"Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest." ~ John Stuart Mill
Interview With a Gulf War Vet
Lately we've been hearing quite a bit from the media about how our troops in Iraq are doing. Aside from the usual update to the body count on a nearly daily basis, we are told about the frustration our people in uniform are experiencing. Yet, be that as it may, we are told progress is being made, to stay the course, and that our people are committed to getting the job done.
Recently I had the opportunity to interview a soldier who is a veteran of the first Gulf War. While choosing to remain anonymous (for obvious reasons), what I can share is that he left the states in August of 1990 for 13 months for an unknown destination in the Middle East. Some 28 hours later he arrived in an airport in Saudi Arabia , and promptly began moving towards Kuwait . As a Private First Class, he was not offered the "blueprints" of the war, and as a 19 year old kid he didn't ask many questions. His primary mission was "to collapse, stop and contain any opposing force with the intention of sneaking out the back door."
In talking with him about what it was like during Gulf War I, I was hoping some more light could be shed on the current situation our troops are facing on a daily basis in Iraq . With an anxious tone from his frustrations, yet with a firm resolve, this is what he shared with me . . . .
What was your daily life like over there?
As far as food, it would depend on if the food drop was in the right place. Whether the people in the supply unit got it to us in time. We were always on the move, so there were several times when we wouldn't eat at all. There was plenty of bottled water, but I was there for 13 months and we only got to take three showers the entire time. Those were out of a five gallon barrel that you tilted with a cord for your shower. When that five gallon barrel was out, that was it. That was your shower, and not very clean water at that.
Anyway, the entertainment, basically was mail. Of course, it would be backed up. Many people weren't as fortunate as myself while I was over there, as far as family members and loved ones writing. So I'd get 10-15 letters at a time because it'd be so backed up. Other than that it was pretty low key-you couldn't have music or light at night because we were on the front lines. During the day we were always training, if we weren't in combat.
Did you ever have any down time?
Aside from the three showers I told you about, we got shipped into tent city three times, which was a bunch of tents set up for us with cots which we got to sleep on, rather than in a hole. I did see that Air Force personnel were set up in barracks and had a lot better living conditions. I was Infantry though, so this was to be expected. We were moving every three days, for safety purposes I guess.
When you were not in tent city, you were always "on" then?
How was morale while you were there?
I was fine, with the help of all the support I got through the mail. I didn't like it, but I kept remembering I signed my name to do this, you know, so this was part of it. There was a certain amount of fear, fear of outcomes. Overall I think I was OK. There were good and bad days for me personally. For other people, there were several drastic instances of discontent. Even to the level of setting off Claymore Mines to show enough emotional instability to get sent home. I was asked by a good friend of mine, we'd been roommates, to break his leg for him so that he could get home. He'd gotten a letter from his wife telling him that she was leaving him. There was the strain of that, which caused bitterness and discontent with some of the personnel.
There was one soldier who pulled a machete on his sergeant, but cut two of his fingers completely off when he was pulling it out to use it. So then he pulled an M-16 on the platoon sergeant out of sheer desire to get the hell outta there and go home.
We didn't see the big picture. None of us did. We were not well informed, so there was a lot of down time and a lot of discontent. Peoples' minds going over and over and over the situation. There were several instances of people being so discontent and wanting to go home so bad that they would start fights and try to show some mental instability to get sent home.
Did you have any contact with Iraqis?
Yes. We'd just crossed the Euphrates River and arrived at a small village there. It was our job to clean up that village of any enemy. To "detain" them. I guess it was part of their elite unit and they didn't want to give up at all. Of course the mental state that we were in, with no showers, not fed . . . the conditions themselves-the sand, bugs, the constant turmoil of the bombs going off near us and all . . . we had short fuses. They didn't have weapons, but they didn't want to give up, so we ended up going hand to hand with them. We detained them that way, and we were all able to get out some frustrations.
In watching the current war with Iraq , what do you think about what you've seen?
Oh, gosh. To be able to watch the war, that troubles me. Of course in the first one, I was over there so I didn't see the stuff they are showing. My biggest thing is that it's none of your business what goes on over there. Having it being made public shouldn't be a priority when you're on the ground over there. The fact that it's being made so public troubles me.
It should not be entertainment value, to watch what's going on over there, for these people sitting at home. And I think that's shared by anyone who's been in any type of conflict like that and knows first hand the conditions and the state of mind you're in when you're over there. It's just disgusting, as far as I'm concerned, that it's portrayed how it is in the media.
Is there anything in particular, that you want people to know about events in Iraq , during this current war?
That they're not seeing the real thing. That they're only seeing what certain people feel it's OK for them to see. I would have to say that it's edited. I would have to say it is sporadic, and that what you're seeing is not what is really going on over there. You're seeing what they feel is 'safe' for you to see. That you're not seeing the huge factor of the elements, and the number of showers, and you're not seeing their uniforms sticking to them, and you're not seeing that nobody is getting any sleep, and that when you do get sleep you're bouncing two feet off the ground because the bombs are landing so close, or that you are being fired at. I could go on and on. I could go on and on about how wrong it is, and the fact that the politicians are saying that the "embedded" journalists there with their bright blue vests on deserve the same medals that the soldiers get over there. It just makes me want to puke. What are the journalists salaries, versus the soldiers salaries? I think it's disgusting. It's not good P.R.
It's real over there, it's as real as it gets and you're not seeing how scared these guys are. You're not seeing their fear around every single corner and the fear of what's ahead, period. I'm disgusted at the fact that it's televised at all. What they show is not even remotely close to what is really going on over there. It's not.
When you were there did you see any evidence of any weapons that would present a threat to the U.S. ?
What part of Iraq were you in?
I don't know. We didn't ever know what we would be doing or where we were. They didn't let us know at all. I was 19 years old, and I didn't know what was going on.
Did you have any idea what we were being shown or told at home?
I had no idea. My family sent me a tape once, where they offered support, and they told me they disagreed with what was being shown on television. But I had no idea, and didn't even think about it because I was in the midst of it.
Now, being on the other side and seeing it, I'm glad I didn't know when I was there because I'm just disgusted with the whole thing. It's created a lot of trouble with me. Mentally, I've had to go and get support from Veteran's Services because there's nothing I can do about it yet I'm filled with this rage.
When you go there for help, are there others there from the first Gulf War for the same reason?
Absolutely. I've even had, throughout going, which I'm still attending, I've found even Vietnam era veterans who are going through the same thing. The Vietnam vets went through this during the first Gulf War too, just like I am now. I just think that it's not fair. I guess I can understand, if I believed that the reasons that the President was doing this . . . if I believed it I guess I can understand him wanting to prove it. Wanting us to see firsthand, indeed that this is what he is doing. But first-off, I don't believe that this is what it boils down to-that they are going to help the Iraqi people. There's more to it than that. It just irks me.
When you were over in Iraq , did you believe in what you were there to do?
Well, I was 19 years old. At that time, sure, I believed in it, being ignorant of the big picture. But I believed I was doing my part in the betterment of something, and I thought it was good. But for the most part, I had signed my name, you know? That's really as simple as it was. I'd signed my name. And then it got really real, really fast, and at that point it was just a matter of survival, it was just a matter of getting back home.
Did you see any chemical weapons?
One time in particular, we'd been up 68 hours straight, and were in a convoy. We walked right into this new zone, and you could see the chemicals in the air. You could just see it. So of course we have to don all our chemical gear. It was cold, and we were very unmotivated at that point because it had been hours upon hours of nothing but traveling from one place to another and it was exhausting. But you could see chemicals falling down from the sky. It was amazing.
Do you know whose chemical weapons they were?
No. I can't say that for sure.
Do you know anyone who has Gulf War Syndrome?
I get disability. I've got a friend, who shortly after his child was born without a spinal cord, found that the cause of that was his own bad health. He ended up with bad lungs and is now dead.
What health effects have you experienced from the first Gulf War?
Oh goodness. While I was over there, a bunch of us got very sick. I mean, very sick. We had stuff coming out of both ears at the same time, our fevers were sky high, like around 107 degrees, and of course the heat didn't help. What was contributing to it was that we were never getting fed. This happened very often. While I was there my digestive system became wrecked, and has never been the same. I still have not had, to this day, a solid bowel movement. This is very strange. I've been checked and checked and they say they find nothing there, no problem.
I get migraine headaches, which I get disability for. Every single day I have some sort of pressure in my head. Some of these turn into migraines which are so bad that all I can do is lay down and close my eyes in a dark place and wait for it to subside. It's affected me by missing work at times. It's affected me by missing class at times...enough to where I'm irritated.
I had spots that were growing on me. Heck, they still are. They were in my crotch area, in my thigh region, and they looked like black, almost like little black mushrooms, and they would just get bigger. I have to go to the doctor and get them lanced off. I was told they were not harmful, but all of the sudden they were growing on me when I got back home from Iraq . It just so happened that during a conversation with my old roommate from Iraq , I found out he was having the same things growing on him. He thought it was amazing that he was having the same things and having to go get them lanced off like I was. No scars, but they were just growing like I was a freakin' mushroom field or something. Even now, I have one on my hand, and one on my ankle that I have to go get removed.
They look awkward, they feel awkward, and it is just not natural.
But those are the three main things for me-the migraines, the black mushroom growths, and the lack of a solid bowel movement. I can't even get through an entire meal without having to haul ass to a restroom to this day.
Who treats you for all this?
Military doctors, because I can't afford to go see anyone else.
People from the current conflict in Iraq are already returning home sick with symptoms that didn't appear until much longer after your War. What do you make of that?
I don't doubt that at all. It's the same munitions, they are in many of the same places, and they are using many of the same strategies over there that we did.
How did the current attack on Iraq affect you personally?
I wasn't expecting any of this to come up in me, so I started watching all of it on television, just like everyone else. My immediate feeling was guilt, for sitting there watching this, and that was promptly followed by rage. Anger to the point at which some journalists were getting killed and I almost applauded because I just didn't feel like they should be there and be 'embedded'. The soldiers have enough to do and keep track of without worrying about a stupid journalist with a bright blue vest on who is detrimental to the whole operation.
I was so filled with rage that I had to stop watching because it was affecting my sleep, because it was affecting everything--my entire day. I ended up talking to a social worker at the V.A. It just affected everything negatively for me. And there was nothing I could do about it all and that was probably the biggest factor that I've had to overcome.
Is there anything else you'd like to say to anyone who hasn't been there?
If you haven't been over there, and seen it, you don't know what it's like at all. The fear, unless you've experienced it, you can't possibly know it. It was a miserable existence for 13 months. The worst conditions, the morale was horrible, and I just wanted to go through the motions and get done. You don't know what the big picture is when you are over there. You don't know what the strategy is. You're not involved in any of that whatsoever, other than to grab it and go. While I was there, I felt like, "I don't have much rank, but I'm still a human being who is involved in this, at least let me know something. Please tell us something, instead of keeping us going for 68 and 86 hours without even telling us where we are going and for what reason or what to even expect when we got there." We were just always in the dark, and expected to put up with the conditions and to not worry about not taking a shower and not worry about the meals not getting there because we had to go, and they didn't know exactly where we're at so it'll be sometime tomorrow before we can eat again.
I just think it's being glamorized a lot more than it should be. And the only people the media is talking to are the higher-ups. The people who know what is going on, who sleep on a cot, in a tent at night. They're not asking the ones that sleep in a hole how things are going.
How do you feel about our troops being used as an occupying force? As policemen and peacemakers?
I can't even stand the thought of that. I'm just as irritated about Jessica Lynch who was a POW, who came back and said "I only joined the military because I only wanted money for school." And now her governor is paying for her tuition. I'm disgusted by that, because ideally, I feel you should join the military to defend the freedom and serve your country. It made me angry to see someone like her make light of the reason for serving their country-doing it for college money.
I was there, and it sucked. I get disgusted when I see or hear anyone belittle how difficult it is to serve time over there.
I don't think I would have spoken with you about this before the current conflict. But things are so off from the reality of what it's really like over there, how the media portrays it, I changed my mind.