Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present


Cover for Red, White & True
I was just starting to understand that I needed to put more of my experience into these. This was painful story because it was about a friendship that died during Desert Storm.

Even as we celebrate the return of our military from wars in the Middle East, we are becoming increasingly aware of the struggles that await veterans on the home front. Red, White, and True offers readers a collection of voices that reflect the experiences of those touched by war-from the children of veterans who encounter them in their fathers’ recollections of past wars to the young men and women who fought in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The diversity of perspectives collected in this volume validates the experiences of our veterans and their families, describing their shared struggles and triumphs while honoring the fact that each person’s military experience is different.

Leila Levinson’s powerful essay recounts her father’s experience freeing a POW camp during World War II. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder provides a chilling account of being a new second lieutenant in Vietnam. Army combat veteran Brooke King recounts the anguish of raising her young children by day while trying to distinguish between her horrific memories of IED explosions in Baghdad and terrifying dreams by night.

These individual stories of pain and struggle, along with twenty-nine others, illustrate the inescapable damage that war rends in the fabric of society and celebrate our dauntless attempts to repair these holes with compassion and courage.

Available from your favorite booksellers.

Soldier, Storyteller: A Woman Soldier Goes to War


Soldier, Storyteller: A Woman Soldier Goes to War
When I came back from Desert Storm, everyone asked me “What was it like?” It took 25 years to figure out how to answer it.

On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Within twenty-four hours, he controlled the entire country. Five days later, the United States was deploying soldiers and had named the military operation Desert Shield. This would be the largest deployment of women at the time. Over 40,000 women went to war. It was so new that people questioned whether women should be there, and what would happen to the families they left behind.

Linda Maye Adams was one of those soldiers. Soldier, Storyteller is a rare inside look at war from a woman’s perspective.

Her memoir answers the question: “What was it like?”

Available from all your favorite booksellers.

Mars a Shining Star during Desert Storm


Army tents against the sand
This was where I lived during Desert Storm. Pretty bleak looking, huh?

Last week, the founder of the Mars candy company died, reminding me of how Mars bars were a shining star during Desert Storm.

I’d been in Saudi Arabia just under a month.  Time’s different when you’re at war.  I know I was there six months, and it felt like years.  Our meals were the same day in, day out.  We had the same breakfast each day, and dinner repeated itself every three days.  Lunch was whatever MRE we could get.

Then it was Thanksgiving, and the military brought in all this wonderful food.

But the most exciting thing for me was finding Mars Bars on the display table.  There’s a scene in the original Battlestar Galactica where the ship emerges from a dark void and the stars appear.  It was like that, knowing home was still real, even if it was far away.

Photos of Our Camp from Desert Storm


My computer failed in December, and I ended up paying to recover files from it.  Some of these were scanned in photos from Desert Storm.  These were taken in January, 1991, when we were 43 miles (!) from the border of Kuwait.  I was told at the time it was 70km, which sounded a whole lot better.

The first one was our battalion.  You can see how flat and devoid of landmarks it is.  One day, one of the companies packed up and left.  That night, when I came out of the latrine, I was disoriented for a few minutes because the tent landmarks were gone!

 

Army tents in the Saudi Arabia desert

 

This was our supply tents, or rather tents.  At this point during the war, they moved it out of the living quarters and used three small tents tied together.  I called it “Triple Peak Supply.”

Sunset in Saudi Arabia over military tents

Except for our time at Cabin Village and then at Eskon Village, this was pretty much our living conditions while we were there.  Can you imagine living in a tent for six months?

Desert Storm: Scud Attack


Three days after war had been declared, Iraq launched scud missiles at us. Well, not at us specifically. More likely, it was the Patriot missile battery not far from us. I’d passed it a number of times, an ominous (word) aimed at the sky.
“Ten missiles were launched at Riyadh. Nine were shot down by Patriots, and the tenth went into the Gulf.”

The launch came in the middle of the night, and we got an alarm.

Gas attack!

We scrambled for our masks, which seemed like it took me utterly forever. All I could think about was that there was poison gas outside the mask and if I breathed it in, I would die. The mask was instantly claustrophobic to me, not because I have a fear of closed in places, but because it was so little protection against something as deadly as nerve agent.

We evacuated into a foxhole out back. This was where the differences between men and women came into play in a major way. On the day where we took the PB Pills, I was so scared that I was physically ill. This time, I said two words, muffled by the mask, “I’m scared.”

Evidently that translated as something else to the men because the following day, my squad leader was hearing comments from other people in the foxhole that I had been yelling my head off. It was very strange, because frankly, I’d been too paralyzed to do anything remotely close to yelling.

Was that them projecting how they would like to have reacted on me? I was the only woman in that foxhole, and maybe their expectations were that women were going to be hysterical and yelling their head off. It went back to that double-standard where I was always perceived as never good enough because I wasn’t a man.

Just a few nights later, we had another scud attack:

January 22: “I awakened to a bright flash, followed by a whoosh! About 4 a.m. Missile came from Kuwait. I started to mask, but these morons acted like I was nuts, telling me I was panicking.”

These were the same people who launched entirely into a panic when a truck backfire, running around hysterically because they thought someone was shooting at us, but somehow I was panicking after a scud attack?

I look at some of the stuff I wrote during this time, and I was blaming myself for not being good enough:

January 26: “This morning — I guess I was dreaming, but I could’ve sworn I was awake. I heard the M8 alarm go off. It beeped a couple times, then cut off. That was when I waited a couple minutes because I did think I might be dreaming. But then I heard ‘Gas!’ just once … Am I panicking? I really don’t even know any more. I don’t even feel scared right now (or maybe I’m scared all the time)… I mean, I know what fear is like. I spent a long time being afraid. This is different. I feel different.

“I can tell it sometimes when I see flashes at night. I don’t think that was ‘lightning.’ I think ‘What was that?’ And I looked around and listen. I hear each sound and listen for more. I usually jump or startle when I see the lights go off.”

In hindsight twenty-five years later, it wasn’t me not being good enough; it was the craziness of war, and not one person was prepared for that.

Desert Storm: We Move Yet Again


We weren’t long at Camel Race Track before we had to move again. Apparently, the Saudis were getting ready to race the camels, so we were outta there! Our next stop put us within 70 kilometers of the border of Kuwait, which translates out as 43 miles. I’m very glad I didn’t translate that number while I was there! Seventy sounded a lot better.

We were staying inside the King Khalid Wildlife Research Center in Thumamah. Everyone was there, including the Marines, who stole one of our latrines with a forklift. The border of our camp was a water tower that was used to gravity feed three giant concrete pools, each one lower than the last one. The pools were empty this time of the year, so we set up a defensive position in the corner of the one closest to the water tower. We put sandbags on the concrete railing and topped it with a corrugated tin roof, making a nice, shady spot.

It gave us a clear view of the flat expanse of desert horizon, broken up only by a rock formation. It must have been quite large, because it looked big even far away. It was rectangular-shaped, poking out right in the middle of nowhere. It still seemed like we couldn’t see enough, so our sergeants decided to put a guard post on a platform under the water tower.

I was put on a work detail to help build the position with sand bags. The moment I heard where I would be doing the work, I was terrified. I’m afraid of heights.

When I was in 7th grade, our class cycled into gymnastics. Yeah, me with flat feet trying to do gymnastics. It consisted of a balance beam and unparallel bars. The teacher required each of the students to try each piece of equipment out and decide which one we were going to be tested on. I looked at how high the balance beam was and then at how really high the bars were.

Gulp.

I got stuck up on high bar and had to be talked down. Though I had a spotter, I did not trust that person to keep me from falling. The balance beam was the lesser of the two evils, and I didn’t do well on it. I was terrified of falling off that narrow beam.

I repeated the same problem in Basic Training with a cargo net. Those are evil things. We were supposed to climb all the way to the top and touch the beam, then climb down. I got stuck halfway up, with drill sergeants screaming at me. I finally got moving, managed to touch the beam, and got down safely.

Here, I had to climb a fifteen foot ladder. The first ladder that came with the water tower, made everyone nervous. It was made of pipe and quite flexible, so it moved when the soldiers stepped on it. Some industrious soldier build a new, more steady one out of rebar welded together.

One small problem.

The soldiers didn’t measure out the rungs, so some rungs were pretty close together and others were awfully big steps. Especially for someone short like me.

I was okay going up the ladder and managing on the platform. Going down was the problem. It’s hard making that transition over the ladder, and I had the added weight of my flak vest, helmet, and rifle. The first time I did it, I was a mess. One of the men had to climb down behind me and help me get my feet on the rungs.

I was on the detail for about a week, so I had to go up and down each day. I got better at it the more I did it — I wasn’t freezing up — but it was still a nerve-racking experience. On the last day, I gratefully started to climb down for the last time.
Third run from the top, my legs decided they’d had enough of all the weight I was carrying, and they gave out.
Instantly, I gripped that ladder in a bear hug until, trying to not imagine being splattered all over the ground as I waited for my legs to cooperate again. At least, they were working, and I descended until my feet hit the ground.

January 26: “I was shaking when I got off, and I shook for quite a while afterwards [sic]. It took me a long time to go to sleep, and even then, I didn’t sleep well.”

To this day, I still don’t like heights. I went to the Paris Casino, which towers above Las Vegas. I wanted to do it anyway. I don’t think I entirely thought it out, actually. I got on the elevator, which was glass so you could see everything, and all I could do was stare up at the ceiling and pretend hard that I wasn’t in the middle of the air. We got out in the tower and I walked around it for a while, telling myself I was in a solid, enclosed space. I wasn’t going to fall, and I was able to look down without any difficulty. I still had to look up when I got back on the elevator. Heights are scary.

Desert Storm: Anger in the Shadow of War


Sometimes when I write about Desert Storm, which was, for me, about five months and change, it seems like an entire lifetime went past. So many things happened, and so much of it all at the same time, and all we could do was take it one minute at a time. It was nearing mid-December, and history shows now that we were about thirty days from going to war with Iraq.

But we knew.

The shadow of war cast a pall all around us, and it was relentless.   The worst part of this is that Army tends to treat people as tools, rather than human beings, and then you add women into the mix and how men view women. It just doesn’t work very well. The Army thinks that you should function without any problems and if you have any, you’re trying to get out of work. The men sneer at the women and think they’re being weak when they react to anything. Most of the definition of being not man enough refers to what women are.

I was angry a lot of the times now, and this was the start of the strange, unfocused anger that I would have when I returned from the war. Normal anger has a specific source like a friend you’re mad at or a boss who is a micromanager. This anger was simply there, and I couldn’t escape from it. My only refuge seemed to be disappear into writing it out, and even that didn’t help much. How do you be a normal human being in an environment that practically declares that if you have a reaction outside of a very narrow line there’s something wrong with you?

At the time, I thought it was just me, and that something was wrong with me and that I needed to be better. I felt like I was doing everything wrong, internalizing the anger because the men would have belittled it as women whining about nothing. But years later, after I read Philip Klay’s Redeployment, which is a series of short stories about the war that followed, I realized that we all had that anger because his book was filled with it, too.

We stayed at Cabin Village for only a few days, and then we were off to Eskan Village, which was a large complex of apartments for the “poor people” of Saudi Arabia. It had been built for the bedouins, but they hadn’t wanted to live there because they couldn’t bring their camels. Like everything else, it was comprised of bland, neutral colors. Plain construction, sand color walls outside, and white floors inside. I was amazed when I walked into the apartment — this was for poor people? It emphasized how wealthy the Saudis were from selling oil. The one the women got was huge! It had two balconies and at least three bedrooms. Everything was dirty though. They’d sat unused for about seven years, and dust and grime was all over the floor. We did a normal thing for once and cleaned.

My company would stay at Eskan Village about two weeks, and then they would be forced to move again. From what I understood, Eskan Village was controlled by the Air Force. An Army officer got into a hissing match with an Air Force officer, and the Army was told to leave. I spent one night in the apartment, and then I was gone, off for a week to a trailer transfer point at Log Base Alpha. I was rotating for a week with another fuel handler. We were to pump fuel for our convoys as they arrived to deliver artillery rounds to the front line.

How could I not react to all this with it right in my face? Yet the Army wanted us to be tools with one focus: Accomplish the mission. Those didn’t work together at all, and it would only get worse as we got nearer to war.

Desert Storm: Moving to Cabin Village


By the first week in December of 1990, we had to move. The beach that we were camped out on was supposed to be underwater soon as the winter tides changed. We piled into a bus that was an eye opener for me — the last quarter of it was boarded up with plywood. That section was for the Saudi women, so the men wouldn’t have to look at them.

We passed sand dunes blown perfectly smooth by the wind. It would be the only time I’d ever see sand dunes in Saudi Arabia like in the movies. Every other place was simply flat, flat, and more flat. Miles and miles of miles and miles.

Our new location was called Cabin Village, which was controlled by the Air Force. The name came from the structures, which were collapsible cabins that could be packed on a plane. Once they were off-loaded from the plane, they were stretched out accordion like to making living quarters. The Air Force had it seriously lucky. We discovered that the cabins were air conditioned.

Air conditioned!

The latrine and shower tent was also indoors. The toilets flushed, and the showers had warm water. After nearly 30 days with what the Army had provided us, this was a luxury!

But this was my first reaction, December 6, 1990:

“This new location we moved to is almost like a prison. We’re living in Air Force hooches, and there is a fence surrounding us.”

Cabin Village was encased in cyclone fence topped with barbed wire and reinforced the fact we really couldn’t go anywhere. The Air Force also didn’t like us being there. We carried rifles, which were quite frightening evidently to them, and gas masks, which were even more frightening. Um, hadn’t they read the same news stories we did?

My commander agreed we could store the rifles in a cabin that had been turned into the arms room, but he said no to the masks. The Air Force zoomies were just going to have be nervous.

This time, all the women were put into the same cabin, much to the chagrin of the women from my platoon. We didn’t get along well with the women from the other platoons because of the age difference. They were all 18-20 years old, and we started at 26. That’s a big age gap. The men in our platoon were more closer to our ages, so we could relate better to them. Instead, we now had to listen to the 20 year olds intently discuss the shower habits of some of the men. None of us wanted to know why this was so important, or worse, how they were getting their information.

Alas, air conditioning, flush toilets, and warm showers were not in our future for very long. We were off to our next location soon after we arrived.

Desert Storm: The Food at Dhahran


Army food’s always been known for how bad it is. Just watch any episode of MASH and Hawkeye complaining about the food. But I’ll let you in on a secret: When I was growing up, my mother eliminated using salt when she cooked. The meals were so bland that when I ate my first army meal in Basic Training, I was shocked at how good food could taste.

That soon would change, especially during Desert Storm. The war not strained the logistics side of shipping food out to us with hot weather and multiple services vying for items, but also strained the abilities of the soldiers cooking the meals. There were times when Hawkeye ate better than us!

Breakfast and Dinner

We got hot food for both these meals. I no longer remember what was served for breakfast, but it was probably the standard food and didn’t change much.

Dinner had a protein, a green salad, and a desert. It seems like there should be one more thing, but I don’t remember. I do remember that I never liked the salad because it was very bland. At the end of the line, we also received a can of soda. Those were very strange. They were the name brands like Coke and Pepsi, but they were the Saudi Arabia version. The cans had the name in Arabic on them, and they were short. Our cans 12 ounces, and these were about half. Now, over two decades later, the companies are selling the smaller cans!

Bangladesh contractors cooked the meals and served them to us. I remember them as nice guys. They were friendly with all the soldiers because that just seemed like who they were. Sometimes they would give me an extra piece of yellow cake (chocolate frosting … mmm).

The meals were very repetitive. The menu only consisted of three entrees for dinner, so we got chicken every three days. This was probably due to the availability of the food. The logistics of getting food out to us on the desert was very challenging because anything fresh spoiled very quickly. Still, it was hard for us to not have any variety, and it got old very quickly. Everyone complained about the meals and especially about having so much chicken. As it turned out, these were actually the best meals we ate over there. We would have much, much worse later.

Lunch

The lunch meal consisted of MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. We called them Meals Rejected by Ethiopia (at the time people were starving in Ethiopia). The MREs consisted of 12 packets of different meals like Chicken Ala King, Spaghetti with Meatballs, and scary food like Omelet with Ham. Each packet had 1,200 calories (really!) and consisted of an entree, a side, crackers with a topping (peanut butter, jelly, or cheese), a desert or snack, and powdered punch. Hot sauce came in only a few of the packages and was always the most popular item because it hid the flavor.

We would file into the mess tent and wait in line. At the end of the line, one of the cooks stood next to a stack of MRE boxes and handed them out. If they didn’t do that, greedy soldiers would rifle through and grab all the popular ones, leaving the ones no one liked for everyone else. That way, everyone had a fair chance of getting a good meal once in a while — but only once in a while because most of them weren’t that good.

The tables started accumulating MRE discard piles. The discards were usually the dehydrated fruit, crackers, peanut butter, cheese, some entrees, and occasionally the entire MRE package. So after we sat down and inventoried what we had, then we checked out the piles for anything that was better.

I always liked the fruit, though most soldiers didn’t, so I could usually get it. The fruit came in a square block about half an inch thick and had the texture of frozen cotton candy. As odd as it sounds, I liked the texture because it was slightly crunchy because most of the food was soft and mushy and the crackers didn’t have any moisture at all. Most of us passed on the cheese, too. It didn’t taste too bad, but the texture was rubbery and unappealing.

This was the MRE menu we had at this location:

  1. Pork with Rice in BBQ Sauce – I never cared much for this. The BBQ sauce had a metallic taste to it that was very unappealing, and instead of flavoring the pork, it dominated the pork.
  2. Corned Beef Hash – Meh.
  3. Chicken Stew – I liked this, but most soldiers did not. So if anyone abandoned the entree or wanted to trade, it was mine.
  4. Chicken a la King – Again another one I liked and most people did not. This was my favorite among the chicken ones.
  5. Chicken with Rice – Again another one I liked and most people did not. This was my third favorite because of the texture of the rice.
  6. Omelet with Ham – Seriously, no, never.
  7. Spaghetti with Meat Sauce – Popular
  8. Ham Slice – a slab of meat. I didn’t think much then about the impact of how the food looks, and the appearance of this just turned me off.
  9. Beef Stew – This also didn’t look really good. Flavor-wise, meh.
  10. Meatballs with Tomato Sauce: The sauce was a deal-breaker for me. It just didn’t taste good. The proportions were off; it had too much sauce and not enough meatballs.
  11. Tuna with Noodles – Meh. Just bland, both in taste and color.
  12. Escalloped Potatoes with Ham – This was only slightly better than the Omelet with Ham. That’s not saying much!

Okay, that was scary. I just typed up this list and there’s only one in here that everyone liked and a whole lot that no one cared much for. I was surprised at typing this list and realizing that a lot of the appeal was not just taste, but the colors and textures (thanks to the cooking shows where I’ve learned a lot about food!).

It seemed like the military had thought of the MRE not as deployment food where a soldier might eat one every day, but as food for training exercises. Soldier goes out for a week, eats five meals, and comes back home. So the meals have evolved quite a bit from the two releases that we ended up eating in Desert Storm. In fact, the military learned a lot about them in those early days. The MREs didn’t last as long as they thought the meals would, nor were they quite as hardy in the hot desert weather. What everyone learned from Desert Storm, the military took back and used to change the MREs for future soldiers, so we broke new ground in food. We ended up being an unintentional experiment.

Desert Storm: First Look at Saudi Arabia


My first experiences of seeing Saudi Arabia were from the back of a CUCV. A CUCV, which is a fancy acronym, for what’s basically a suburban truck. They didn’t have enough room for all of us, so I ended up in the back area, like when we were kids and road in the back of the station wagon. So I saw Saudi Arabia as it fell behind me.

The streets had sort of what I call a wind-swept look, like the wind blew them clean. I saw the streets look the same in Los Angeles, and it’s because the sun beats down on the asphalt so much that it fades the colors. The cars that passed us by had Arabic license plates, but the translation in numbers was in English blow the Arabic. The signs on the roads were the same way.

I supposed I expected to see a city, but all I saw was a lot of sand on either side of the road. Even the buildings were sand-colored. Most of the architecture seemed more functional than anything else; the only buildings that were elaborate were the mosques. These were quite elegant and beautiful, with tall towers. We were told that the worshipers were called to prayer five times a day from that tower. In the days before modern technology, the man would use his voice, but now it was a loudspeaker.

The most striking thing about Saudi Arabia was the lack of color. I can go outside now, since it’s fall, and see the fiery reds and blazing oranges of the trees changing. Even in Los Angeles, which is a desert, there were still the vibrant colors of the flowers in bloom and the green grass. But in Saudi Arabia, it’s sand color and sky color. Add our sand colored uniforms and our muted green uniforms and tents (same color value family), and there wasn’t much variety.

We arrived at our destination at last, which was at the Dhahran Exposition Center. It was a large white building, and it was right on the shore of the Persian Gulf. A huge beach stretched out for a long ways. Unlike the California beaches I’d grown up with, it was quite flat, which made it the perfect place to set up our tents. We were still early in the deployment process, and ours was one of the first grouping of tents that would go up here.

The water was a shock of glittering blue against all the brownness. Just gorgeous.

This was what I wrote about it on November 3, 1990:

“We’re right on the beach with its powdery sand. The ground is very hard — we were breaking metal stakes in it. The ocean is beautiful from a distance, especially with the city lights reflecting off it at night. But up close, the water is dirty, polluted. The Saudis dump their waste into it.”

At low tide, the water receded so far back that I couldn’t see it any more. But low tide revealed that the sea was a trash dump. Garbage was embedded in the mud, and everywhere, there were tires. I’d later see Saudi men dumping tires from the back of a pickup truck in the middle of the desert. It was hard seeing that because it felt like people didn’t care about where they lived, and especially when it was so beautiful when it was high tide.

The sun was also coming up, and it was starting to get hot. We didn’t have temperature gauges to tell us how how hot it was, except that it was quite hot. In researching this, I was surprised that the average temperature for this time of year was only 96 degrees, and it would start dipping down into fall. Clearly, I’d been away from Los Angeles too long!