I deployed to Kuwait in January 2003, as part of the American Red Cross Service to Armed Forces team. We were conducting our ongoing mission of connecting military members to their families. I had been to Kuwait before, having spent most of 2001 on the same camp, but this time was different.
In mid March, we knew something was coming. Military units were coming and going at a quicker pace, increased tension was palpable. Then one night after I finished my late shift I walked in for midnight chow and the hall was virtually empty. What had been an hour-long line the day before took three minutes.
A few weeks prior I had been told by someone not to worry until the band shows up. The Army band provides additional guard duties during war and I was told that was the real indicator. I sat down for dinner that night and introduced myself to the person next to me. He responded, “Hi, I’m Dave. I play trumpet for the band. We got in a few hours ago.” Uh oh…
Soldiers had helped me put all my gear together since I wasn’t as familiar with it and the next morning I walked out with the additional 44 lbs of kevlar, chemical gear, etc. Within five minutes the alarms went off but the giant voice didn’t start with “exercise, exercise.”
I grabbed for my gas mask and tried to remember my training. The honest truth was the bag that held the mask also made a great purse so when I grabbed for it out came lip gloss, sun block and a granola bar. I got it on and ran to the nearest bunker, staring at a coworker and a bunker full of strangers as the Patriot missiles roared over our heads. That is a sound I will never forget.
By the third attack I had worked my way to the office. It was full of people without equipment. They were supposed to head home that morning and had turned in all their gear. The irony is that they were a chemical unit and knew what could happen. We scrambled to shove our outer uniform tops in the vents and doors to try to seal the room. A female soldier sat with me, holding my chem gloved hand in her bare one. That was the most scared I have ever been because I couldn’t imagine watching people die in front of me. She was so brave though, it inspired me to be stronger. Luckily, Air Defense brought the missile down well away from the camp.
Thirteen times that day we grabbed for masks and dove for bunkers. At 0200 as I dragged my exhausted self from a bunker, a soldier leaned over and said quietly “thank you for being here.”
In my 17-year career I have had some powerful experiences — Louisiana after Katrina, the burning Pentagon on 9/11, Haiti after the 2010 earthquake — but those 8 months in Kuwait still live deepest in my heart. Many of the Red Crossers who were with me are still out there providing this vital service around the world, still deploying side by side with the military. I am grateful everyday for their commitment to this amazing mission.