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Memories from a war — Gulf War veterans recall hunger, weather, people, hazards

By Vincent Z. Whaley
Johnson City Press Staff Writer

(Published Sunday, Oct. 1, 2000)

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Ten years ago, America's citizen soldiers said goodbye to loved ones and assembled for last-minute training and deployment to the Persian Gulf.

In Johnson City, members of the Army National Guard's 176th Maintenance Battalion, the Army Reserve's 912th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and the Marine Corps Reserve's 24th Marines prepared for their roles in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Hundreds of area residents held banners of support and lined West Market and North Roan streets to support the units when they departed for territories unknown from September to November 1990.

Thousands of miles away from home, members of each local unit made the best of their bleak surroundings in Saudi Arabia to focus on their jobs.

While Company H, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines, held the unnerving responsibility of guarding ammunition supply points near the Iraqi border, Staff Sgt. Gary Ferguson said the 176th Maintenance Battalion had to provide troops with "beans and bullets."

"The ones out in the desert had to rough it, so we had to feed the troops and give them ammunition," said Ferguson, who retired from the National Guard in 1995 following 30 years of service.

"Leaflets had been dropped telling the Iraqis that if they would surrender, we would give them food and shelter, too. They were starved to death and were eating dogs and cats and anything they could find. We found in some of the houses that they were cooking in the bathtubs and on the living room floor.

"So we treated them like POWs, gave them a blanket and they could watch TV. They thought they were in luxury."

Ferguson said the 176th also repaired vehicles and other equipment during and after the war. But he said the toughest, albeit humorous, job he had was "making the first kill."

"We were at an outpost one night and some of the guys were talking about someone who killed a cobra," he said. "It was a full moon and the stars were all out. I woke up during the night and saw something weaving its way in and out and through the sand, underneath my cot.

"I thought sure it was a snake, so I got out my knife and went to chopping it to pieces. Everybody woke up and heard the racket. They turned their flashlights on to see what it was. It turned out to be a strap on my cot. So they said I was the first man to kill a cot snake."

Adapting to desert life proved to be a challenge for many soldiers. 912th MASH Maj. Cassandra Moore said inclement weather and poisonous insects and snakes resulted in many sleepless nights for some.

"There were poisonous spiders and poisonous snakes. We had to check for scorpions and things like that in our shoes," the Jonesborough resident said.

"But the sandstorms were absolutely fascinating, especially to watch them approach. During the sandstorms, you couldn't see. Three to four feet was your visibility at the most.

"We learned to secure tents really well. You would try and stay inside the tents as much as possible, but tents are tents. There are cracks. Your entire cot would be covered with at least one-quarter inch of sand. And some of the sandstorms would last for two to three days."

Moore also recalled torrential rainstorms and high temperatures during the troops' brief stay in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

"The only weather we did not get was snow," she said. "We had torrential rainstorms with hail. It essentially decimated our compound during one of them. Almost all of the tents were down and flooded. The weather was very similar to here, except they don't have mountains and trees. We are practically on the same latitude.

"In the summer, of course, it was very hot and temperatures were over 100 degrees while we were there. But they don't have the humidity, and that makes a tremendous difference."

Aside from the natural obstacles, Moore said many Americans faced a language barrier.

But not in the 912th MASH.

Maj. Susan Grover, Johnson City, had formerly lived in Kuwait and assisted the doctors, nurses and troops of her unit with Arabic translation.

"I lived in Kuwait when I was growing up, and Arabic was my first language," she said. "So for me, I was excited about going home, and everybody else thought I was nuts.

"When we went in on the humanitarian mission, the Iraqis were the victims and Saddam was not having anything to do with them. So when we first set up our hospital, we didn't have an interpreter, so I tried to brush up on my Arabic. I knew Bedouin Arabic, and the majority were Bedouin. Somebody from Egypt would not have understood, because there are so many different dialects, but there were times when some knew broken English."

In addition to the language barrier, Grover said Americans faced a different culture and had to learn how the Arabs handled death and war and destruction.

"Pretty much, their whole orientation is 'whatever God wills,' " she said. "So we had to be careful of what we said and how we handled certain situations."

"Of the medical support we provided, we cherished the children. We would try and fix the immediate problem and keep them as long as we could. They would be sent back into an environment where they had lost their homes. Frequently they had lost parents and family members, but those people were extremely nice and polite. They would grab you and hug you and thank you."

The local Army and Marine units were relatively lucky during the brief war, and the majority of troops returned home during the spring and summer of 1991. But at least two men with local ties were casualties.

Capt. Daniel "Danny" E. Graybeal, 25, Johnson City, was killed in action Feb. 27, 1991, in a helicopter crash in Saudi Arabia. Air Force Master Sgt. James B.May II, 40, son of Mr. and Mrs. Sam D. May, Jonesborough, was killed in action Jan. 31, 1991, when a plane he and 13 others were aboard crashed into the Persian Gulf during a combat mission.

Story © 2000-2004 Vincent Z. Whaley and the Johnson City Press, 204 W. Main St., Johnson City, Tennessee 37605, 423.929.3111.
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596th Signal Support Co., 97th Signal Battalion
47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division
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