Holidays just a time to reflect

It was the unmistakable sound of an explosion that had vaulted me, awake and alarmed, from my cot. Swirls of powdery dust met my eyes as I opened the tent flap to the midnight air and a cacophony of sound splashed in my face.

Just across the airfield there was a frenzy of fire, sirens, screaming, light and shadows moving in small bursts. Rubbing my eyes, I could just make out the fire trucks racing towards the blaze.

Then reality came flooding back. The sirens I heard were chemical alarms going off. It was that moment I became frightfully aware that my gas mask and chemical gear were still in the tent next to my cot.

For a few gut wrenching seconds I believed I would die face down in the sand in my Army physical training t-shirt and boxer shorts because I forgot to grab my mask before running out like an untrained schoolboy to watch the fireworks outside.

To my embarrassed surprise and relief, death was not forthcoming.

The impact of the SCUD warhead would take no casualties nor unleash hazardous chemicals that night. It would drive home an important lesson: keep your equipment on you at all times.

I would find out later that a SCUD missile had impacted a barracks in Dharan a few days after the one that dropped near us, killing 28 Army reservists.

That night in KKMC was the beginning of my tour of duty in the Persian Gulf War circa 1991. It was my initial taste of combat but not my last.

As a helicopter door-gunner with the 101ST Airborne Division, I would fly on countless missions in support of every major ground battle U.S. forces were engaged in.

The obscenity of the carnage I witnessed in some places is seared into my mind in vivid sights and sounds.

One of the more infamous was the solemn stretch of desert bound highway leading out of Kuwait in the direction of Baghdad. It would forever be more readily known by the moniker, “the highway of death.”

The mangled wreckage of vehicles strewn about over many miles were intermittently dotted by the stark contrast of blood or fire. I would spend hours over this corridor waiting for signs of vehicle movement and the inevitable order to neutralize the target.

Sometimes we took ground fire but mostly we were unopposed. For all intents and purposes, it was a turkey shoot.

After firing thousands of rounds our missions would end only because we were critically low on ammunition. On the way out we would radio other friendly aircraft still in the area if we saw any signs of life moving among the scorched hulks and soon they, too, would be moving no more.

In one day American troops would kill over 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and citizens caught in the massive traffic jam streaming away from the formally occupied Kuwait.

I remember the adoration and waving of American flags that greeted us after the liberation of Kuwait City and the good we had done was euphorically tangible.

But, the full speed stop just miles out of Baghdad and immediate pullout from the region leaving Saddam Hussein in power left lingering doubts about any permanent accomplishment. Those doubts clung to us like the oily smell of the billowing plumes of black smoke rising from the distant oil fires clung to our BDUs.

In my company we would lose two soldiers. Both men would die after the ceasefire went into effect and our battles had been won.

Our last loss was a young sergeant who died when a water container rolled over his leg. We had been washing our vehicles and equipment for redeployment back to the states when a large water container rolled backwards off of a wash rack and rolled over the sergeant’s foot and lower leg. Two soldiers and I ran over and carried him a short distance away from the precarious wash rack.

I can remember sitting with him next to a truck waiting for the medics to come check him out. He was joking and smoking a cigarette and by all signs had suffered a broken foot at the worst. What we didn’t know is that his femoral artery had been crushed open inside his leg. He was dead minutes later as the medics arrived.

The irony of “washing” equipment in a sand storm was hard enough to swallow. It was even harder still when the water container passed the customs inspection and made it home before all of us.

Homecoming was a difficult transition. It wasn’t just that we had lived for months out in the desert eating out of bags or flying hundreds of hours of missions over hostile territory, rather it was the problem of how to categorize what had happened.

After winning the war, we returned to a country that treated us like heroes. There were epic parades, gifts, yellow ribbons and hand shakes. During these celebrations and gratitudes I always felt like a fraud. Surely there were real heroes and those who had made bigger sacrifices than I. All I had done was follow orders and survive, yet there I was with a chest full of medals.

Even today when Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Veterans Day are observed it is with a painful wince that I accept accolades or congratulations on a “job well done” by flag waving revelers.

Today, what those “holidays” truly mean to me is a time for reflection. It is a time that I push aside the pain of the memories and remember my brothers and sisters in arms who have sacrificed much more than I. My thanks goes to those “heroes.”

Rick Wood was a staff writer for the Whidbey News-Times until last week, when he moved to Stanwood to join the staff of the Stanwood Camano-News.

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