03/26 - Veterans recall trials of first Gulf War - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

03/26 - Veterans recall trials of first Gulf War

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Posted: Wednesday, March 26, 2003 7:22 am | Updated: 2:25 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

They remember the sand in their teeth, the black sky from burning oil fields and the blaring sirens as they rushed to put on their gas masks.

They remember the heat that made them pass out, the cold that froze their toes and the cease-fire that sent them home.

Their comrades have returned to Iraq, where Valley veterans of the Persian Gulf War say desert conditions are harsh and the risks of chemical warfare great.

"I think they’re going to have more of an issue with gas attacks," said Charles Buell of Chandler, 34, who served as an Army cook during Operation Desert Storm. "(Gas) may be unleashed on soldiers. That’s the thing I’m really scared about."

The start of America’s second war in the Persian Gulf has veterans who blazed a trail through the Middle Eastern desert worried about Saddam Hussein’s chemical warfare and the soldiers’ fierce ground war.

Desert Storm soldiers waited for months in the desert for the green light to invade Baghdad, but a ceasefire sent them home before they could finish the job and oust Saddam, Gulf War vets say.

"It was a job that had to be done, but unfortunately, we have to go back and do it again," said Eric Reid of Chandler, 37, who was a medic during the war.

This time, troops are reportedly headed to Baghdad, where intense urban fighting will pose obstacles their predecessors did not encounter: Enemy soldiers hiding in buildings, and civilians in the crossfire or used as human shields.

"There will be a lot of places to hide and fortify, and citizens getting in the way," said Craig Bivins of Phoenix, 32, who drove an amphibious assault vehicle during the Gulf War. "They’ll have to be careful because Iraqis like to hide behind civilians. That’s one part of the war that will be different."

But there are many aspects of this war that will mirror the conflict in 1991. The desert will be brutal, with stinging sand coating skin and clogging weapons. Temperatures will be extreme and water won’t be clean.

However, the burden of wearing a heavy "mop suit" to avoid exposure to chemical weapons will be more critical this time, Gulf War vets say.

"(Saddam) may use anything and everything he’s got," Reid said.

Veterans said one of the most difficult tasks was fighting a war while wearing mop suits in the blazing heat. The masks were difficult to see through, and while they can drink water while wearing them, they cannot eat.

As a medic, Reid treated patients while wearing thick rubber gloves, and was trained to avoid contamination when there was an open wound.

During Desert Storm, Reid said he treated more Kuwaiti citizens and Iraqi prisoners of war than Americans.

This time around, Reid said he suspects the situation will be the reverse.

So far, American forces have been able to protect some oil fields from being ignited by Iraqis, but U.S. soldiers may face the blinding smoke again.

Buell said he remembers blowing his nose into a tissue and seeing black discharge. Bivins recalls driving his assault vehicle through smoke so thick he had a fellow soldier walking in front with a light stick and another laying on top of the vehicle with a night vision scope.

"It was so thick that in the middle of the day, it was darker than it was at midnight," Bivins said.

And soldiers will probably make mistakes.

Fortunately, tanks now have the technology to prevent friendly fire, but there will be other unforeseen circumstances. For example, Bivins almost ran over a group of surrendered Iraqis sleeping on the sand.

Michael Buell, Charles’ brother, recalls blowing up a pile of munitions confiscated from a city they had overtaken. The explosion exposed his unit to chemicals.

"I remember the day they said, ‘Get in a foxhole,’ and there was a big mushroom cloud," said Buell of Chandler, 33, who served as a mortarman in the Army’s 82 nd Airborne Infantry. "A couple minutes later, we got dusted."

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