Gulf War vets recall friendly fire, chemical weapons and patriotism
Derik Stanley watched seabirds.
The 19-year-old Army private from Shafter stood in a Saudi Arabia port, gas mask clasped over his face, hunting for reasons not to think he was being poisoned.
If the seagulls were flying, it meant the chemical weapons alarm making his heart race was a false alert.
"If the birds were falling" he said, "it was legit."
This was Operation Desert Storm.
At 4 a.m. on Feb. 24, 1991 — 25 years ago Wednesday — coalition troops moved into Iraq and Kuwait in a massive ground attack. As Americans watched live coverage around the clock, more than 30 nations united to chase dictator Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait where they burned oil wells and left as many as 5,000 people dead.
This was the war of desert camouflage uniforms, a cease-fire that came 100 hours after the ground offensive began, chemical weapons and surging patriotism stamped by seas of yellow ribbons.
For Stanley, sitting outside an Oxnard doughnut shop before a Friday appointment with a Veterans Affairs psychiatrist, it was a conflict stamped by a word.
"Scary," he said. "You didn't know what was going to happen."
David Sasek was young, intense and motivated. He was a 25-year-old lieutenant helping lead — for the first time in something other than an exercise — 125 Navy Seabees from Port Hueneme.
Part of their job was to help build what they called Wally World. It was a massive military encampment in Saudi Arabia designed to hold 15,000 troops.
The Seabees lived in tents with sand floors. They worked 18 hours a day, beginning before sunrise in useless attempts to avoid heat that reached 120 degrees.
It was a brutal job but they did it. They knew others were depending on them — the Marines they were assigned to support, as well as the Brits, the Aussies and others in encampments that seemed like the United Nations.
Saddam's aggression made them feel they were fighting injustice.
"I think the whole world felt that," said Sasek. "… People will do amazing things if they see what they do really matters."
School groups and others the Seabees never met sent care packages of crossword puzzles, candied treats and toothbrushes. Back home, massive rallies painted in red, white and blue sent the message: "We've got your back."
Leo Brunker didn't feel much of that. He enlisted in the Army at 18 because he wanted to go to school through the GI bill. He was stationed in Wurzburg, Germany, when the call came to serve as driver for a stinger team that shot missiles at enemy aircraft.
He left for Saudi Arabia, and worries about chemical alarms that somehow always registered as false alerts, because that's where he was told to go. His goal was to return Wurzburg in time for his birthday in May.
"It felt like I was going to perform my job," he said.
Stanley's Army infantry unit was one of the first to enter Iraq. His first battle came a week before the massive ground attack kicked off the Hundred Hour War.
It didn't go well.
A scout team in a camouflaged Bradley tank was struck by Hellfire missiles — American missiles. Cpl. Jeffrey Middleton and Pvt. Robert Talley died.
"I knew them really well," said Stanley. "We were on ground and watched the whole thing. It was our first experience with contact. We were scared to death."
According to military records, 148 Americans died in combat. In Stanley's task force, eight people died: Middleton, Talley, Tony Applegate, David Crumby, Manuel Davila, Anthony Kidd, James Murray and David Kramer.
"I have all their names on a vest," Stanley said, offering memories. Applegate was a gunner. Davila made him laugh. Talley was 18, the youngest American killed.
Stanley remembers the Iraqis too. He feels no empathy for the Republican Guard that invaded Kuwait. But he still worries about what happened to the Iraqis who weren't military, who were forced to fight and who surrendered as soon as they could.
"People had families. They didn't know what was going on ... They didn't even shoot on us," he said. "I always wondered if they made it back to their families."
Yellow ribbons everywhere
It ended quickly.
About 100 hours after the ground assault began, President George H.W. Bush called for cease-fire as the Iraqi resistance crumbled and Saddam said he would withdraw from Kuwait.
Brunker spent the entire ground war driving through Iraq in a Humvee equipped with weapons to shoot down Iraqi aircraft.
"I literally never slept," he said, adding he was enduring the headaches, diarrhea and asthma-like attacks that would haunt him later.
Sasek remembers the confidence surrounding the ground offensive that circulated among the Seabees who were then working 12-hour days building roads and prisoner of war camps in Saudi Arabia.
"It was 'these guys are going to do their job and we're going to go home,'" he said.
The Seabees flew back to Point Mugu in April 1991. Hundreds of people were waiting for them. Yellow ribbons were everywhere.
"It was a pretty amazing homecoming," Sasek said, remembering how his uncle was spat on when he returned home from the Vietnam War.
"When we came home it was totally different," he said. "I think they were trying to send their support."
Sasek stayed in the Navy 26 years. He led a Seabee unit in Gulfport, Mississippi, that helped people survive Hurricane Katrina. He spent nearly three years as second-in-command at Naval Base Ventura County.
Now, he supervises 66 people as director of water and sanitation for the Ventura County Public Works Agency.
Desert Storm, he said, taught him how to lead. Sometimes, that meant giving orders. Sometimes, it meant putting trust in other people to do their jobs.
"They were the ones swinging the hammers, turning the wrenches and moving the dirt," he said of the Seabees. "They deserve recognition."
Brunker lives in a small home in east Ventura with his wife and two children. Visit and he offers a letter from Col. Forrest Smith.
The words detail how possible exposure to Sarin, Cyclosarin, depleted uranium and what the colonel calls "known and unknown environmental circumstances" could have affected Smith's men.
Brunker was one of them, one of 250,000 veterans who face symptoms of what is called Gulf War Illness.
He said he suffers severe headaches and chronic pain that makes it feel as if his skin is on fire.
Respiratory symptoms make it hard to breathe. A sensitivity to light means he always wears sunglasses. He has chronic bronchitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, nerve damage, arthritis and diverticulitis.
Aspects of his condition were passed on to his children, all born after the war, he said.
The illness forced his medical retirement from his job as a physical education teacher for disabled students. It brought ongoing battles with the Department of Veterans Affairs. It triggered financial hardships.
Now, he throws all of his energy into making people aware of the illness and its wartime cause.
"A lot of people were hurt and (the government) knows it," he said. "Admit what's really going on and give us treatment.
Stanley, now 44, works as an oil field operator outside of Ventura. He's part of a motorcycle club made up mostly of combat vets. They're called the Militants.
Desert Storm is known as the Hundred Hour War. It has lived with him for 25 years. His ears ring from the explosions. He receives treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. He thinks about the war every day, sometimes dreaming about it.
Asked if he thinks Desert Storm and its participants are sometimes overlooked because the war ended so quickly, he said the question is irrelevant.
"I'm alive," he said. "I don't need the recognition."
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