'Citizen Soldier'

Syracuse New Times | June 24, 2010
Citizen Soldier

While many of us would run kicking and screaming from a deployment to any war zone, Syracuse’s Benjamin Tupper embraced the challenge. An East Sider born, bred and educated, Tupper’s politics lean left, a fact that, he acknowledged, runs counter to most in the military. He has been a willing member of the New York National Guard since 1993.

Directly before joining the Guard, he spent five years embroiled in the struggle in Central America. “I ended up in a cooperative in Nicaragua, living a guerilla soldier lifestyle, which wasn’t my intent,” Tupper said. “But that’s what the conditions were like there. I became addicted to the thrill, the camaraderie, the adrenaline rush of being in harm’s way and doing something as part of a team to support a greater goal.”

When he returned from Nicaragua, Tupper, 41, felt withdrawn from the excitement. As a way to reclaim it, he signed up for the National Guard, working his way up the ladder until he was promoted to captain in the 42nd Infantry Division, based in Troy.

Now he is on a tour of a different type: a book tour that takes him to Creekside Books & Coffee in Skaneateles on Thursday, July 1. There he will discuss and sign Greetings from Afghanistan: Send More Ammo (New American Library, New York City; 253 pages; $24.95/hardcover). Filled with blog-like vignettes, the just-released book carries the apt subtitle “Dispatches from Taliban Country.”

With searing candor and in-your-face anecdotes, Tupper gets down to business in the first chapter. “The dust covers every pore, but the inside of your nose and sinuses get the worst of it. These areas are simultaneously being dried by the arid hot air and bathed in fine dust particles. Within hours, the nose becomes a factory for bloody, sticky slugs of brown snot. The more you blow your nose, the more it bleeds, so you learn to just let the slugs cohabitate in your sinuses.” Puts a common cold in perspective, eh?

Despite that glamour, Tupper is well aware that the Afghan war is by and large a forgotten conflict, overshadowed by the conflagration in Iraq. That’s a big reason that Tupper, when the satellite allowed his laptop to connect to the Internet, would post a blog to a Myspace page, intending it as a way for friends and family to receive updates from the desert.

“I just wanted people to know what was going on in Afghanistan,” he said. “In 2006-2007, everything was Iraq and we were like, ‘Hey, we’re getting shot, too!’ We were jealous and frustrated and pissed off that Iraq stole all of this oxygen from the Afghan conflict.”

At the same time, Tupper, an avowed National Public Radio junkie, was also using his precious Internet access to visit pages that reminded him of home. “I was somewhere on the WRVO or NPR page, and I saw a tab that said, ‘We want your contributions; click here,’ or something like that. So I clicked there. I e-mailed three and within 10 minutes the editor responded. That started the relationship that continues today. I just recorded a commentary last week. They like my writing, they like my perspective, they like my honesty.”

More than those attributes, Morning Edition senior editor Maeve Mcgoran was impressed by the quality of Tupper’s writing. “I thought it was amazing,” she said from her Washington, D.C., office. “The writing was incredible, the imagery—to this day they’re daunting. He’s great at picking up the details that really tell a story, describing the people he knows and knew, and working them in as characters.”

By the time he left Afghanistan, Tupper, who holds a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University’s prestigious Maxwell School of Public Citizenship, had 10,000 followers and feedback from readers who thought he should compile his dispatches into book form. And that included Mcgoran. “I told him, ‘You should definitely do more with this. Stick with this. Send us more.’”

When he was in Afghanistan, he would e-mail his written-word commentary to her, she would edit it and send it back, and he would record it and resend a digital version. Now that he’s home, he uses the studio at WAER-FM 88.3 for recording.

Interestingly, Tupper’s deployment to Afghanistan wasn’t his first visit to the war-ravaged country. “Fortunately for me, I had been to Afghanistan two years prior to volunteering to go as a combatant. I went as a civilian, as part of a group called Afghans 4 Tomorrow, dedicated to the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan. They were the kind of group I could wrap my heart and my mind around. Everywhere you went, you’d hear these stories of what things were like under the Taliban. To me it was worse than Nazi Germany. So when I got home from that, I looked for an opportunity to go back.”

As a result, Tupper signed on to be embedded with the Afghan National Army, tasked with training, leading in combat and mentoring the home guard against the Taliban. He couldn’t predict how spending a year in Afghanistan would change his life, or the existences of those with whom he served. It’s their stories that make Greeting from Afghanistan even more riveting than details about bathroom breaks.

“I don’t think anybody who joined the National Guard in the 1990s expected to go to war,” Tupper said. “You expected to do natural disasters and national emergencies. That’s what you signed on for. I am still a very proud member of the 42nd Infantry Division. I’m told where we go; I don’t get to decide. If my unit is called up, I’m there. Ideally, I don’t want to go to war anymore. It’s destructive.”

Hear all about the realities of war firsthand during Ben Tupper’s latest book signing adventure at Creekside Books & Coffee, 35 Fennell St., Skaneateles, for a 7 p.m. appearance on Thursday, July 1. For more information, call 685-0379.

--Molly English

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