I know many people will be writing diaries about veterans important to them, so this one is for mine.
They called it the “100 Hour Campaign.” It was truly a modern military marvel. After sitting in sand for months, 24th Mechanized Infantry Division was finally on the move. The pointy tip of the spear was given the job of holding the flank and then orchestrating a pivot maneuver to take two airfields and then ultimately block the Republican Guard movement back into Iraq. They were the cork in the bottle, but to get there, they had to move further and faster than any heavy infantry had up to that time.
He initially joined the Army because he thought he would see the world. He wanted to escape his little hometown in Indiana. After basic training, he disappointingly found out that he was shifting from one side of Georgia to the other side of Georgia. Then came the news that they were deploying to Germany! Oh, he was so excited about that! Just weeks before the move to Germany, he received word the deployment was scrubbed. They were to report immediately for training in the Mohave Desert.
He soon learned he was to be deployed to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield.
He was part of a mortar team and a driver of an armored vehicle that was lovingly referred to as a Creeping Coffin…aptly named for the propensity of certain enemy rounds to pierce the armor and then just rattle around inside the compartment. He learned the quick lessons that all new soldiers learn: If it was bad news it was true and if it was good news it wasn’t. He didn’t live in a tent city well within Saudi Arabia. He was “forward.” At least in the large camps there were some comforts. Showers. Shitters. Some entertainment. He had few of those small comforts for the months he was there.
His hands turned black from the lack of showers. To get a warm meal they wrapped their MREs around the tail pipes of the vehicles. How come only the crappy entree got the good dessert? To get “cool” water they put their water bottles into dampened socks and set them in any shade they could find. The breeze would cool it a few degrees. They slept in the back of their vehicles or in the back of trucks. As a forward deployed mortar unit they never saw the big tent cities. They saw sand. He still says he would be happy to never see sand again. Not even a beach.
On Feb 24 the ground assault of now Operation Desert Storm began with a bang. Speed and distance records for infantry movement into enemy lands were broken. “Stormin’ Norman” made sure that his old command, the 24th Mech, was at the sharp end of the spear.
When he rolled over the Iraqi positions it was obvious they had been dead a long time…probably since the early days of the bombing in January. He got used to seeing the dead; however, it did not escape his attention that amongst the flotsam of battle was beer cans. These guys had beer? US troops were not allowed to have beer so as to not offend the regional allies.
They overran certain enemy positions so quickly that large groups of Iraqis were surrendering en masse. Iraqis were on their knees with arms raised to the sky and chanting “George George Bush!” He was ordered to just drive past the Iraqis and to leave them to the rear units to round up. Besides, there was nowhere to put them or the personnel to guard them.
One of the major objectives was an airfield. The defending Iraqis were so desperate that they fired the anti-aircraft guns at the oncoming US vehicle. Small arms fire and tracer rounds streaked down the sides of his truck.
After mortaring Iraqi positions, he was part of the detail to assess the damage and obtain a kill count. The barracks were destroyed. To get a number they collected all the shoes they could find and then divided that number by two to get a casualty estimate to provide.
He remembers that one of the most impressive things he observed was an A-10 Warthog lighting up a T72 tank with its gun. For those that don’t know, a Warthog is basically an enormous rotary canon with wings. The sound of that rotary cannon burst is unmistakable and is an awesome display of firepower.
Friendly fire was the real scourge of that engagement. The combination of limited visibility, slow communications, and Abrams tanks with incredible firing distance capability resulted in numerous friendly fire casualties. He said one of the saddest things he remembers was coming across the scene of a friendly fire event. A tank commander thought he saw Iraqi armor on the horizon. The commander was wrong. It was a Bradley. The tank had fired at least two depleted uranium sabot rounds into the Bradley. One of those rounds passed through the driver compartment. He said there was not much left of the driver. They did an impromptu 21-gun salute in honor of the dead soldier.
After one mortar barrage he was almost a friendly fire casualty. In the rear view mirror he watched incoming US artillery rounds pound the exact spot from where they had just fired a mortar barrage on an enemy position. Later they learned that someone had observed their outgoing rounds and assumed it was an Iraqi firing position. That over zealous individual ready to “get into the fight” had called in the strike without confirming the presence of friendlies.
After the major hostilities ceased, he did get the opportunity to meet and speak with some Iraqi prisoners. One young Iraqi that knew English spoke for his fellow soldiers and told the stories of each man in the unit. Many of them had been pressed into service by Saddam’s regime. Most of the officers had fled during the bombing leaving the soldiers to fend for themselves. None of them wanted to be there and, unlike the elite Republican Guard, they were poorly outfitted and supplied.
He took the long way home on the equipment ship transport. He needed the time to decompress. The journey home on the ship took several weeks. A junior officer confiscated the handgun given to him by an Iraqi and that he had hidden in a compartment in the truck. No doubt it now adorns a mantel with some fabricated story of how it had come into the final owner’s possession.
Soon after coming home, the Army offered returning soldiers early outs. He took it without hesitation and returned home to the little hometown. It was immediately clear something was wrong. He talked about his experiences for about a week. He hung his uniform in a closet and it never moved again. He gave his service medals away. He would not sleep for 36 to 48 hours at a time. Those sleepless periods were followed by 14 to 16 hours of sleep that was impossible in which to wake him. After a period of time he became thin and gaunt. His behavior became increasingly erratic. The slight, barely noticeable tremor in his hands increased in intensity, as did his periods of anger. He was increasingly agitated and sometimes violent. Visits to the VA were of little use. Tales of similar symptoms were all over the news. Was there a sickness for Gulf War veterans? Or was it something else? Finally one doctor did the right test. He had Grave’s disease with an extreme hyperthyroidism. Many of the more serious physical and behavioral complications eased after treatment.
Years later, he received a letter from the Army informing him that certain calculations and agent dispersion models concluded that his unit had been potentially exposed to a nerve agent plume generated from a stockpile that was improperly destroyed. He was instructed to monitor his health for signs of acute or chronic exposure. I asked what he was going to do. He said, “what can I do about it now? Just move on.”
So, move on he does. Each day still somewhat of a struggle. His life was never easy after the service. He is now working as a custodian at the VA and does enjoy the position. I think after his time there he would like to go to school to become a nurse. He would make a great nurse for the same reason he was a great bartender: his capacity to listen to what people are really saying.
So, Brother, thank you and Happy Veteran's Day. You earned it.