Trial team includes decorated Afghanistan war veteran

Following a year-long deployment as an Army executive officer and scout platoon leader in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan, Christopher Safulko ‘13 is familiar with pressure as he supports his teammates at a team competition in San Francisco.

Published November 2, 2012 at 5:33 PM

By Charles Anzalone, UB News

When 3L Christopher Safulko takes his part in the Law School trial team competition in San Francisco, he’ll feel the familiar stress to perform under pressure and the rush of backing up the others on his team.

One thing is certain: Safulko is uniquely qualified to keep that excitement and tension in perspective. Three years ago in June, he returned from a year-long deployment as an Army executive officer and scout platoon leader in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan. There, he helped defend a small base in the remote mountains of that province, surrounded by Taliban insurgents where he earned a Purple Heart for being wounded in action and Bronze Star for his yearlong combat service.

“I was either extremely bored or extremely terrified,” Safulko says.  “I can say that I saw progress and that I saw some major setbacks."

Safulko and his classmates Joseph Nicastro, Steven Earnhart and Adam Penna traveled to San Francisco in early November to compete in the Golden Gate University Prof. Bernie Segal Criminal Mock Trial Competition, one of four Buffalo trial teams to compete this semester throughout the country.

“Chris has been a quiet leader,” says Christopher J. O’Brien, co-director of the Law School’s Trial Advocacy Program with Erie County Court Judge Thomas P. Franczyk.

“I learned about his service to our country not from him bragging about it, but from a classmate who said he thought Chris served in the armed forces. We had to really grill him before he would tell us what happened. And it was only after we learned about the Purple Heart that another classmate came up to me and said, ‘By the way, he’s also got a Bronze Star.’

“He is an example of the best of our nation,” O’Brien says. “Someone who has served his country, but doesn’t wear it on his sleeve.”

More people than his Law School brethren and colleagues have paid close attention to Safulko’s experiences. Jake Tapper, senior White House correspondent for ABC News, has written a book about the camp -- Combat Outpost Keating, where Safulko was stationed. His book, The Outpost, was written after Tapper conducted extensive interviews with Safulko and includes substantial passages on the Buffalo law student.

The Outpost, scheduled to be released in November by Little, Brown and Company, chronicles the battle of COP Keating in 2009, a battle the Taliban lost but not before inflicting high casualties on American troops. Safulko’s unit was one of four different units assigned to defend COP Keating, from 2008 to early 2009. The fierce battles over that remote camp eventually led to an American withdrawal.

“When I arrived with my platoon, I inherited a mission that existed long before I entered the country,” says Safulko, 28, who graduated from Amherst High School and then enrolled in the ROTC program at Canisius College earning an undergraduate degree in political science. “And it was one that would continue after I left.  We were tasked with bridging the gap between the local and national governments in Afghanistan.

“That’s a loaded statement because there are so many implied tasks: improve the security situation, build confidence in the national government, build confidence in the local government, supervise development projects, advise and assist Afghan Police and the Afghan National Army, and drive a wedge between the local population and the insurgency.”

Safulko can summarize his experiences into three scenarios. Danger as well as a mixed sense of satisfaction, frustration and pride are present in each.

Oct. 28, 2008:
Safulko was in an “overwatch position” providing security for a joint US/Afghan mission. “The mission was simple and brief,” he says. “Conduct a traffic control point on the only road running through the valley, Afghan police would have the opportunity to search vehicles if they were suspicious and talk to passers-by -- possibly to gain valuable information regarding the security situation in the area.”

Safulko had been in position on the side of the mountain before sunrise, watching the US/Afghan Army contingent cross a rickety footbridge and return to camp.

“The soldiers cross one by one -- the bridge could only support the weight of one, maybe two people at a time,” he says. “My commander began to cross, and just as he neared the far side of the bridge, an IED (improvised explosive device) detonated underneath him (Safulko says the bomb was tied to a piece of garbage stuffed into the bridge). The explosion threw him off of the bridge onto the ground. His legs were shredded, something that was obvious from my elevated position over watching the patrol.”

Everyone at COP Keating agreed this was no accident. The commander was targeted for assassination by the insurgency.

“They hated him because he stood for something, progress,” says Safulko. “Under his leadership the unit had been invited into surrounding villages. In some cases he was even escorted by village elders and leadership who provided guarantees of safe passage and protection. The thing is, most of this progress was built around face time, meetings, meals, and tea.”

His commander, Captain Robert Yllescas -- who Safulko obviously admired as a soldier and man – died from his wounds about a month later, leaving behind a wife and two daughters.

“I can't say that we learned anything new from this unpleasant experience and loss of an outstanding combat leader,” Safulco says. “I think if anything, it reinforced some concepts we already knew: What we do is just as important (if not more so) than what we say; to lead by example (and not ask others to do something we would not do ourselves). We also learned just how important one person can be. We never completely recovered from that experience. The trust between the US Soldiers, local police, the surrounding villages, and the Afghan Army was never quite the same. While the mission continued, and progress was made, we never really reached that same level of cooperation, or trust that we had in October of 2008.”

May 30-31, 2009:

At this time, some of the soldiers in Safulko’s unit were being sent home. Replacements had begun to arrive. It was dusk, a time of day everyone knew was dangerous.

“If you were outside, you tended to scan the high ground all around you looking for anything unusual,” he says. “I was standing behind a Humvee talking to one of my non-commissioned officers, Sgt. Shane Scherer. I had just commented on the fact that this was a dangerous time to be outside in the open, and that most of the soldiers would be going home soon.

“I took about three steps away and a recoilless rifle round struck the Humvee we were standing next to and passed clean through the vehicle spraying shrapnel out the other side. The camp was under attack, again. The camp was attacked sometimes on a weekly basis.”

Safulko says he was lucky. He was peppered with small pieces of shrapnel in a few spots on his left side. Sgt. Scherer was not. As is often the case, the difference between serious injury and escaping was a matter of a couple of feet, a small angle between the two men.

“One piece severed an artery in his arm. Another piece penetrated his skull and entered his brain,” Safulko says. “He was kept alive by some very talented and skilled army medics while they waited close to an hour for him to be evacuated. “

Scherer spent over a year recovering from his injuries, and is now earning a master’s degree in public administration.

“I spoke to him on the phone the day he woke up at the hospital -- he was in a coma for some time,” Safulko says. “I traveled to the VA hospital in California where he was receiving rehabilitative care and spoke at the ceremony where he was awarded his Purple Heart. I attended his wedding reception a year after that (his wedding was postponed a year because of these injuries, he was supposed to get married as soon as we returned from Afghanistan). He has come to visit me here in Buffalo. We stay in touch.”

The final episode is an epilogue of sorts.

Oct. 3, 2009:

Safulko had by now returned to Fort Hood in Texas and heard on the news about an attack on a remote mountain base in Afghanistan. He knew immediately it was COP Keating. The unit that had replaced his that previous June was surrounded and attacked by a large enemy force. After holding their ground, eight American soldiers were killed and many more wounded. A few days later, COP Keating was shut down.

“When they closed COP Keating, I think the initial reaction, for some people, was to say ‘All of that for nothing. Everyone who lost their lives or was maimed out there, it was in vain …’ With that sort of view I think it’s very easy for bitterness to set in. It also ignores the fact that when that mission began in 2005, it was impossible to say what could or would happen four or five years later.

“I have to remember that I didn't leave Afghanistan empty-handed, regardless of the negative or unpleasant experiences I had there, the same experiences that anyone who has served in combat has had,” says Safulko. “I left with a real understanding of how fortunate I am. I carry a perspective that I have only because of those experiences. I'd like to think that that perspective is what keeps me moving forward. I think many of the soldiers I served with think the same way. You don't want to waste a day that you are given.”

Safulko says he is happy he decided to return to his hometown to attend SUNY Buffalo Law School, and praises the rest of his trial team for the diverse experience they offer as a group. The case they are trying in San Francisco is a bank robbery.

“SUNY Buffalo Law is a good mix between the core fundamentals classes and a hands-on opportunity with the clinics and the externships,” he says. “For me, being a little bit older, that makes a lot of sense.”