Memories from a war
Gulf War veterans recall hunger, weather, people,
By Vincent Z. Whaley
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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