Trauma #3--The War, Part 2--Scuds
We landed at King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia on January 21, 1991. When we first felt the heat, it was overwhelming. It was like a heavy wind, rushing through the area we were staged like a freight train. I couldn't believe how hot it was. It didn't bode well for the future.
We were bussed to a sky-scraping hotel in Riyadh. Word came down we'd be occupying the 8th floor of the hotel. A hotel? In a war? Cool! Uh, hold on. Two things. One, every piece of furniture in the hotel had been removed completely. Oh, and also, the elevator's busted. Yup, soldier, get your tons of gear on your back and in your hands, and climb seven flights of stairs to your unfurnished destiny.
When I finally got to our floor, I couldn't feel my legs and could barely breathe. But ok, we're here. Being hit with nerve agent or some other kind of chemical weapon was one of the biggest threats and fears for troops in that war. Saddam Hussein was well-known for having a stockpile of chemical weapons and we were prime candidates for the horrible effects of nerve agent poisoning. From the OSHA.gov website: "When an individual is exposed to low amounts of a nerve agent (as a gas or aerosol) the initial symptoms are a runny nose, contraction of the pupils, deterioration of visual accommodation, headache, slurred speech, nausea, hallucinations, pronounced chest pains, and an increase in the production of saliva. At higher doses, these symptoms are more pronounced. Coughing and breathing problems also begin to occur. The individual then may begin to go into convulsions possibly progressing to coma or death. At even higher doses, an exposed individual would almost immediately go into convulsions and die from suffocation because of the simultaneous shut-down of the nervous and respiratory systems." Seems like a relatively peaceful way to go, eh?
We were all worried about that possibility. We'd been trained well. We all knew what may await us if we were attacked. And that very night, our first in the hotel, we were attacked. I was attempting to sleep on the unfurnished floor when the first air raid siren pierced the night. Then we were ordered to put on our gas masks. That's when reality hit.
We were then ordered to begin to evacuate the building. It was mass confusion. Hundreds of soldiers, wearing masks, crowded into the stairwell. People were shouting orders (and shouting other things). Nobody knew what was happening. Were we being gassed? I could feel panic rising within me. The mask was tight and made it hard to breathe. Chaos. After making it halfway down the stairs, we were then ordered to turn around and climb the stairs back to the floors we'd been on. I began to feel nauseous and develop a slight headache. "Oh God," I thought, "have I been exposed to nerve agent?" Once we returned to our floors, everyone was shouting at each other.
I looked out the window into the dark night. I saw a missile in the sky directly above us. It looked like a pencil to me. It was a SCUD missile fired by Iraq. Then the explosions began. Some of the explosions, we later learned, were Patriot missiles slamming into the Scud missiles Iraq had fired at us. But some were also impacting Scuds. When you are under attack, mass confusion and chaos, and you hear explosions, you think the worst.
A friend and I began to reminisce about a training film the Army had shown us to educate us on the effects of nerve agent poisoning. It was a savage video. They took a goat and poisoned it with nerve agent. The goat slowly began to convulse and foam from the mouth. It eventually collapsed and continued to convulse until it died. It didn't die quiclkly. It lingered. Horrific. But for some reason, my friend and I began to laugh. We laughed and we laughed. A platoon sergeant harshly scolded us. "Stop laughing!" he screamed at us. "It's not funny!" Oh, but it was funny. And we couldn't stop laughing. We weren't laughing because we were happy nor because we weren't scared. It was our way of psychologically coping with what we were experiencing at that moment. It's pretty well known that experienced combat troops have a somewhat dark, perverse sense of humor. It's not hard to understand why.
This same scenario played itself out night after night. Sirens, gas masks, chaos, confusion, explosions and massive stress. And it was only the beginning.