Saturday, October 27, 2018

Saddam Hussein Made Me Run the Fastest in My Life

  Having been in the military for over 25 years, I’ve done a lot of running.  My fastest recorded time was 13:20 for a two mile run during the Army’s Physical Fitness Test.  I used to hover between 14 minutes to 14 and a half on those tests after basic training, but managed to get under the 14 minute mark a few times afterwards, most noticeably before graduation at the Warrant Officer Candidate School, and once in Iraq (with a time of 13:51 and I had a bad upset stomach that whole day which might have helped motivate me to finish sooner).

 However, none of those compare to what should be the fastest I ever ran when I went more than half of a mile back in 2003 because a certain dictator ordered his forces to launch SCUD missiles into Kuwait.  Missiles that Iraq wasn’t supposed to have, and missiles that were rumored to have chemical payloads in them, which was later proven to be false.  But when you hear warning sirens and don’t know that at the time, you don’t take chances.
  From the moment we got orders to move out to Kuwait, we constantly received briefs and warnings that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and based off historical data of Iraq fighting Iran and their quelling of the Kurd uprisings, and they wouldn’t be afraid to use them.  So we had to have our Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) gear with or near us once we got in country. 

  Before all that, however, it was December 2002 and I was still in the beltway getting ready to head out to my next assignment.  Coming from the D.C. area, I got an ear full of the buildup that would be happening; not from the military, but from the news because Washington was pretty plugged into international affairs obviously and they loved talking about subjects like this.  So when I showed up in Kentucky, rumors were already flying around on when we would depart.  My buddy talked me into coming into the unit to say hello while I was still on leave (military term for time off aka vacation time) and we met up with our chief, who upon learning about my background and skills, wanted me to sign in early.  After talking with my wife about it all, we decided I needed to get into the unit quickly and help out as much as possible.  We prepped equipment, went through pre-deployment training, and sat through a lot of meetings and medical preparation appointments.  Through it out, someone determined that I would not go with the main body but head out two weeks later and escort a bunch of follow-on equipment. Yea. 

  Once I got out there, the higher ups kept trying to figure out which team to put me on.  Since I trained in several languages, I was considered a boon to either team, but either way, I would be with a great group of guys.  I did physical training with the first team I was supposed to be a part of. We ran between three to four miles every other day, which was supposed to be at our own pace but I think I got up late so I would have to hurry to get to the chow tent after physical training and personal hygiene.  I got a tour of the gym up on “the Rock,” which was where the majority of the permanent party Air Force stayed and most didn’t seem to care that a bunch of Army people were hanging out on “their” base. Friendly rivalries and what not.

  After about two or three weeks of being on the ground, we started to get pretty comfortable with our routines, but knew the decision to cross would come at some point.  We started relaxing a bit but kept abreast of the latest predicament.  And almost of us kept our NBC gear in our tents.  You would spot the occasional guy carrying his gas mask everywhere.

 One morning, I’m eating a late breakfast with some buddies and the chow tent was kind of full of people.  Suddenly we overheard the Giant Voice system.  Now normally, we only heard the Giant Voice when the Air Force did their weekly tests. It would say something like, “Attention. Attention.  Attention. This is the Giant Voice. This is a weekly test of the Giant Voice.” Or something very similar. 

  Not this time. 

  I’m in a dining tent surrounded by people who looked like they taught Arnold Schwarzenegger how to lift weights when the Giant Voice goes “Attention, attention, attention…” and we’re still eating as usual. 

  Then we hear “this is NOT a test. Incoming, incoming, incoming” and all those musclebound guys got up so quickly, left their trays on the table and started rushing for the tent exit.  I looked around and figured that there was no way I would be able to squirm my way through all these people in the rush to leave the chow tent, so I end up eating a couple of more bites of my food as I wait for the exit to get somewhat cleared and I would run as quickly as possible to my tent and don my NBC gear while simultaneously rushing to the nearest bunker.  As quickly as I eventually moved this was not the fastest I ran.  But it was damn near close.

  We eventually ended up getting these alerts 13 more times in Kuwait and they became so erratic and annoying that during one particular rocket warning in the middle of the night, I just rolled over on my cot and muttered that I wasn’t leaving my sleeping bag and if I got hit and killed, at least I would have some rest.  Between the rocket attacks and the Harrier jets taking off several times between midnight and 3 in the morning, I was pretty tired and sometimes crabby first thing in the morning.

   When word finally came down that we would finally cross the border and head into Iraq, the call was made that I would go with the first supply train up since one of the teams was still short a member and he was bringing additional equipment and training for me to go over.  I wasn’t thrilled with the decision especially since I missed out on the main body movement into Kuwait from Kentucky, but even as a somewhat senior staff sergeant, I was pretty low on the rank totem pole in the unit and just went with the flow.  

  We had a couple of missile warnings happen after the main body initially pushed into Iraq, but it was the final rocket attack that I experienced which would make me metaphorically outrun any animal in Kuwait. 

  One morning, I headed out to the motor pool to look for any special gear the team would need before I arrived at their location (it was finally determined which team I would be a part of by this point. I think one of the captains realized it was silly to have two teams broken down by one language set a piece, so the other guy, who was only trained in Farsi, and I would officially swap teams.  Now, both teams could cover both potential language sets while out in Iraq).  I went rummaging around in our group’s ISU-90 storage container.

  I picked out and sorted batteries, cables, and various mounts when it happened.

  I heard this thunderous "BOOM" behind me and I immediately looked up.  I saw this Patriot missile flying over my head and it looked about 50 to 100 feet above me.  The funny thing about seeing the missile was that it looked nothing like the news footage I remembered seeing during Operation Desert Storm; back then any Patriot missile launches looked like they were aimed straight at a target.  This missile canted at roughly a 45 degree angle while flying in practically a straight horizontal line over me.  It didn’t even out and start climbing until it cleared the other side of the side of the runway, which looking back now, it is a good thing no aircraft were taking off at that time.

  But once I saw the Patriot missile shoot over my head, I felt my heart bursting and I needed to find my NBC gear. But it was all in my tent, and with no hesitation, I sprinted like a gazelle all the way back to my tent.  I took off so quickly while trying to keep an eye on the Patriot’s trajectory that I barely realized that I didn’t hear the Giant Voice had not gone off.  I also bolted out of the motor pool so hurriedly that I left our storage container wide open with all the picked out gear strewn around.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I stumbled over a cable when I initially took off.  I ran and stayed on the streets for as much as I could because common sense did eventually kick in and I remembered that running on top of Kuwait sand would slow me down, especially since I was sprinting for my life in Army boots.  When I got to the compound, I made a bee line towards my tent.  By now, most people were in the bunkers, most likely hunkered down.  I, on the other hand, tore apart my bags because I had everything packed for the convoy, all while trying to catch my breath.  By the time I got my NBC gear and donned the over-garments to be in MOPP level 2, I was still heavily panting.  I was so out of breath from all the running and rushing that it took me a good 2 minutes once I got in my tent to finally get my mask on.  If you haven’t worn a gas mask before, you can only really breathe normally in that thing; the filters work in a way that you cannot suck in extra air quickly.  It also didn’t help that I was gasping for air so badly that it took a while for me to clear my mask in order to create a good seal around my face. 

  Once I got my NBC suit fully on, I made my way to a nearby bunker and sat with the rest of the people inside.  My heart was still pounding, but at least my breathing was manageable. I remember clutching my atropine injectors in my mask carrier in case a SCUD missile would hit near us.  Fortunately, the SCUD missiles that Iraq had were pretty inaccurate.  That or the Iraqi Army did the whole “point, fire, and forget” method of rocket launching.  We eventually got the all clear signal and I headed back to my tent to drop my NBC gear and get back to the motor pool, especially since I left the container wide open with stuff laid out all over the place. 

  I don’t think I can ever run that fast again, but I know adrenaline does wonders in a high stress environment and can help carry you over time and distance.  Considering I usually ran a seven minute mile back in those days, I would guess I was pushing a six minute pace because of the fear and excitement. But at least now I had one of those funny war stories to tell people back home, even if I had the fright of my life at the time.

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