Desert Storm: Arrival in Saudi Arabia

I guess I imagined the enemy shooting at us as our plane flew into Saudi Arabia. It’s like that in the movies, and when McLean Stevenson wanted to leave MASH, the character was killed just like that. Being a writer is not a good thing when you’re going to war. There’s too many things you can make up and scare yourself.

We landed at 10:00 at night at the Royal Saudi Air Force Base. The first thing that hit me when I got to the exit of the plane was how hot it was outside. The air crew had reported it as being eighty degrees. Being from Los Angeles, you’d think I’d been fine with this, but I’d been stationed in Washington State too long. It was hot.

The second thing to hit me was the smell. It was like there was a decaying garbage dump somewhere nearby. The night was very black, and aside from the blast of the jet engines, it was quiet out.

This was different than when you fly home or go on vacation. You know where you’re going. You know what’s happening. We got off that plane and were directed down this street-like area between buildings, and it was now what? No one told us anything. The unofficial army motto of “Hurry up and wait.”

Eventually the jet engine died, and we were left in the cloaked silence of the night. In that silence, there was a strange sense of being disconnected. Like being underwater, and your tether is cut. You don’t know where up or down is, or have any reference points. Even the unit that had accompanied us seemed to have vanished, like they weren’t even there.

The first sergeant formed us up and told us to drop all our gear. Water bottles were passed around. They didn’t have much, so we all shared. Ice cold and delicious. Once it was gone, I wished I’d had more.

Finally about eight buses arrived. These were like the tour buses I see around Washington, DC, only more luxurious. I got my first look at an Arab when the driver came out. He wore a white thobe, which is kind of a long tunic that goes all the way to the ankles. The material was probably cotton and very lightweight. I could imagine that being comfortable in the heat of the day, and very practical. He also wore a keffiyeh, which is the red and white checkered head covering you’ve probably seen in the news. I’m guessing it’s protection against the sun, just like our Boonie hats were. His shoes were simple sandals. It didn’t escape us that one of the men showed us the bottom of his sandals.

One of the strangest things I saw though was what one of the men did. The buses were not going anywhere, waiting on whatever, so he strung a hamock under the bus and took a nap. This was in front of drivers of very large trucks. You don’t put any body part under a vehicle. Bad things happen. A soldier a few years later would have a radio run over, and a general would have his BlackBerry run over. Body parts, not so good.

After a long time of waiting, we were allowed to board, and the bus was just amazing. The seats were covered with velvet, or a velvet-like material, and the windows had drapes. Generous room. There was enough space for us to spread out, one to a seat. By then I was so tired that all I could think of was sleep. Yet, as I spawled out on this comfortable seat, I was aware of every bump that bus went over, every shifting line of light, and of the snores of the female soldier in the seat in front of me. It was like I was so tired that my body couldn’t get the energy to sleep.

We drove and drove and drove. I heard voices drifting in and out, talking about that we were lost. By the time we got to wherever we were going, the lot of us were zombies. A military truck pulled up behind us, bearing the load of duffel bags. We had to haul them off and figure out which was which. The arms worked, the legs worked, the brain did not work. We sorted the duffel bags, and I was glad that my platoon had marked all these with a colored ribbon so we could tell the difference between the other platoons.

Once we identified our duffel bags — and thankfully — I had all mine, then we sacked out of the ground under this rooflike structure. The ground was saturated with motoroil, so I spread my poncho liner out over it so I wasn’t lying in it, but as I tried to sleep, that’s all I could smell. It was weird because I was in a stage of sleep where I was dozing but aware of what was going on around me.

At some point, a commotion ensued. It was the officers, with urgent voices. One of the soldiers in the other platoons had left his rifle on the bus, and now the bus was gone. The squad leader was in trouble because he hadn’t verified that everyone had their weapons. The lieutenant in charge of that platoon was going after the buses to find the missing rifle.

Then, somehow, the night ended, and the sky lightened, and our squad leaders got us up. We were still zombies. One of the other women and I gathered up shower stuff and made the migration in search of showers and latrines.

In daylight, we discovered this was at a waterfront. It was apparently a staging area to bring in soldiers who were arriving, and then move them to their final destination. Translation: No one cleaned it up. The latrines were really bad and stank. We debated if the gas masks would help (no, my squad leader assured us. They don’t help against bad smells). One of the female sergeants left a water bottle outside the latrine so we could wash up.

The showers — or actually, the male showers — were in worse condition than the latrines. The guys just skipped the latrines and went in the showers. Trash was everywhere: 2 liter water bottles, razors, abandoned washcloths, empty shampoo bottles. The women’s showers were much cleaner and in better shape. Sad to say, though, I was on a police detail (pick up trash), and we all wished we had sterilized gloves once we went through the men’s showers.

We had several cooks assigned to our company, and they set up a portable kitchen and heated up T-Rations. T-Rations are fully cooked meals in a sealed tray. Heat up water, immerse the tray until the food is hot, and then serve. We had coffee cake, which was very dry, and eggs, which were very strange. Somehow they lose a lot in the translation when they’re not fresh. Flies were racing in to get any abandoned food.

After that, more waiting, and we all took our GameBoys to pass the time. One by one, soldiers began disappearing as they were trucked out to our destination. Finally they came and got me, and now I could have my first look at Saudi Arabia!

Desert Storm: Marching into the Unknown

The media is very enamored of the phrase “boots on the ground.” Every time they talk about soldiers deploying, they reduce the individual men and women to a pair of boots on the ground. I am not a boot. I am a woman who went to war.

It was October 27, 1990, and it was the day. A sergeant went through the barracks, pounding on the door, yelling, “Wake up! Wake up!” I think I was a zombie as I got dressed and went out to the formation. We were into fall, and the Washington State air was chilly. It was still dark out — I always felt like it was too early when I got up and the sun hadn’t come up.

This time, news crews were out waiting for us with their cameras, along with a lot of family members for the married soldiers. Most of the photos you see in the news are the male soldier kissing his wife and or hugging his tearful children. Everyone forgets that there’s a single soldier, too, that’s deploying.

And I know someone will condescendingly say that family could have come if they wanted, and that’s not true. No opportunity was given to any of families of the single soldiers. We didn’t have an official date until the week we left. That only allowed families who lived nearby to come. Anyone out of state was out of luck. Who can afford short notice airfares when the cost goes from three digits to four for a flight?

So all the single soldiers could do was stand in formation and be an audience for the farewells of the married soldiers and try to ignore how alone and isolated it made us feel.

Then it was time, and I was both glad to get moving and get it over with and wishing the time could drag on forever. The first sergeant moved me down to the end of the formation. I didn’t have a sense of rhythm, so I was always out of step when marching. He didn’t want me embarrassing him on the 6:00 news, and maybe I would be less noticeable at the end of the line. So I didn’t even march out in my platoon.

Then, “Company! Attention!” And we were marching down the street. We hadn’t been told where we were going, so it was unnerving marching off into the unknown.

Military buses took us from nearby Jensen gym to the airport. It was still dark out, though the sky was beginning to lighten by the the time we arrived. A light rain fell, coating the ground with water. Of course, this was Washington State, so rain was not unusual, but years later I read in the Tacoma Morning News Tribune that it had turned into a full blown storm that had caused damage. The world was already going on without us.

A 747 jumbo jet waited on the runway for us. The military worked with the airlines to have soldiers sent over on commercial jets. The jumbo jet was a double decker plane. Officers and senior enlisted were in the top, and the enlisted in the bottom. Ever try walking up one of those aluminum airline stairs with a rifle? The stairs were very steep and very narrow, so even someone as small as me had trouble fitting with all my gear. I don’t know how the bigger men managed. I was afraid I was going to fall!

The air crew regarded us with nervousness that they tried to mask with customer service smiles. It’s hard to be friendly when you’re terrified, and they were frightened of us. I guess they’d never been around so many rifles before. The unreality of what was happening to us was reinforced by the air crew instructing us to “Show your guns in the overhead compartments.”

Once the rifles were tucked safely behind the closed doors of the compartments, then the crew began to relax.

But a new problem quickly developed. We were traveling with another company. Because everyone was concerned about the weight of our equipment — rifles are heavy! — our company commander instructed us to only bring our ruck sack (army back pack), rifle, and a small bag, which was big enough to hold magazines. But the other company brought on huge carry-ons and gym bags and whatnot. The air crew thought we were too heavy to take off.

There was most disturbing talk about taking off some of our pallets of duffel bags and leaving them behind. Our company’s. Not the one who brought too much stuff. I had visions of getting over the Saudi Arabia and having absolutely nothing!

One pallet was offloaded. It contained the training records from my office — a gold mine today since it contained social security numbers, and my squad leader’s fishing pole. He’d planned to do fishing in the Persian Gulf while we were there. The pallet would be shipped separately.

Anxiety made my stomach do flip-flops. All the delays were just making things worse. Then, at last, the plane was light enough, and we were racing into the rising sun. Ten thousand miles. It was the farthest I’d ever been from home, and journey was more than miles.

Desert Storm: Visit of Hitman Tommy Hearns

We would deploy at the end of October. I don’t think anyone was nervous at this point — we’d gotten beyond that. There was a point of acceptance and anxiety that seeped in. We could see in the news that things were happened, and we couldn’t pretend like the deployment was going to get canceled.

We didn’t have anything to do at all, so our company commander tried to give us as much time off as possible. He’d have us come in for formation, then go home, but the battalion nixed that very fast. He ended up giving us half days off instead.

We also got a visit from boxing champion Tommy Hearns, who stopped by our company as part of a publicity visit for the war. In writing this, I also discovered that he came over to Saudi Arabia to visit the soldiers as well, so that was pretty cool. I grew up in Hollywood and lived and breathed all that star stuff, and unfortunately, the celebrity default tends to be anti-war. Meaning, they get out and pontificate about no more war and pretend like there aren’t real people overseas. Soldiers are really isolated during war, so it’s special when a celebrity like Tommy Hearns or Bob Hope visit because it connects us back to the real world.

Tommy Hearns was from Detroit, so he was going to visit with two soldiers from Detroit. But first, we were going to have a photo opp for the press, which included a demonstration of a first aid task. I ended up being the “victim.” My squad leader grabbed a ketchup packet from the mess hall to simulate blood.

The task was how to apply a field bandage, which is the first bandage you put on a wound to stop the bleeding in the battlefield. We all would carry a small one as part of our every day equipment. A much larger version is visible in many episodes of the TV series M*A*S*H. The field bandage is thick, layered cotton with attached straps to tie around an arm or a leg.

My squad leader squirted the ketchup on my bare arm and I stood still while Tommy Hearns applied the field bandage. As part of the visit, he’d been given one of the Desert camouflage shirts and a Boonie hat.

After he finishing with the field dressing, he went inside the barracks to see the rooms of the Detroit soldiers and visit with them. Of course, I’m not sure what he thought of the barracks!

Desert Storm: The Calm in the Eye of the Deployment Hurricane

You know how a room is noisy and then suddenly it gets really quiet, like all the noise dropped away all at once?  It was like that once we packed up all of our equipment and then sent it off to Saudi Arabia.  Suddenly that chaos of trying to make all the deployment parts fit together was done and we had nothing left to do except stare at each other and think about about what was coming.

The company commander tried to give us all days off — we’d come in and report for duty, and then he’d release us.  He thought everyone should have as much time with the families as possible before they marched off to war.  But the battalion nixed that, so we got half-days instead.  Still had to come in, do absolutely nothing, and then go home.

Deployment Hair for Women

My hair is really thick and heavy.  It always made it a challenge to put my hair above the collar, which was a requirement for the military uniform.  I’d buy the standard barettes from the post exchange, use them once in my hair, and they’d break under the weight.  It was always a balancing act trying to get my hair to stay up, and I usually ending up fixing it during the date when gravity finally won.

Since I wasn’t sure what the hair situation would be like once I got over there, I decided I would get it cut.  I went to one of those chain hair cut places and instructed them to “Cut the curl out.”  That made for a very short hair cut.

When I came back for formation the next day, one of the male officers was very impressed at my “High Speed Saudi Haircut.”  High Speed is Army jargon for “cool.”

Still No Date for Deployment

On a Desert Storm message board I’m on, one of the veterans said that his commanding officer came out to formation and announced the deployment date to the soldiers.  We had packed up all our trucks, all our supplies, all our personal gear, and we still didn’t know exactly when we would be deploying.

We just knew we were.

I remember calling my grandmother from the payphone on the second floor (no cell phones in those days) and telling her, “We’re going.  We’re going.”

At the time, she seemed more of a safe haven person to talk to than my parents did.

Nothing I did seemed to make any difference.

Desert Storm: Patches — one of the benefits of war

That probably sounds really strange, because war’s such a scary thing.  But there were also a few things along the way that we were told about that were kind of cool.  Or at least, they seemed cool since we didn’t have them.

One was that we would wear a combat patch as a permanent part of our uniform.  It was a way of identifying that we had done soemthing important.

So you get some pictures of patches:

FORSCOM:  This is the patch we wore at Fort Lewis, as a part of being part of the command our battalion fell under.  FORSCOM is an acronym that stands for U.S. Army Forces Command.  Initially, when we went over to Saudi Arabia, we remained under our battalion

The company the link goes to is a name I recognized: When I went to purchase additional patches at Clothing Sales (military store for buying uniforms), this was the company selling a lot of the products.

7th Transportation Group: After we arrived, the forces were restructured and we came under 7th Transportation Group.  This is the combat patch that began a permanent part of my uniform and was worn on the right shoulder.

We also wore the American flag patch on the right sleeve.  We thought it looked strange, like a mistake, because it was backwards.  But we were told it was to show the flag streaming behind us when we were going into battle.  According to the linked site, it’s now a permanent part of the uniform, but it wasn’t at the time.

I did the color ones here because they show a lot of the detail — those are the ones that went on the dress uniforms.  The ones we wore on the battle dress uniforms were known as the “subdued” patch, which meant it was olive green and black.

Once we returned, we wore the FORSCOM patch on the left shoulder and the combat patch on the right (I had to look this up because I don’t remember any more!).  It looked cool to the soldiers who hadn’t been to war, just like it had looked cool to us before we went over, but it’s kind of like reading an action-adventure book.  Fun to read, but you wouldn’t want to actually do it.

Desert Storm: We’re going to war — wait! You’re a woman!

By the time we hit two weeks into Desert Shield, the army started to figure out there might be some special challenges.  Saudi Arabia is pretty well-known for its view of women.  The women are not allowed to drive, and yet, we were a transportation unit with women drivers, so we would be coming into direct conflict with that.  So it was off for more training.

The women soldiers were sent to a nearby post auditorium, where we barely filled the first two rows. There were not a lot of us in our battalion. We were a mix of Caucasian, Black, a few Hispanic, and two Native Americans. I sat in the second row with a friend.

A male staff sergeant — that’s a platoon sergeant rank — walks in. He was Arab, and his distaste for women soldiers was really evident. His jaw was set and his eyes were flashing. His tone bordered on confrontational, and at times, it seemed like he wanted to pick a fight with us.

He was likely one of the few Arab soldiers on the post and was ordered to brief us. He did his duty, but he didn’t want to. But that’s part of being in the army. You don’t choose which orders you want to follow (anyone remember the film A Few Good Men and Tom Cruise’s cross examination of one of the officers?).

Some of the things he told us included:

  • Showing our forearms was obscene. After the briefing, I rushed out and bought two long-sleeved shirts for my off-time. Believe it or not, I didn’t have any! I’m from Southern California, and I simply never wore anything long-sleeved.
  • He also told us that suggestive book covers were off-limits, too. I leaned over and whispered to my friend, “There go your romance novel covers.”
  • If we met the eyes of a Saudi male, we would be struck.

As I write about this briefing, though, I wonder how much of the briefing was the sergeant’s opinion, or if the army was completely clueless about what the women might encounter. Maybe a little bit of both.

It was quite frightening to think about how easy it would be to make a mistake that could be disastrous — and all simply by being American women. I came away from the briefing afraid of encountering Saudi men at all — not exactly instilling confidence as the army intended!

But one piece of “training” that was absent was equal opportunity. The classes were required, but largely covered racism, not sexual harassment and were for lawyers to say “We checked the box.” The army did not teach the men how to serve with women.

The Huffington Post published an article on Why Your Daughters Need Science Fiction.  It’s about science fiction, but parts could be about the army, too:

Because girls are excluded and discouraged from [geek culture at] an early age, boys within this culture do not learn how to relate to girls and women as part of their peer group.

This creates all kinds of problems including discrimination, a condescending attitude and sexual harassment / sexual violence problems within both the scientific and science fiction communities.

Like science fiction, women were excluded from some military jobs. By Congressional Law, they could not participate in front line combat. That, in turn, created companies where men had absolutely no exposure to women and did not socialize with them beyond have girlfriends or relatives. Those men also served in companies with women.

Add to that young male soldiers who grew up only socializing with women in the context of dating and looking at women as they are portrayed in the media. It’s no wonder that the military is still having problems with sexual harassment of women soldiers 24 years later. They’re still stuck in the mindset of training, but they aren’t fixing the actual problem. And war has a way of getting inside the cracks and making things worse.

The Lonely Sounds of War

One question everyone always asked me when I got back from Desert Storm was “What was it like?”  It’s a tough question to answer, because there’s so much of it, and it’s hard to convey the sense of it in words.  But The Daily Post had a prompt about doing lists, and since I was practicing writing the sense of sound at a local waterfall, I’m going to do the sounds of war.  But I’m also going to avoid all the usual trappings, like gunfire and artillery.


War is thunder and lightning rolling across the sky. A rumble in the distance, then violent booms. It leaves us worn down, impatient for something to happen. Yet, we dread the moment it will.


War is the silence that comes out with the chill of the night as stars crowd into the sky. It looks like it should be peaceful, but the war is ever present, hiding in the darkness while he waits for us.


War is the two voices drifting past the tent and fading out. People I thought I knew, and people I know too well, and people I don’t know at all, all wrapped up into one. I listen to my voice. Do I even know me any more?


War is suddenness: a boom, a hand holding down a truck horn, anything that sounds like an alarm. We jump up, our senses jarring loose and scattering to the wind. Where’s the danger? What direction is coming from? Has it come for us now?


War is what’s in our voices. It’s what we don’t say, what we don’t talk about. It’s everything but war, what might happen to us. We talk, but we don’t connect any more. It’s like we’re all trying to pretend like this isn’t happening to us.

China Beach: A Voice for Women Coming Home From War

Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to see books and TV and movies that represented me. I grew up reading books from the library that were for boys because there were few books for girls, and what there was consisted of nurse romances. If a girl was in a boy story, there was often only one girl, and the rest of the characters were boys.

Even today, the problem still exists. I can buy a book with a woman protagonist, and she’s the only woman in the cast — and it’s written by a woman. Clive Cussler writes a book with a cast of 100, and maybe there’s 1 or 2 women.

Many TV shows are like this as well, with women being added because the network told the producers they needed to (Law and Order) or one woman who feels almost like an afterthought. Even Star Trek, which was about using diverse people, ended up with a cast of 9 for Next Generation and only three were women. One was for eye candy, and the other two got frustrated with the development of their roles and left. One returned, but the other did not.

But when I came home from Desert Storm, I had an intense craving for something that represented me, and not just something that appealed to men.

And I wanted one more thing: It to be about war.

China Beach Ties to Desert Shield and Desert Storm

China Beach was a unique TV series in that it was about women and war. It was set in a hospital during the Vietnam War and boasted a cast that was pretty close to 50-50 on the gender scale. The show had premiered in 1988, two years before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and every military woman I knew was watching it.

But it was almost like the show’s timing framed our war. When we deployed in October of 1990, we stayed our first night at a truck port (like a car port, only a lot bigger) at the waterfront. Things were very confused at chaotic. We had no sense of place, of exactly where we were. This was just somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and we were like “The Girl Who Fell from the Sky” in Airwolf. We didn’t have amnesia, but we knew someone was going to be trying to kill us–though how, we didn’t know, or when.

It was as if our connection to the world had been snipped.

At first light, we got up. After the long flights and long nights, we were like zombies marching off to the showers. A friend and I followed the crowd down to the waterfront, and we stopped dead in our tracks when we saw the showers.

Then we both turned to each, forming exactly the same thought, and exclaimed, “China Beach!”

It that moment, it solidified the fact that we hadn’t just stepped off into the Twilight Zone and vanished.

Other things soon popped up. We didn’t have the internet in those days, and TV was limited to CNN in a tent. So our only connection to the outside world was the mail (which I wasn’t getting anything of) and the radio. The military radio station struggled to find music that would appeal to us and ended up playing songs from the 1970s, and from the Vietnam War.

I remember sitting in a cargo container we used for an office and listening to Janis Joplin as we marched ominously toward the ground war.

Coming Home to China Beach

Maybe the ending of Desert Storm had contributed to the cancelation before the series could finish it up its final season. But by the time I returned from Saudi Arabia, it went into reruns locally, so I could see it every night. The timing for me couldn’t have been better.

I devoured it. I couldn’t get enough of it. I even taped the episodes and watched some of them over and over again. When I did a driving trip, I bought a China Beach audio tape and listened to the music. I’d heard nearly all the same music during Desert Storm.

I don’t know. Maybe watching China Beach in reruns was like a decompression of sorts from Desert Storm that I wasn’t getting anywhere. Maybe it plugged into the underlying anger that I felt when I came back. Maybe it helped me pull back from the extreme of war back to business as usual.

Over time, the show disappeared from the airwaves entirely, and all I had left was the videos. I don’t recall when, but I gradually stopped watching the videos. I guess I didn’t need them as much.

But after video tape went away, I started to want the show again. It would be 24 years.

China Beach Today

While other shows came out in the “new” technology of DVD, China Beach remained elusive. One of the major pieces of the show was the music, but music rights have waylayed many shows and movies. But it also turned out to be the most requested show people wanted on DVD, so it was released earlier this year with most of the music intact. I know that cost a fortune!

I wasn’t really sure what I expected when I got the first two DVDs (I was cheap; I didn’t buy the full set for $200. I waited until they came out individually for $20). But time has changed me from 24 years ago. I’m not devouring it. The writing is still top notch, but I can only watch one episode, and then I have to stop for a while.

Perhaps that’s the way it should be now. War is a very strange things. There’s nothing like it.

What was it like coming home from war?

This last week, I had two different people ask me about what it was like coming home from war. One was email someone sent me for a college paper, no doubt due to my participation in the A to Z Challenge. She wanted to know what it was like with family members. The other was my podiatrist, who has done consulting work on soldiers. He was more curious about how it was different from being over there.

Being at war in Desert Shield/Desert Storm

First up, I was in Saudi Arabia from the end of October, 1990 to early March, 1991. I received a Red Cross message for my mother and went home on emergency leave within days of the war ending. So I was there only about five months and some change.

I did not see any combat. I did not see any dead bodies. I was close enough to hear the artillery when the ground war started. I also was, at one point, near a Patriot Missile Battery, and scuds were shot in our general direction.

But that’s hindsight, and almost 24 years of time to think about it. Being a soldier is very isolating because we only had this small world around us. We didn’t know what was happening, except right where we were.

That made things worse.

We didn’t know where the Enemy was, only that the Enemy was out there somewhere. We expected the Enemy to come over the horizon and attack us.

Small Things that Turned into Nightmares

1) Ominous click in the silence. While we were at the research center, which was 70 miles from where the ground war would start, we built a defensive position on a water tower. My squad leader was walking out to the tower, and he didn’t hear the guard say, “Halt.”

But he did hear an ominous click of a M16 charging handle being released. You pull back the charging handle to load a bullet into the chamber.

He stopped dead right where he was, just going to ice. You don’t know how a soldier will react under stress, and things can happen real fast. Nothing did, thankfully!

2) Gunfire in the camp. I was in the women’s tent when I heard three barks of sounds that sounded like backfires. Next thing I know there’s a flurry of activity, and the officers are in a panic. Someone is shooting at us.

No, they weren’t. It was a truck backfiring.

Big Things that became routine

The first time the scuds came in, we were into our gas masks and hid in fox holes until we got the “all clear” signal. After that, the scud attacks multipled, and we were getting them every few nights. It was quite shocking that we were sleeping through it!

Other things that we did:

  • Burn our envelopes to keep terrorists from getting our family’s addresses (and if you want to understand how paranoid this made me, read my A to Z post The day I got a Red Cross message during Desert Storm
  • Watch for terrorists trying to get into our convoys.
  • Didn’t salute our company commander because he didn’t want to get shot. The battalion commander did require saluting for himself.

All these things gave us an overdose of paranoia that grew as we marched towards January 16, 1991, when Desert Shield became Desert Storm and the war started. We didn’t know where trouble would come from, but we expected it. Maybe that’s why so many of the little things became nightmares. Because we were trying to anticipate what the trouble would be.

Coming home from Desert Storm

I received a Red Cross message and came home from Saudi Arabia on ten days of emergency leave. New of my mother dying left me feeling like Buffy the Vampire Slayer in this video:

I landed in one of the Carolinas and was kind of wandering around in a daze at the airport while I waited for a flight. I just didn’t know what to think, or really what to do with myself. The war had been a constant go of high energy, and suddenly I’d been switched to slow.

I actually don’t remember arriving at the airport in Los Angeles, or coming home. It was like everything was unreal because people aren’t suppose to die like this. I wanted to lie to myself like I lied to myself before I got deployed, and yet, I knew it wasn’t to be.

I remember being shocked to see my basic training photo on the wall opposite my mother’s spot in the bedroom, with a yellow ribbon on the corner.  That was me, with a yellow ribbon.

My brother drove me around the Los Angeles area showing me the flags and the yellow ribbons everywhere. It was strange because I felt disconnected from everything. I wasn’t here, and I wasn’t there; I was in sort of a Twilight Zone of unreality.  Any moment I expected Rod Serling to step out.

I wasn’t there when my mother died a few days later. We didn’t have a funeral. My father believes like the Klingons do: Once the person is gone, the body is only an empty shell. He had her cremated and scattered her ashes at sea.  She’d died before her parents did.

After my leave was up, I was ready to go back. It seemed like the only sure thing that I knew at that moment. I also think that was part of the andrenlin rush that people sometimes talk about. But that faded when the army sent me back to Fort Lewis, Washington.

Returning to Fort Lewis

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I came home angry. It wasn’t the anger like you normally experience, and maybe that’s how it hid from me or got attributed to other things. I wasn’t even aware of it until I did a review of the book Redeployment, which was written by a veteran only recently out of the current war. His stories had an undercurrent of anger that I doubt the author Philip Clay is aware of.

Most anger has a specific focus. You’re mad at your parents, your spouse, you job. Something happens that sets it off, and it goes away in a certain amount of time, or sometimes it becomes more with time, like outstanding feuds. But you know you’re angry and you generally know why.

The first instance of this anger turned up maybe a month or two after I returned. My unit had not yet returned, so I was part of the rear detachment, which was run by a sergeant who was on the scatterbrained side. By now, there were new soldiers who’d transferred to the unit and soldiers who had returned from, so there was easily ten people.

I was the only one he tagged to go and do stuff. Run down to the gym and go find Private Smith. Do this, do that. Everyone is sitting around lounging, and I was the one chasing down everything. In a different time, I doubted it would bother me, or at least to the extent that it did. My anger was way out of proportion. It was over 20 years later that I took a SDI class at work that showed my patterns for getting angry. Where other people might blow up in a very visual way and have it burn out, mine will build for a very long time while I search for alternatives to resolve the situation.

That meant it had started in Desert Storm.

To the sergeant’s credit, he couldn’t tell I was angry. The soldier training kept me from voicing anything and just taking the work. But I also have a pokerface when it comes to anger. No one can tell. I didn’t understand this until I had that class years later. Maybe voicing my issues would have helped, but somehow I don’t think it would have satisfied the anger. I think some instinct understood that it was out of proportion for what was happening.

So one day, I went down to my office in the basement, which was really private, and got a pad of paperwork and wrote pages and pages of how I angry I was. It was just so I wasn’t going to do something stupid. But, for some reason, I shoved it in a drawer, where I thought it would be safe.

The sergeant found it. He was mortified. I was mortified. He did stop “Hey, You!” ing me.

I think this is one of the challenges for the soldiers coming back. War is powerful force of nature. It pulls out things from us that we don’t expect or even understand. No one tells to expect anger like this, or that you might be most vulnerable in the months following where it pops up in seemingly unrelated things.

The above wasn’t only time it surfaced, but, perhaps because it was so close following my return, it was the worst. Twenty-four years later — has it really been that long? — I still don’t understand why I was anger or where it came from.

Except that it was a part of war.

Air War: Unknown in the Distance

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Most of the time when we saw the desert of Saudi Arabia, it was flat. But when we moved to the King Khalid Wildlife Research Center, there was this big rock sitting on the sand in the distance, set against the blue sky. I always called it a mesa.

Somewhere out there was where the front line was, about seventy miles away. That’s not a long ways. Yet, it was far enough that I couldn’t see anything except that mesa and the flat desert. I’d sit in the back of a cargo container we used as an office and listen to the radio and stare out into the distance. What was going on?

That’s one of the worst things about being a soldier.  The waiting and the not knowing.  We had this Irwin Allen yellow radio, and that was our only connection to what was going on.  When the news announced the war deadline, we approached it with grim trepidation.  There wasn’t anything else that we could do.

The deadline passed, and the air war begin. We were right on the flight path of the sorties going into Kuwait. All we needed to do was stand outside the cargo container and watch the jets fly over us, their engines roaring. Once they passed by and their engines faded into the silence, it was almost as if this wasn’t quite real. Like they didn’t exist.

We never saw them come back. Presumably it was because their flight path took them in a different direction, but it added to the eeriness of not knowing what was going on.

Next up will be “where are the Voices of the women Veterans” so tune in, same military channel, same military time tomorrow.