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Memories of war

Fight in Iraq rekindles veterans' recollections of their Gulf War

Fight in Iraq rekindles veterans' recollections of their Gulf War

March 25, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Operation Desert Storm veteran Tom Hoover waits until his kids are in bed, then he flips on the television to the war coverage from Iraq.

"With the amount of media coverage, it's all just a little too real 'cause I can watch, and go and almost relive it. I know exactly what they're doing," Hoover said Monday when contacted at work.

Hoover, 34, of Hagerstown works with a small company setting up Internet and phone lines. But 12 years ago, his job was to spend no more than eight minutes setting up battle-line phone centers in southern Iraq as U.S. forces went after Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard.

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He and other Gulf War veterans said they've been following the news in Iraq. Whether their memories were of clearing Iraqi forces from foxholes, moving captured soldiers to prison camps or shooing desert flies in the morning, memories have been flowing back.

The veterans also said they faced the possibility of chemical warfare, land mines and combat-related diseases, all things the soldiers in Iraq could face.

While Hoover's main duty in Desert Storm was setting up phones, he played other roles, too.

As a part of setting up battle communications, his group would have to make sure enemy fighters weren't hiding in the sand nearby. Sometimes holes were big enough to hold several men.

"Iraqi soldiers would just pop out of a hole ... and then the only option you have is to pop out, park your vehicle and lay down fire," Hoover said. "That was our biggest fear."

During one hole-clearing mission - what Hoover called "whack-a-mole" - he climbed down into what he thought was an empty hole.

"Basically, this thing was full of hand grenades. ... I just know there was piles and I was standing on them and I said, 'I need to get out of this hole pretty quick.'"

Scott Morton, 46, of Falling Waters, W.Va., spent nearly a year in Iraq and Kuwait carrying a 9 mm pistol and an M-16 rifle with a mounted grenade launcher.

While transporting prisoners of war, guarding supply routes and escorting convoys, he said, he had plenty of sleepless nights.

"You don't get much sleep. I was lucky to get during the actual combat ... maybe an hour of sleep," Morton said. He one time went four or five days without sleep, he said. "That starts playing tricks on you."

Morton said he saw beaten, sick enemy soldiers, and children begging for food. He said the Iraqi people were welcoming.

"You bring back a lot of experiences in that kind of situation. A lot of bad, a lot of good," Morton said.

Sgt. John McLean, 32, of Martinsburg, W.Va., was 19 during the Gulf War. As a member of a mortar group, he said, two things stick out in his mind: The sheer force of the troops and the flies.

McLean said he remembered one time during a battle standing in the back of his mortar vehicle, making a "complete 360 (degree turn), and being able to see nothing but (U.S. fighting) vehicles for as far as the eye could see."

Even during the day it was extremely cold, McLean said.

When sleeping outside, "You didn't really need nobody to wake you up. You kind of got woke up," McLean said. The flies would swarm in the morning, but "only in the morning. It was just the weirdest thing."

Morton said he gets unexplained skin lesions and fights pain in his abdomen that Veterans Affairs doctors have written off as Gulf War Syndrome.

Morton said the doctors say it could have been from oil fires, scud missiles, or a destroyed weapons bunker he was near that might have held toxic chemicals.

"They can't really give me a cause," Morton said.

Hoover also has been diagnosed with minor Gulf War illnesses. He said the troops now in the Gulf probably can expect to face other bleak realities.

Land mines were a constant cause for concern and chemical warnings came regularly, he said.

There were clean-up duties as well, he said. In one small Iraqi town, Hoover said he helped clear away animals that had died from starvation or disease as other soldiers held target practice on rabid dogs.

"We saw the oil well fires, we saw the road out of Kuwait," Hoover said. It was "enough burning and carnage to last a lifetime."

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