When you feel alone and afraid time goes slowly. Very slowly. The bombing of Iraqi “military targets”, strategic locations and troop positions by the Coalition Air Force was a relentless and merciless pounding. The bombing continued every day, around the clock, for five weeks. Our chain of command continued to feed us information about the bombing, the imminent combat of ground forces and prepared us for an onslaught of mass casualties. Every day soldiers had questions; every day our chain of command read from a typed script. The script was sent to us by our mother unit, The United States Army Seventh Corps aka VII Corps.. It was an obvious attempt to keep our morale up. Every morning the script was filled with cheesy “atta boy” commendations and awkward compliments guided toward our professionalism and resolve.
Our questions would go unanswered.
The biggest question from day to day was regarding the “chemical alarms” that continued to go off around the perimeter. Chemical alarms were air monitors designed to give an audio warning when hazardous chemicals were detected in the air. VII Corps. command told us our alarms were malfunctioning. “There had been no use of chemical weapons thus far”, we were told. This drew softly spoken sarcastic responses and quiet contempt within our ranks. The script sent to us from VII corps. told us that Iraq was shooting “Scud” rockets directly at us (Coalition Forces) and at Israel. The script went on to explain that the Scud rockets shot at us were decrepit and most disintegrated while in flight before impact. Israel, at the request of the United States, was not responding.
Scud rockets were developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was exported widely to other countries, in particular third world countries like Iraq. Scud was a code name given to the rocket by western intelligence agencies. Officially, it was a R-17 ballistic missile. Nuclear warheads and chemical/biological warheads could be interchanged at will. All it would take is one. Regardless of what the script said, we knew without a doubt that we were being shot at like fish in a barrel.
Also, according to the VII corps. script, all “non defective’ Scuds were being intercepted by U.S. Army “Patriot” Surface-to-Air missiles. Patriots were the U.S. Army’s answer to Scuds. The name alone appealed to soldiers and their families. According to the United States government and reported to the citizens of N.A.T.O. allied countries by C.N.N., American soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen were being protected by Patriots every day. That was a good sell. America took that bait hook, line and sinker.
As the wounded soldiers flowed through the hospital it was painfully obvious to me that I didn’t see my friends from the Airbase that often. We worked in different areas of the hospital and on different shifts. The various duties we reported to continued to fluctuate and change every week. Sometimes I would go days without seeing familiar faces. As a result, I would look for Bob every night. We would trade cigarettes for gum, or vice versa, just to have a reason to see each other and talk. He was always happy to see me and always had a sarcastic comment to share with me about something or someone. As I got letters from home I would share the contents with him. We would talk about Stacy’s beauty, eat my mamas cheese and sausage and tell the same stories over and over and over. No matter how many times we told each other a story we both just listened to the other speak as if it was the first time telling it. Elle’s letters were not open for discussion or interpretation. Bob didn’t pry and I loved that about him. I don’t remember him getting any letters or care packages. At all.
My hospital duties were minimal during the beginning of the war. I treated broken bones mostly and monitored post operation vital signs. I naively complained about not getting much exposure to real medical procedures to my supervisor. His response was an awkward side tilted head with squinted eyes. He left to find the head nurse who, once informed of my complaint, also looked at me awkwardly. In response they sent me to the Intermediate Care Ward.
My first patient there was an African American male Staff Sergeant who had 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 40% of his body. He was unsure how he got his burns and seemed to be confused about where he got them. I was told not to ask him.
My job was to manually scrub his burns to remove any potential for infection. After I scrubbed off what turned out to be his first several layers of skin, exposing the clear worm like nerve endings, I was to apply a thick layer of Silvadene Cream. After the Silvadene Cream application, I had to wrap his wounds with sterile gauze. This man would sing Sam Cooke’s song, “Change is Gonna Come”, at the top of his lungs, as I ripped off his skin. Regardless of his courageous attempt, I can still hear his blood curdling screams and visualize his uncontrollable sobbing, to this day, over 24 years later, as if he was right here next to me.
It was around this time that I began to stop sleeping.
The ground war started On February 24, 1991. United States Marines crossed into Kuwait while the United States Army lead the international coalition into Iraq. A little over 100 hours later President Bush declared a cease fire after Iraq withdrew from Kuwait.
February 25, 1991, at 2030 hours (8:30pm) on a Monday, twelve hours before the cease fire, an Iraqi R-17 missile slammed into a barracks housing more than 100 American troops. The Scud missile killed 27 (wounded 98) United States Army National Guardsmen from Pennsylvania. They were waiting to be deployed to their combat position from Tent City in Dhahran Saudi Arabia.
What I had failed to realize was for us, the men and women of the 12th Evacuation Hospital, the war was just about to begin.