NASIR WA SALAM, Iraq – Junior Tupuola’s car roared down the California highway. The booze from that night’s party still pumped in his veins.
He had been drinking regularly for years, almost nonstop since he accidentally shot his friend in the neck during his freshman year at Washington State University.
The partying cost him a chance at a pro football career and sent him down a path of partying with Saudi royalty and working as hired muscle for a drug dealer. He wanted a way out of the lifestyle but didn’t know how to escape.
It was 1987. Tupuola had been partying hard for years. The highway out of San Marcos, Calif., didn’t offer much to see in those days.
But as Tupuola drove through the night, his eyes saw a floodlit, 9-foot cross on a nearby hill. It was leaning to one side.
He parked his car, scrambled up the side of the hill, used his shoulder to right the cross and packed rocks around its base to keep it straight. He looked skyward and called for help.
“God, I know you’re there,” he yelled. “I know you can hear me. I need help. Please, I need help.”
Thus began Tupuola’s long, unlikely journey to Iraq, where he serves as a chaplain with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade in western Baghdad province.
Tupuola is one of the most visible people at his battalion’s base in rural Nasir wa Salam. He pops into offices. He organizes Bible study. He referees basketball tournaments. He hangs out at the morale tent. He pumps iron alongside the infantrymen in the weight room.
Chaplains can’t carry weapons, but Tupuola wears a sidearm holster with a Bible in it.
“Everyone knows chap,” said Lt. Col. Mark Bieger, commander of the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment – part of the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
“He’s always friendly,” Bieger said. “He jokes around. He’s really just one of those guys everyone feels comfortable talking to.”
Tupuola’s social charm, the chaplain said, is his tool to help the battalion’s 700 soldiers coping with the issues of a yearlong deployment. The 4th Brigade is scheduled to come home to Lewis-McChord this summer.
“Instead of using that gift to hang out with the drunkards, I’m using it to tell God’s glory,” Tupuola said. “I want to be there for Joe before he breaks down so I can catch him and help.”
Tupuola arrived at Pullman in 1980 as a wide-eyed 17-year-old. His father was in the Navy and the family moved often, but his roots remained firmly in his native American Samoa.
The transition was tough. He wasn’t accustomed to living on his own or making his own decisions – the kind of difficulties most new freshmen go through.
One incident that first September shook him to his core.
The Cougars football team had just finished practice. Cornerback Rod Retherford offered a few teammates a ride to lunch. The team’s star quarterback, Samoa Samoa, rode up front. Tupuola crammed into the back seat and felt a metal object pressing against his leg. He picked it up and found Retherford’s handgun.
“I was just a kid from Samoa – I didn’t know what the thing was,” he said. “I thought it was a toy. I was pointing it everywhere. I looked down the barrel and laughed. And then the trigger gave.
“I don’t even remember squeezing it. Just a little amount of pressure, and it fired. I shot my friend.”
The bullet ripped through Retherford’s shoulder and lodged in his neck. Samoa ran from the car screaming. Tupuola panicked. Blood gushed from Retherford’s neck. He told the freshman to stop panicking, take his shirt off and press it against Retherford’s neck.
Passengers in the truck behind them saw the shooting, helped lift Retherford into the cab and rushed him to the hospital.
Retherford survived, but the shooting spooked Tupuola. He drank regularly and blacked out often. He was a mean drunk, bullying people and getting into fights. Cops arrested him, and assistant coaches would pick him up from jail.
Coach Jim Walden would throw Tupuola off the team. But after Tupuola would complete a few tasks, such as going to study hall or attending summer school, the coach would relent and take him back.
And then Tupuola would get drunk again and wind up in jail.
Despite all his troubles, Tupuola was beginning to attract pro scouts. They came to Pullman to watch him work out. But his dream of playing in the NFL faded with a broken leg his senior year.
“I took it hard,” he said. “I wanted to succeed in football, but, really, I wanted to take care of my family – my parents, my siblings back home. I was going downhill, and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Tupuola played the season’s final two games while wearing a cast, but the worth of a linebacker revolves around speed and acceleration. The injury took both.
He signed with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League, but his old habits followed him north. The coaching staff wasn’t as forgiving as Walden; Tupuola was cut after a few run-ins with the law.
He had a tryout for the Montreal Alouettes the next summer. Again, drinking derailed his career.
So Tupuola came to Seattle and found a job as a bouncer at a nightclub. He was working the door one night when he saw a string of Lamborghinis pull up. A Saudi prince stepped from one of the vehicles, and a member of the prince’s entourage stuffed $100 bills into Tupuola’s hand to let the group through.
Later that night, the prince invited Tupuola back to his place in Bellevue. The group partied deep into the night, drinking expensive champagne and shooting pool. The Saudi invited Tupuola and some friends to join his entourage in Arizona the next week.
Tupuola agreed. He quit his job, and the prince bought them a condo in Paradise Valley.
“We went to clubs Monday through Sunday, nonstop” he said. “We drank whatever we wanted. We partied for hours. In our downtime, we’d go dove hunting. He’s the prince. Wherever he went, we went.”
The partying lasted about seven months and left Tupuola drained. He moved in with family in Oceanside, Calif.
A cousin sold drugs and needed hired muscle when customers didn’t pay. Tupuola and others would arrive at someone’s house, possibly rough them up and leave with their TVs and other electronics.
This lasted several months – and had Tupuola working from Southern California to Texas – until that night on a hillside next to a California highway.
Some of his relatives saw him crying near the illuminated cross and dragged him to their car.
They drove straight to the airport and put Tupuola on a flight to American Samoa.
“My parents me wanted me back in Samoa,” he said. “One of my cousins looked me in the eye and said, ‘Junior, man, it’s time to go home.’”
Tupuola’s family awaited him at the airport. The first face he saw after clearing customs was his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in years.
His father embraced him and said, “Welcome home, son.”
“When I saw them waiting for me, my knees buckled,” Tupuola said. “All that negative lifestyle, all those habits – it just disappeared when I saw them. I was like the prodigal son.”
A NEW CALLING
Tupuola sobered up and moved home. He filled his time with church services and Bible study.
He enrolled at a seminary in American Samoa. He later earned a master’s degree at a seminary in California and returned to Samoa to begin studying for a doctorate. He worked with gang members and at nights at a home for troubled children.
He joined the Army in December 2008, at age 46, in hopes of impacting a larger group of people. He arrived at Fort Lewis early last year to serve with 4-9 Infantry.
And in many of the soldiers, who are spending their yearlong deployment on patrols and training Iraqi soldiers, he sees echoes of his past life.
“A lot of these guys,” he continued, “they put God on the back burner like I did for so many years. I want to be a walking testimony that it’s never too late to change.”