Through the green tint of my night vision goggles, I watched the urban sprawl of Mosul speed beneath my feet, my legs dangling outside the door of a MH-60 Blackhawk helicopter. To my left sat fellow Green Beret James Hupp, both of us anticipating our arrival at the landing zone. Behind us, the helicopter was packed with Iraq SWAT team members that we had trained and led on previous operations. The Blackhawk flared above the pavement, then came to a hover. Every so slightly, the pilot began to drop altitude. We were descending down to the street between a labyrinth of twisting power lines. Somehow, the 160th pilot managed to negotiate the obstacles and ease the bird towards the street, barely avoiding the electrical wires that flopped back and forth in the helicopter’s rotor wash.
The thing about the PVS-14 Night Optical Device is that it is a monocle, leaving the user (me in this case) without depth perception. When I decided to exit the Black Hawk it sure looked as if we had landed on the street. To my surprise, I found myself airborne for a hot second before slamming into the street below and crumpled like a sack of potatoes. Hupp pushed out of the helicopter door a moment behind me and landed on two feet, barely missing a beat before making a bee line for the target building. As the helicopter landed, one of our interpreters ran off. As I struggled to get to my feet, the ‘terp kicked the barrel of my M4 rifle providing me with a buttstroke to the chin. Quite a way to start the mission. I finally stood back up and took off running after Hupp.
Such was life, Hupp just had his shit together better than I did. As many friends and team-mates recall, he seemed to excel at everything and be better at everything than the rest of us. Normal guys like me did PT once a day. Hupp did PT twice if not three times a day. He was not only our ODA’s senior communication sergeant but also worked with me advising our Iraqi SWAT team. James Hupp and I both served in the Infantry previously and both of us had our Ranger tabs, and of course we were both Special Forces qualified. Combined with Hupp’s sense of humor, work ethic, and sense of mission, I found him to be a great soldier to work with. I can’t recall a single disagreement that I ever had with him, a single tactical mistake that he ever made, or any time that I was not 100% confident that he had my back.
Another mission in Mosul saw me and Hupp up on top of a roof. While our assault force cleared the ground floor, I felt it prudent to secure the second floor. The only problem was the heavy metal door standing in our way. I gave it a few kicks but the door didn’t budge. In fact, it just hurt my foot. I was about to call for someone to bring up some breaching tools when Hupp jumped in front of me and drop kicked the door. It shuttered in its frame but didn’t move. Then he kicked it a second time, then a third, then a forth. Ever so slowly, the door actually began to bend on the top and bottom, the middle held in place by a sliding lock on the other side. James used his tree trunk legs to great effect that evening and before I knew it the door burst open. Damn Sarge.
That was in 2009. When I heard that James Hupp had taken his own life in 2017 I could not believe it. Sadly, he was one of the team-mates that I had lost touch with over the years. Sure, I saw my Team Sergeant at SOFIC one year, I’d message our ODA’s senior engineer once in a while, but I hadn’t heard a thing from James. My main memory of James wasn’t the barrel chested freedom fighter stuff, it was actually on a trip to a small town between Mosul and Tal Afar for a meeting (key leader engagement in Army parlance). James was walking around handing out candy to children. Other times he would jump right into a game of soccer with the kids. James excelled at basically all sports, go figure.
Like every other has-been veteran, I have a hard drive somewhere with a bunch of deployment pictures on it. I plugged it in and found the pictures I took of James and the local Iraqi children. That was when it hit me that my old buddy and former team-mate was dead.
At one point during our deployment, James heard from his wife that some pipes had broken and his house had flooded. He requested to go home for a week to sort things out. Our chain of command gave him an option, stay in Iraq and keep your job, or go back home and get fired. While we had missions off and on throughout that 2009 deployment, the ODA agreed that we could spare Hupp for a week so he could go home and sort things out. When it became clear that our higher command was going to kick him off the ODA for doing so, he decided to go anyway, feeling it was the right thing to do. One night soon after, some hi-jinx developed.
Our Team Leader was a good guy, who had supported James through and through, including fighting for him to go home and then come back to our team. But now things had escalated, and our poor Captain was the only Special Forces officer around to take the punishment for the frustration we had at the time. I don’t recall whose idea it was to throw a grenade simulator under the Captain’s hootch, but I was standing there when James said, “fuck it, I’m fired already. What else can they do to me?” Initiating the grenade simulator, he tossed it under the hootch and we scurried away before it detonated. Our Captain would not talk about that incident for a long, long time.
Looking over those pictures of James, it strikes me that Hupp had two personalities within him. One was the badass Special Operations soldier who would take the fight to the enemy, show bravery under fire, and not take any guff. The other personality was the guy who played soccer with kids, handed out candy, and tried to do right by everyone around him. He was everything we want, and hope, to find encapsulated in an American soldier, particularly within a Green Beret who is not just a soldier but also a thousand other things. Memories began to come back to me, thinking about me and James checking each other’s CYPRSS systems on our MC-5 parachutes before a free fall jump, sitting on the couch during a team party, him bragging about a buck he shot back home in Ohio.
I sat next to Hupp’s brother at his memorial service. His brother held things together amazingly well throughout the service, but as I looked down at Jame’s children and listened to person after person share their memories about him, I realized how proud I was to have worked with him but also how ashamed I am that I hadn’t stayed closer with some of my former team-mates. In some ways I realize now that I have been too hard on my peers. I often make fun of them with their sheep dog t-shirts and spartan memes and all that stereotypical veteran behavior. But what is that really? It is an appeal to brotherhood and a lost sense of purpose. Some of our soldiers come home and kill themselves because they are suffering from PTSD. Some of them did or saw things overseas that never should have happened and are carrying spiritual baggage. I don’t believe that was the case for James, I think things spiraled out of control for him after he left the Army.
Without a doubt, James made a decision and it was a decision that only he could make, and that he made alone. That said, there is also a cause and effect. We need to do a better job of looking after our buddies. In a recent conversation with a friend, he described a Marine platoon that came home and had nine suicides. “How could you let that happen?!” my friend exclaimed, meaning that other platoon members should have taken a more active role in preventing that. While talking to my Team Sergeant after the memorial we got into how suicides like this happen in clusters. It is like going to a SOF selection course. One guy quits, and once that first guy throws in the towel, it gives de facto permission to other guys in the course to quit and so they do.
Back in Mosul, the Blackhawks were inbound for our extraction. The minarets were blaring what was either a call to prayer or a call to kill all of us at around three in the morning. I had my chalk gathered up with Hupp, but when the helicopters came in and landed in the street we were too far away. We ran into the rotor wash, our vision browned out. Sprinting a few hundred meters, we then cut in at a right angle towards our bird. Hupp was bringing up the rear to make sure we didn’t lose any Iraqis in the chaos so I had no doubt that everyone was where they were supposed to be. Now he moved up to the front with me and we formed a chokepoint, counting the ISWAT members on the aircraft. Once they were onboard, I counted myself and then James. James counted himself and then me. Then we compared our final counts to make sure. We had our chalk onboard so we sat down and snapped in. Moments later, we lifted off and the MH-60’s nosed back towards Tal Afar. James and I both loved that shit.
When I remember all of these things, I wish I could share them with James. The way I remember him is without a doubt much different than how he saw himself towards the end. At the memorial I got to see some former team-mates that I hadn’t seen in eight years, and what a horrible way to become reacquainted. The only good thing that I can say about it is that I think it was a wake up call for the rest of ODA 5414, our enablers, attachments, and friends. We need to start doing a better job looking after each other. Being on a ODA is sort of like being in a family. You got assigned to them, you never picked these guys by choice, and no matter how dysfunctional it is, it is still the only family you got.
There are so many other great stories about James like the time our ODA crashed a wedding in Iraq, the time James knocked a guy out at the bonfire on our camp, or even the time he got his wisdom teeth removed back at Fort Campbell and it looked like he had chipmunk cheeks. I felt pretty bad for him that day.
James Hupp was everything you could ever want in an American soldier and is someone who I will never forget.