RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Thousands of new American troops are arriving in Afghanistan with the mission of training that country's army. Benjamin Tupper knows what awaits them. He's a captain in the Army National Guard. He was an embedded trainer with the Afghan National Army, known as the ANA, earlier this year. While there, he shared his experiences with commentaries taken from his blog. Captain Tupper brought MORNING EDITION vivid portraits of his comrades in arms, like his recklessly brave machine gunner Ski(ph) and Fiez(ph), his gentle, young translator who was later killed.
Now Benjamin Tupper has collected those and other stories in a book, "Welcome to Afghanistan, Send More Ammo." In it, Tupper has a rather endearing name for the army he helped train.
Captain BENJAMIN TUPPER (Army National Guard): The Flip-Flop Army, it was a tongue-in-cheek reference to flip flops. Afghan soldiers - it's a new army, it's a young army, and there's really no uniformity per se. It wouldn't be uncommon to have some Afghan soldiers jump out of a pickup truck in pursuit of Taliban wearing flip-flops or basketball sneakers, Speedo swim goggles, baseball caps, New York Yankee T-shirts — the gamut.
MONTAGNE: And yet, none of this stopped them from being in fighting form.
Captain TUPPER: Not at all. They come from a tradition of individual fighters. That is how you make your reputation, through individual acts of bravery and courage. And you can see from maybe pictures or news reels of today's Afghan soldiers, they look more - as we like to say in the Army, high speed - they're starting to get uniforms that match and they're wearing their proper equipment.
And to this day, I think if you were to talk to embedded trainers who are on the ground today, they would probably still reflect that hey, I've got some great fighters in my Afghan unit and these guys are braver than anybody I've ever seen, but they won't work as a team. They're going at it alone. They're just doing their own thing and it really causes more problems than it solves.
MONTAGNE: Maybe you have a different moment, but there were any number of moments that were just sort of laugh out loud funny or certainly chuckle funny. One of them was when you were in a fire fight surrounded by Taliban.
Captain TUPPER: Yeah.
MONTAGNE: And you truly were, at least a couple of times, that close. I mean that close.
Captain TUPPER: Oh yeah.
MONTAGNE: Like a rocket that just fortunately for you, something was wrong with it and it didn't hit you.
Captain TUPPER: It blew up in front of me instead of in me, yeah.
MONTAGNE: And then finally when reinforcements arrive after quite a long time, you run into this sort of grizzled - what was he, Special Forces guy?
Captain TUPPER: Yep, I pull over the Humvee door expecting to see one of my teammates, and there's this guy. He's big. He's burly. I had no idea who he was. And I go, who the hell are you? And he introduces himself, he outranks me, so instantly I'm like oops. And he goes, what's the situation? I go we - and my voice is breaking. I mean I've had it. I am toasted. I'm like, we've been surrounded for two hours. And he kind of looks back and he goes, surrounded? I love being surrounded. And instantly the mood changed. I mean I instantly felt like I had just been lifted up and removed from that whole problem because there was someone here who, A, outranked me and B, had been doing this a lot longer than I had.
MONTAGNE: And C, had obviously a sense of humor.
Captain TUPPER: Yeah, and you know, for those who have been to war, they'll understand what I'm about to say. And a lot of people, when they see the book, you know, the subtitle includes the word tragicomic, and people go, how can it be funny? How can it be funny? 'Cause some of the funniest things happen when your life is on the line and you do something stupid. And you go back that night and you sit around the base and you retell the stories and you'll never laugh harder.
MONTAGNE: You tell a story that is ultimately disturbing, but it began when your unit stumbled onto a patch of emerald grass hidden in a dusty valley.
Captain TUPPER: Yep.
MONTAGNE: You refer to it as the Garden of Eden.
Captain TUPPER: That's what it looked like and it felt like and it smelled like, yeah.
MONTAGNE: Can you tell us about that because it says a lot about what tends to happen there.
Captain TUPPER: I think that that story perhaps sums up the whole Afghan experience for me. You go into the fight thinking you know who is who and who's on what side and why they're fighting. And in this case, we were presented with the story from a group of Pashtun villagers that there were hundreds of Taliban occupying a secret base camp on a mountain just outside their village.
And the Garden of Eden that you refer to, I don't know why it was there, I don't know what geological freak accidents occurred to cause this small lake and everything to be lush green, but that was the Pashtun's land and that's where they fed and watered their animals. In reality, up on the mountain there were no Taliban. It was a tribe of nomads called Coochies. Well, one of the Coochie animals had wondered into this Pashtun Garden of Eden and all hell broke loose. They confiscated the animal, the Coochies came to get it back, gunfire, a Pashtun boy was shot and killed. It wasn't pretty.
But the Pashtuns knew that if they told the Afghan army and police they were Taliban, we'd come and clear out the Coochies. So the Pashtuns really were using us to settle their score. We had no idea that that was what really had transpired. We were just told there's a lot of Taliban, you guys got to go get them.
And we had arranged air strikes. We had arranged a great plan to literally decimate everybody on that mountain. And literally, within minutes, this pristine Toyota, black Landcruiser rolls up and a tall, very handsome gentleman steps up who turns out to introduce himself as a member of Parliament and that he's a member of the Coochie Constituency and that the people on the mountain are not Taliban.
Had this Coochie Parliament member arrived ten minutes later, the air strike would have gone off and all these Coochie civilians would have had been killed. And I would have been the guy who would have had to go to bed every night knowing that I was the guy who orchestrated air strikes that killed a couple hundred civilians.
So I'm very happy things played out the way they did.
MONTAGNE: What did writing a blog as all this was happening, what did writing this blog do for you?
Captain TUPPER: I found it very therapeutic. And I didn't spare any details. I wasn't one of those guys who just called the wife every day and said everything's fine. I had to be open and honest about what was going on and what it was doing to me and how difficult it was. You know, the army gave you pills for sleeping and pills for anxiety and depression, but to me, writing was what worked the most. It really just helped me get through it.
MONTAGNE: Ben, it was great talking to you and hearing your stories again.
Captain TUPPER: Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity.
MONTAGNE: Benjamin Tupper is a Captain in the New York Army National Guard. He's just out with a collection of essays, "Welcome to Afghanistan, Send More Ammo." And if you go to npr.org, you can hear some of those commentaries.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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