BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When third-year University at Buffalo Law
School student Christopher Safulko takes his part in this weekend's
law school trial team competition in San Francisco, he'll feel the
familiar stress to perform under pressure and the adrenaline rush
of backing up the others on his team.
One thing is certain: Safulko, who is interested in a career in
litigation and trial practice, 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, surrounded by Taliban insurgents, he helped defend a small
base in the remote mountains of that province, where he earned a
Purple Heart for being wounded in action and Bronze Star for his
year-long combat service.
"While there, 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 will travel to San Francisco this weekend to compete in
the Golden Gate University Prof. Bernie Segal Criminal Mock Trial
Competition, one of four UB trial teams to compete this semester
throughout the country.
"Chris has been a quiet leader," says Christopher J. O'Brien,
co-director of the UB 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
More people than his UB Law 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: An Untold Story of American Valor," was written after
Tapper conducted extensive interviews with Safulko and includes
substantial passages on the UB Law student.
"The Outpost," scheduled to be released this month 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
"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 summarizes his experiences into three scenarios. Danger
-- as well as a mixed sense of satisfaction, frustration and pride
-- is present in each.
Oct. 28, 2008:
Safulko was in an "overwatch position" providing security for a
joint U.S.-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 passersby --
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 U.S.-Afghan 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 -- whom Safulko 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," Safulko 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 U.S. 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
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."
Oct. 3, 2009:
The final episode is an epilogue of sorts.
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
"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
"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
Safulko says he is happy he decided to return to his hometown to
attend UB's 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 as part of the competition is a bank
"UB 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
Safulko will be available for interviews -- his schedule
permitting -- when the UB trial team returns from its competition
Monday, Nov. 5.