KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan – He's 10 feet tall. When he walks through the valleys, he makes bombs fall from the sky and controls helicopters. After a failed attempt to recruit him, the Taliban put a reward on his head: $25,000 dead or alive.
Some of this is true, some of it exaggerated by hyper-imaginative insurgents. One thing is sure - U.S. Army 1st Lt. Benjamin A. Amsler is rattling Taliban leaders in Chowkay District in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province.
"They fear our platoon basically. They've created this character, I represent it, but it's my guys, it's not me. It's this Lt. Ben guy," explained Amsler assigned to Company B, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, Task Force No Slack.
"When we first got here you couldn't really get into the valley without getting hit and beat up a little bit," said Amsler. "So we made it a point to kind of say who we were, specifically me. I put my name out there, this is me and this is why I'm here. I'm in support of the government and I'm here to support the governor because he's unable to get up here. I have the armored trucks and guns. I'm here to help the people and kill the Taliban."
Amsler said that his platoon makes contact with the enemy about 85 percent of the time they head into the Dewegal Valley in Chowkay. Yet, that hasn't stopped him from continuing to push farther into the valley to further the influence of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
"We've gained a lot of support for us and the government, which is ultimately our goal," said Amsler. "We try to build support for the government, but first you have to be trusted by the people before they're going to listen to you. I think we've gained the people's trust and that shakes the Taliban up a little bit."
When Amsler, a recent graduate from Ranger school who took over the platoon in August 2010, visits elders and local leaders, he isn't shy about passing out his contact information. He gives Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army troops his personal cell phone number. He let's everybody know that he's not in Afghanistan to hide behind the walls of Combat Outpost Fortress.
"I'm not afraid to give my cell phone number out to anybody that could possibly need me at any point or to possibly contact me for [information]," said Amsler and folded his arms defiantly.
Then one day, he got a phone call.
"Lt. Ben? Lt. Ben?"
"Yes, this is him," he said.
Then the caller started to speak in Pashtu and Amsler passed the phone to his interpreter. It was a Taliban leader calling to propose a compromise.
Amsler explained the Taliban commander said, "We respect you as a fighter and you have good men. You're a good leader and have excellent fighters. So we're going to give you one chance."
The young lieutenant was willing to listen to the Taliban if it meant helping the people in his district.
"I told him I'd be willing to sit down and talk about our differences and just try to provide for the people, but they didn't want that," said Amsler. "They wanted me to covert to Islam and fight for them, [it’s] so not going to happen."
Shortly after that, Amsler started hearing rumors about a bounty placed on his head.
"It's a matter of getting underneath their skin," said Amsler. "All my guys fighting, they feared our platoon. We rattled them."
Though Amsler laughs at the mythical proportions of the situation, he knows it's not a game out there and has been more cautious.
It's just one more thing to worry about as a platoon leader.
"My guys have joked about turning me in for [the reward money] if I make them climb one more mountain," said Amsler as he was preparing to go out on yet another patrol. "It's funny, and it's a game, but at the same time, it's not a game. If they truly are trying to target me and or us, then we'll have to be more careful."
After patrolling into the Dewegal Valley for hours and taking enemy fire, Amsler came upon an Afghan villager.
Immediately, the villager recognized Amsler and said that he was doing a good job in getting rid of the Taliban.
He explained one last thing to his interpreter about a villager before heading out, "If he's not going to tell me anything about the enemy, then I'm not going to treat him good. Cause I know that the enemy was talking about using this as a staging point to attack me. So that means that he's friends with the Taliban. If he's friends with the Taliban, he's not friends with me."
Amsler, about 5 feet 9 inches tall, is broad-shouldered, has a set jaw and piercing eyes. Though he has been in the military for less than two years and is on his first deployment, he doesn't back down from much, especially not the Taliban.