Facing Fears While Hearing a Firefight

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While embedded as a trainer with the Afghan national army, a U.S. Army National Guard Captain hears a harrowing transmission over the military radio: men from his group involved in a pitched battle.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Commentator Benjamin Tupper lives and works with Afghan man, and sometimes faces death with them. He is a captain in the U.S. Army National Guard and one of a small group of military trainers embedded with the Afghan army. Training, in this case, can include leading Afghan soldiers in battle and it can also include losing them.

Captain BENJAMIN TUPPER (U.S. Army National Guard): It had been a difficult day with the long patrol through mine roads in an area recently occupied by the Taliban. In the middle of the night I decided to get something called a drink from the TAC or Tactical Operations Center, our headquarters office.

While grabbing a cold bottle of Gatorade from the mini-fridge, my attention was diverted by frantic voices coming over the military radio. Somewhere out in the darkness in some valley at some random grid square members of my taskforce were in a bad firefight. Some of my U.S. brothers and their Afghan army unit were in a pitched battle with the enemy.

The urgency, the terror, the frantic tones of their voice paralyzed me. Normally army radio transmissions are very formal and programmed. But when things go bad it's all out the window, and things had gone bad. Keep your eyes on that [censored] wall, he's there, he's there. The staccato of a 240 Bravo machine gun ripped the radio speakers. Voices faltered, quivered. Strong men were choking on their words.

Shoot them, shoot them. Then silence. Nothing. The bottle of Gatorade slipped from my hands onto the floor. I flashed back to recent moments when I found myself outflanked, outmaneuvered, outnumbered and under enemy fire. The hot summer air in our headquarters instantly felt cold and I literally shook.

I had a familiar sense of being alone, vulnerable and helpless. I couldn't move. I had become part of their world - an Afghan twilight zone. My mind as working overtime, filling the silent radio's void with the fear and adrenaline rush of combat.

I could literally see the fight as if I were there, but being along in the TAC with this deafening silence, I just couldn't take it. I ran out into the warm night. I didn't know who the battle ended, I didn't want to know. And I nervously laughed at myself as I ran in the darkness back to my barracks - half mocking my childish fear, half running from something I felt was pursuing me.

But you can't run away from the war. When I returned to the TAC in the morning, the radio squawked of normal administrative chatter of movements, reports and updates. The office was filled with my teammates in their usual upbeat banter. I relax and join in the small talk.

Then I heard a report come over the radio: that an Afghan National Army soldier had been killed last night in the fight I overheard. He was found alone, separated from his unit in the fog of combat in the blackness of the night. He had been captured by the Taliban and his throat was cut. His body had been booby-trapped with explosives.

My fear of being along last night came back. Listening to the fight unfold on the radio, feeling as if I were being drawn into it, all in the last moments before this soldier was killed - alone. I'm glad I ran through the darkness last night.

INSKEEP: That's commentary from Benjamin Tupper. He's a captain in the Army National Guard, embedded with the Afghan National Army.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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