brooklyn?

Capt. TUPPER: I - probably.

CONAN: Probably. It's probably changed a little bit.

Capt. TUPPER: Yeah, a little bit.

CONAN: And third, that you will get a nickname. Our guest is Benjamin Tupper. He's the author of "Greetings From Afghanistan, Send More Ammo." 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

On this Memorial Day, you may want to head over to npr.org and take a look at the Picture Show blog. There's a slideshow there of photos by Steven Clevenger. He spent time with Native-American troops in Iraq, and these images are from a book called "America's First Warriors: Native Americans in Iraq." Again, that's at npr.org on The Picture Show.

Later in the program: retired Colonel Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Bacevich joins us on The Opinion Page to talk about how the meaning of Memorial Day changed for him after the loss of his son in Iraq. If there's someone you remember today, you can email us: talk@npr.org.

We got this from Felice(ph) in Jacksonville: It would be such an honor to hear the name of my father, Lieutenant Colonel Norman Daniel Clitnik(ph), who served bravely in World War II through malaria and all the terrors of war. Before dad died last year at 92, he asked to be remembered not as an old man, but as a dashing lieutenant colonel.

CONAN: We're also talking today with Captain Benjamin Tupper about the experiences he describes in his book "Greetings From Afghanistan, Send More Ammo." Call and tell us about the unit you served with and the guarantees of military life. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's see if we can go next to this is Mike, and Mike's with us from Wasilla in Alaska.

MIKE (Caller): Thank you, Neal. Hello, nice to be with you, and thanks for the program.

CONAN: Oh, you're welcome.

MIKE: I just really - you've struck a chord. The captain, what he says is so true about the three rules of every unit. I was a military policeman in the Army, and we definitely had the guy from Poland or Polish descent, and we also had a guy from Guam. His name was Chargolof(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

MIKE: And there was a Texan, as well. And it's funny how you don't remember their names. You remember the guys who have the hard-to-pronounce names.

The Texan was always very proud of being Texan, and everything-big-comes-from-Texas kind of a thing.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MIKE: I had to remind him all the time that, well, I'm from Alaska, and if you cut Alaska in half, Texas would still be the third-largest state to keep him in line. So, thanks so much. Oh, and then the nickname. I was Eeyore, by the way.

CONAN: Eeyore, a gloomy fellow, were you?

MIKE: A realist. That's what I always called it.

CONAN: All right. Well, you're still Eeyore.

MIKE: Just pointing out the facts. Yeah.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call, Mike.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: You, of course, Ben Tupper, served as an ETT - and again, that's one a small group of Americans serving with Afghan forces. So, yes, there was a small group of Americans in your unit. For the most part, you served in two different eastern provinces of Afghanistan. But a lot of the people you served with were Afghan troops, and they, of course, presented difficulties of their own and presented rewards of their own, too.

Well, we heard earlier a cut of tape about a man you describe as Fayez, who was one of the terps, an interpreter.

Capt. TUPPER: Yup. ETTs, on paper, were about 16 men embedded in an Afghan battalion, which could be up to 400, 500 soldiers. So we were a small element within the Afghan National Army's forces.

The Afghan soldiers, you know, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. You had people who were unpredictable, who were brave, whose bravery bordered on insanity, who would let you down at critical moments and who would do incredible acts of sacrifice and valor the next moment.

Add to that the language barrier, the cultural barriers, be they religion, be they pork consumption, be they don't make the mistake that I made of showing a Afghan soldier a picture of my wife and asking him to show me a picture of his, a big no-no amongst young Afghan men. Things that really as well, or as much as the United States military tried to prepare us for this embedding role, they couldn't, and we made a lot of mistakes along the way.

But thank God for, you know, young men who are at war on the same side, because you'll forget a lot of the peccadilloes of your allies because they're, you know, on your side. They're shooting at the bad guys, too.

But it was a very challenging situation, just with all those, language, religion, tactics, cultural things that made it a fascinating job. And, you know, I always jokingly when people said what was it like? I'd say it was like the Peace Corps with guns, because that's what it was like. It was cultural immersion.

I learned so much about the Afghan people, their religion, the food -everything. I left there feeling like I was a little bit Afghan, and it was a wonderful experience. You know, aside from the people getting hurt and the loss of friends, both Afghan and American, it was a wonderful experience.

CONAN: We mentioned earlier "Pop-Tarts and POO," which is a chapter, one of your essays. POO stands for point of origin, and a lot of your missions were to go out and find out the point of origin where Taliban had fired usually, what, 107-millimeter rockets at somebody?

Capt. TUPPER: Correct. Yup. They had a tendency in Ghazni Ghazni's pretty much where we did a lot of these POO missions. They would launch these rockets just willy-nilly into the city, you know, which is a pretty dastardly thing to do. But we'd be then tasked - we being a couple ETTs, a couple Americans, usually me and Corporal Polanski - would get in a Humvee and go out with, you know, a company of Afghan soldiers, 60 to 100 soldiers, looking for where these rockets were launched from.

And it's pretty neat. I won't get into all the details, but based on the crater analysis, you can kind of get an idea of where they came from and go try to find it. And when you find it, you find all the other forensic clues that are left behind, or you may actually find other caches of rockets.

Or best-case scenario, you may find the Taliban sitting around there having chai and catch them flat-footed. The hardest part sorry, go ahead.

CONAN: I was just going to say, on this particular mission you describe, though, roads don't run straight in Ghazni. Indeed, they aren't really roads as much as we would recognize them. And you go from village to village and talk to the elders, and they say no, nobody sees anything, nobody sees anything, nobody sees anything.

And you're at the last village that you're going to go to before sundown, and you have an inspiration as you're sitting there eating a blueberry Pop-Tart.

Capt. TUPPER: I do. It was more of a copout because I was tired of walking into all these villages, and I knew what the answer I would get. Standard experience in Afghanistan is with the ANA, which is very well-liked among the general population, respected force. The Afghan soldiers show up in a village with me and, you know, Corporal Polanski in tow, and we got a warm even in areas that were very heavily populated by Taliban, we would still get a warm welcome.

I said, I don't want to go in this village. They're going to give us the runaround. Let's just have the ANA go in there by themselves. The ANA go in, and we're sitting there, and what will always happen is the kids will come to you, because they know you've got some kind of treat, be it a pen or a bottle of water or something. And the village elders will be a little more reserved, and they'll sit back and wait for you to go address them.

But the ANA soldiers came walking back, you know, hands up. No, they didn't see anything. No one saw anything. And I said, hey. I've got my good interpreter. I said ask these kids if they saw where these rockets came from. And the first one to tell me gets these Pop-Tarts.

And it was a split second. Boom. One kid, they came from that hill right there. Where's my Pop-Tarts?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Capt. TUPPER: And I was like, this is too easy. This is too easy. Why didn't I think of this the first village we went to? But kids are the weak link there. They're not as tuned into the fact that the Taliban have all sorts of nasty reprisals for people who cooperate or who may be considered, you know, to give information to the Afghan army or to us.

Kids are more innocent, and, you know, they wanted a Pop-Tart. That kid had no problem because he watched the whole - the rocket launching in the morning. He told me from start to finish what had happened.

CONAN: Here's an email we got from Lucas in Livonia, Michigan. My comment on the certainties of battle are the following: One, very often, things that are needed to go together work, they aren't shipped together. Two, an artillery barrage will always fall short. Three, tracer-rounds work both ways. Four, no unit that ever went into combat was ever battle-ready.

Capt. TUPPER: I agree with that, all of them.

CONAN: Let's get Ben on the line, another Ben, this one calling from Daytona.

BEN (Caller): Yes, sir. I just want to make a couple comments. First off, yeah, there's always a Texan, always a Texan. And I don't know if it's the same for you, but the shortest guy drives the biggest truck. It's always jacked up, like, eight feet higher than every vehicle on the road. And nicknames, mine was Cheetard(ph) because I was one of the smartest guys in my shop at the time. So they told me I was so dumb, I had Cheetos in my head because I did something dumb. So, really funny stuff. That's all I had to say. Thanks.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Ben.

BEN: Bye.

CONAN: Appreciate it. As we mentioned at the top of the show, Captain Tupper also, while he was there, kept a blog that he posted, and then also did commentaries for NPR's MORNING EDITION, including one that got him into a little bit of trouble.

Capt. TUPPER: It was the neck stem of a human spine, blasted 150 meters in the air from the site of a suicide bombing minutes earlier. The events were fairly easy to reconstruct. A lone suicide bomber had walked up to a group of our Afghan National Army soldiers and detonated his explosive vest. He killed a soldier and a civilian.

His own remains were scattered in a truly random pattern. His heart landed 50 meters away. An ANA soldier kicked it like a small soccer ball down the road, a gesture of disgust at this suicide attack.

CONAN: And you not only described that scene, gruesome as it is, in one of your essays, certainly not the only gruesome thing about war but you also described toward the end of the book that, well, up until that moment you had never gotten into any trouble for anything you'd written.

Capt. TUPPER: No. And, you know, I'm no role model as to how the right way to do it was at that time. The regulations were kind of vague. And at varying levels of my chain of command, I had a lot of support for what I was writing and I had people who were more concerned that I was going to, you know, reveal some operational security aspect and, you know, put somebody at risk, which is a thing I always worried about. And I think it's common sense everybody who writes should be worried about OPSEC.

But I had - I lived in a really gray area, and I had been doing the commentaries for NPR. I'd just been writing them and sending them in. I didn't ask permission. I didn't run them through any chain of command of any sort. As an ETT, we are out there on our own in so many different ways, operating independently of support from any most, you know, logistics or any kind of support. So we really felt kind of out there.

And I didn't have a problem just shooting stuff right up to NPR because I knew what I was telling, the stories I was telling were not propaganda. They were not - they weren't anything except really sad and exciting and important, I thought, moments that were occurring in the war that I thought that people needed to know about. And no offense to my brothers and sisters who've served in Iraq, but we in Afghanistan always felt like we were the bastard stepchild and that it was a forgotten war and that we were heavily under-funded and unsupported to the degree that we felt necessary to accomplish the mission there. And I think that's played out as evidenced by the fact that the Taliban is so resurgent now.

But that one - the one story that you just played an excerpt from, the problem with that from the two-star level that was running Afghanistan at that time was it ran contrary to the image that was being presented to the message that was out there called a command message - of the progress in Afghanistan and of the building and of the focus on reconstruction, which are all important parts to what was happening in Afghanistan.

But they didn't want to hear nor did they want to be broadcast or highlighted the violence and the tragedies that were also occurring hand in hand with that. So I got fussed at for including that vignette about the suicide bomber and specifically the Afghan soldier who kicked the suicide bomber's heart.

CONAN: We're talking with Captain Benjamin Tupper, author of "Greetings from Afghanistan, Send More Ammo." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Phil(ph) on the line, Phil with us from Birmingham.

PHIL (Caller): Yeah. I appreciate your comments, skipper. I'm telling a funny that happened in Vietnam. You know, being Navy, we got the privilege of serving with the Marine Corps. And one night, we had got some rockets in and everybody went to the bunker. And we looked around and one of the dental techs - and the dental techs do nothing but fix teeth all day. They don't do any guard duty or anything else. This guy was redheaded, freckles all over his body, had his helmet on, his flak jacket, shower shoes, soaked from head to foot with his M16 ready to fight the war.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Capt. TUPPER: Good for him.

PHIL: But thank you for your comment, sir.

CONAN: Thank you for the call, Phil.

Capt. TUPPER: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can quickly go to Marie(ph), Marie with us from Pawling, New York.

MARIE (Caller): Hi. Thanks.

CONAN: Go ahead.

MARIE: I spent eight years with the 411th Civil Affairs in Danbury, Connecticut and I was OIF-1. And we had a Wasaluski(ph) and we had an Aggie(ph), who was our eventual fulltime F-3. And I was, at varying times, Smiley and eventually Feelin-Better(ph), my maiden and married name hyphenated. For some reason, people thought Feelin-Better was funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARIE: But as an OIF-1er, I lived immediately behind the U.N. and was there for the bombing in August of 2003. And I mentioned to your screener, you know, one of the guarantees of war is that if you don't have a sense of humor and if you can't pretend that everything you're going through is normal, you'll just go crazy.

Capt. TUPPER: Well put. Well put.

CONAN: Marie, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

MARIE: Thank you.

CONAN: And Ben Tupper, we have to - just have a couple of minutes left but we -it's Memorial Day. We have to ask you about those you remember on Memorial Day.

Capt. TUPPER: Wow. Well, you know what, my self-defense mechanism is I treat today like any other day. I got up and I went and I painted some porches. It's a very difficult day for me. And I think I accurately discussed it in the book, some of the men that we lost, Aaron Diggins(ph) specifically, who was also one of my ETT partners. But I just do my best to just pretend it's another day because otherwise I'll get pretty emotionally dysfunctional and, you know, I'll leave it at that.

CONAN: You also describe a lot of the price that you and a lot of other people pay when you come home, the price that can include broken marriages and broken lives.

Capt. TUPPER: Definitely. Again, I had the privilege of serving with a small group of 16 guys. And, you know, I can just run down the list - divorce, suicide attempts, comas, in-patient VA facilities, PTSD, depression. The list goes on and on, which isn't to put a dark shadow over any of these guys. Even with all these issues, they're still funny, exciting rock stars and heroes of mine. But it's part of the human condition. You know, we're not made of steel and we're put in an environment like Afghanistan and, specifically, serving the role of ETTs and, you know, it changes us and it challenges us. And we come home and a lot of us have a lot of things to work out. We act out in a lot of ways. And hopefully, our friends and family can just have some patience with us till we sort things out.

CONAN: Are you still in the National Guard?

Capt. TUPPER: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.

CONAN: And so you could be called up for another tour?

Capt. TUPPER: Yes, sir.

CONAN: Any news on that?

Capt. TUPPER: None to report. None to report. You know, I'm a proud member of the New York Army National Guard. It's a great organization, and I'm honored to serve with a lot of the people I get to serve with on a regular basis. And if they call me for duty, it's my job to go back and do it all again.

CONAN: Ben Tupper, thanks very much for being with us today.

Capt. TUPPER: Thank you very much for showing interest.

CONAN: Captain Benjamin Tupper received the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman Badge for his service in Afghanistan. His new book is "Greetings from Afghanistan: Send More Ammo," and he joined us today from member station WAER in Syracuse.

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Excerpt: 'Greetings From Afghanistan, Send More Ammo'

Cover of 'Greetings From Afghanistan'
Greetings From Afghanistan, Send More Ammo: Dispatches From Taliban Country
By Benjamin Tupper
Hardcover, 272 pages
NAL Hardcover
List price: $24.95

INTRODUCTION

ETTS: The Tip of the Counterinsurgency Spear

Forget what you know about the American Army. Strip from your mind the familiar images of U.S. soldiers fighting their way through Germany, Korea, or Vietnam. The essays you are about to read reveal another side of the American soldier's experience at war: individual soldiers removed from the comfort and familiarity of their Army units and placed into the ramshackle, newly formed Afghan National Army.

These American soldiers are the ETTs, the Embedded Training Teams. An average ETT team consists of sixteen American soldiers, embedded into an Afghan battalion of about five hundred soldiers. These ETTs are separated into teams of two, each team assigned to its own individual Afghan National Army company of about one hundred Afghan soldiers. They are embedded into these foreign ranks with little knowledge of Afghanistan's language, history, or culture, and they are forced, often in the heat of battle, to abandon the American doctrine of warfare and embrace creativity, patience, and primitive war-fighting techniques.

These essays are my personal stories as a member of this force in Afghanistan. ETTs are Marines, Army, and most often Army National Guard officers and NCOs assigned to the fledgling Afghan National Army (ANA), where they are tasked with the daunting mission of training the ANA in garrison, leading it in combat, and mentoring it to a final victory against a thriving and brutal Taliban insurgency.

These essays provide an introduction to the Afghan war as seen through the partnership of the ANA and the ETTs, forming the literal "tip of the spear" in the counterinsurgency fight. They chronicle the personal experiences of two ETTs: myself, Captain Benjamin Tupper (Infantry), and my partner, Corporal Radoslaw Polanski, also an infantryman. The stories vary in their scope, from personal war stories of our successes and failures in combat, to observations of day-to-day life inside the Afghan Army; the humorous moments, the culture clashes, the voice-raising arguments, and the differing roles that religion, women, and politics play in the lives of Afghans and the American soldiers assigned to train them.

This collection of essays also explores the injuries inflicted during war, from the slow but steady degradation of healthy minds by combat stress, to treating the physical wounds of combat, to the deaths of our comrades and enemies.

To understand Afghanistan's culture, its potential for modernization and democracy, and its remaining military challenges, one must walk in the shoes of the Afghan people and its Army. From May 2006 to May 2007, I walked in those shoes. These essays are the footprints of my journey.

The Flip-Flop Army

The Afghan National Army is a work in progress. It has lots of potential, but it also has great deficits that it must overcome in order to establish itself as a credible national security force. As I see it, the ANA has two primary missions: defeating domestic enemies and protecting against international adversaries. Both goals are currently unreachable and unrealistic without continued U.S. and Coalition support. The ETT mission was created to help speed the ANA's development along, but I'm finding that despite our best efforts, old habits and deficiencies die hard.

First, I'll start with the good news. The average ANA grunt is as brave as, if not braver than, your average American soldier, or any nation's soldiers, for that matter. The aggressive pursuit of the enemy, even at great personal danger, is a trait found among many in the ANA. At the first shots fired, the ANA are like hunting dogs anxious for the chase. Sometimes they break and lose their combat effectiveness, but on the whole they are more likely to aggressively react to enemy contact than not.

The second positive aspect of the ANA is that, despite low pay, poor living conditions, and chronic lack of supplies, the morale of the ANA is high. ANA soldiers regularly go out on missions without enough food, ammo, or water, yet do so without hesitation and still succeed. When it's fighting time, all the shortages and problems cease to be an issue.

Another positive aspect is that the problems in Iraq with enemy infiltration and manipulation of the armed forces are not as serious here. It would be naive to say there are no enemy infiltrators in the ANA's ranks, but their number and influence is barely measurable. Perhaps the best proof of this is the fact that I have never, in the dozens of missions out with the ANA, hesitated to turn my back on any ANA soldier. I trust them with my life daily, and to date, it's been kept in good hands.

Last, I have never ceased to be amazed at how well the ANA soldiers understand their role as low-level representatives of the Government of Afghanistan. They go out of their way to talk to civilians about building a new country, free from the violence and corruption and the warlordism of the past. These soldiers form an army that is a melting pot of tribes, languages, and sects, and they perform as a team time and time again. Their example to the civilians they interact with must leave an impression that gives hope for the future.

But it's not all peaches and cream. The Afghan Army, despite these positive attributes, has serious problems. The chronic shortages previously mentioned are in part due to corruption at higher levels. Senior officers, NCOs, and common soldiers have stolen, pilfered, and sold Army property, and do so at times with impunity. Even at the lowest levels, underpaid soldiers frequently take newly issued items to the bazaar to sell. When you ask them the next day where these items are, they will insist they were never issued to them. While wrong, theft at this level is more understandable because the soldiers barely make enough to feed a family.

One story comes to mind to highlight this specific problem. While out on a mission, and in hot pursuit of the enemy, my Humvee hit a series of irrigation canals that caused the spare tire and a fuel can to go flying off the vehicle's rear cargo cage. Given the urgency of the moment, they were left abandoned for later pickup (or so I thought). Upon arrival at our destination, we were informed by the ANA that they had picked up our items for us and were safely storing them in the back of one of their pickup trucks.

Upon completion of the mission we returned to the Forward Operating Base (FOB), but it was dark and we were all tired, so I made the (incorrect) decision to collect the items in the morning. The next day, I scoured the ANA FOB for my tire and fuel can, but found neither. No one knew where they were, but everyone I talked to was happy to send me on a wild-goose chase following up false leads. Finally, and quite by accident, I came across a well-concealed but slightly visible Humvee tire, which I returned to the vehicle. However, the fuel can and its contents joined the permanent ranks of the "missing in action."

As for the ANA being a "flip-flop Army," it is not for the reason you may assume. The ANA does not flip-flop its loyalties. From top to bottom, it's firmly committed to fighting and destroying al-Qaeda and the Taliban. No, the flip-flop refers to footwear. Yes, that's right: the cheap plastic sandals that are a beachgoing standard in the States.

The flip-flop is the preferred choice of the ANA for daily soldier life. Sure, they have boots, but flip-flops are so much more comfortable in formation, or even when meeting with your commander. And if flip-flops are out of season, basketball sneakers will do just fine. Comfort apparently trumps uniformity (something the U.S. military should consider!).

Personal modification of the standard uniform does not stop at ground level. Head wear is equally versatile. Hunter green berets, the officially issued uniform headgear, are usually replaced with do-rags, Arab-style head scarves, and baseball caps. And to finish off the customizing of the uniform, throw on a pair of tinted swimming Speedo goggles (as one of our soldiers does), and you've got a ready-to-rock-and-roll ANA soldier. Some of these guys look like they just came off the set of The Road Warrior. I keep waiting for Mad Max to roll up and tell us where the fuel truck is located.

Perhaps the most intriguing and puzzling habit of many ANA soldiers is their use of henna. I commonly walk through Third Company's barracks in the morning to find a large number of soldiers with hands painted orange with flowers and other assorted designs. Some have orange hair. Others are busy painting their fingernails with henna, reminding me of thirteen-year-old girls at a slumber party. I just shake my head, pass around greetings, and move on. When they start putting on the lipstick, then I'll get worried.

Copyright 2010. Excerpted from Greetings from Afghanistan: Send More Ammo by Benjamin Tupper. Excerpted by permission of New American Library Caliber, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved.

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