Marshfield, WI (OnFocus) Almost 30 years ago, the U.S. deployed troops in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, sparking the Gulf War and later setting off Operation Desert Storm, a military operation to remove any lingering Iraqi forces from the country.
David Dick of Marshfield served as a Forward Air Controller with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines and saw some of the heaviest combat as part of the “100-hour ground war.”
On August 4, 1990, Dick was abroad in Panama to clear any remaining hidden pockets of resistance after the ousting of General Noriega and to train in jungle warfare. That morning, his battalion received word that they were to head back to the United States, and to expect deployment.
The unit arrived at Camp Pendleton, California to gather the rest of its equipment and then to climatize in the desert at Marine base 29 Palms. They traveled to an Air Force base by Los Angeles and flew out on a C-5 Galaxy plane filled with 27 troops, a 5-ton vehicle, artillery cannon, and an LAV (Light Assault Vehicle). They arrived in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia on August 7.
With each new unit that arrived the battalion moved further north, ending up about 20 miles south of Kuwait.
“From that point, we set up a perimeter, and we were direct guard for any Iraqi insurgents moving into Saudi Arabia,” said Dick. “Their [the Iraqi’s] whole idea over there was to capture oil fields and oil piping, and shipping and supplies, because this was all about controlling the oil of the world so Saddam Hussein could control the region himself.”
Operation Desert Storm began on January 17, 1991 and would last 42 days. An air offensive by coalition forces involved extensive bombing of important targets. When the air war started, Dick’s battalion was the closest to Kuwait.
“I had night vision goggles, so I looked up in the sky and it was a sight to behold,” he said. “I’ll never forget it. We had so many aircraft in the sky that it looked like pieces of a puzzle.”
When the Iraqis moved into Khafji on January 29, a town on the Persian Gulf coastline close to the Kuwait border, his unit provided support on the west side. Hussein had ordered his military to invade Saudi Arabia from southern Kuwait, and Khafji became the site for the first major battle on the ground during the Gulf War.
During the battle in Khafji that night, army attack helicopters were called in, relying on night vision to hit targets but unable to distinguish friend or foe. “That’s where we had our first realization of friendly fire over there,” said Dick. “We were put on high alert after that, doubled guard duty.”
Dick heard the bombs dropped and saw the glow of explosions on the horizon. The air campaign lasted for several weeks, and then the ground war began on February 24.
Meanwhile, the alarms on their chemical suits alerted the unit that they were being exposed to gases, but they were told these were going off prematurely.
“We come to find out now, lots of years later, that the bombing of these barriers and these weapons stashes, they were bursting open chemical bombs and we were exposed to gases of various sorts,” Dick said.
His battalion prepared to go across the border into Kuwait and put its training to the test. A sand berm marked the border of Kuwait. Bulldozers opened up the berm, and tanks plowed the sand and threw land mines out of the way. Scouts on motorcycles that ran messages and supplies couldn’t ride through the freshly plowed sand, preferring to ride on the undisturbed sections.
“They’re lucky they didn’t hit any of those land mines,” Dick said.
Oil well fires burned across the landscape of Kuwait, lit by Iraqi military forces, as the unit moved into country and encountered resistance. The Gulf War marked the first use of the M1 Abrams tank in combat.
“That piece of equipment is absolutely awesome,” said Dick. “Our tanks can shoot so fast and precise, that in a matter of seconds they can wipe out a whole complete division of enemy tanks, and we got to witness it firsthand.”
The battalion moved into the area occupied by the Iraqi Republic Guard, and a number were surrendering.
“They would put their underwear on a stick or a piece of wood to surrender. These guys were skinny, they were starving, no water,” said Dick. “Our air support bombed anything with support function for the people. If you can you imagine being in the inside of your typical fireworks canister, that’s what those guys were in for three weeks straight. They were done. We didn’t have as much resistance when we went into the area.”
The Marines pushed forward into Kuwait, ending up near the oil fields, and were gassed with a chemical agent. A tank commander whose gas mask wasn’t working began to go into cardiac arrest, and Dick and a lance corporeal, being the closest, were tasked with bringing him a working gas mask.
However, the night was so black it was difficult to see one’s own hand, and soot from the burning oil smeared over their eyepieces. “So what you couldn’t see anyway with normal eyes, the ash and the soot made it even worse,” Dick said.
While the commander was just a short distance away, the walk was long. Dick used a compass to determine the direction of the tank and took it one step at a time, sifting for land mines and terrified that the enemy could jump out at any moment.
Finally, he reached the tank commander and called a medivac by radio to direct him to the tank. Because the track had shifted, Dick once again had to figure out his direction back essentially blind.
“I was so scared that it hurt to move, even,” he said.
One of the first bombing missions that Dick guided was captured in a photo book by a Time reporter who accompanied the Marines the entire way, entitled Desert Storm: The War in the Persian Gulf. Dick, wearing full gear and head mask, is pictured on the back cover.
Through intense laser magnification, Dick spotted a truck thousands of yards away and enemy troops setting up a mortar tube and shell piece. He cleared a Cobra helicopter to shoot the truck with a laser guided hellfire missile.
“I saw the bomb hit and the explosion of the people get thrown,” he said. The aftermath of that grisly scene was captured in the Time book.
The unit moved onward and then paused to let the U.S army performing its “Left Hook” catch up and resupply. Dick crawled into an AAV and fell asleep. What seemed like seconds later, he was woken up to continue moving further north toward Kuwait City in order to begin the liberation of the people there and secure the area around Kuwait International Airport.
“We had some resistance right away, some lone stragglers that were left behind from their forces that were trying to slow us down and shooting at us,” said Dick. He watched one Iraqi militant, likely drugged up, attempt to stall the track vehicle and get torn apart by bullets.
The battalion arrived at Kuwait City. Dick was situated on a hill overlooking part of the city, so if aircrafts were needed he could use his laser to designate the target.
Residents began to emerge from hiding. In one of the most beautiful sights Dick ever witnessed, a U.S flag was lowered from every building in the city, as many as there were Kuwait flags.
“We talk about our freedoms in this country,” he said. “When you go to some country and you see someone who was just as free as we are have their freedoms taken away for an amount of time, that morning was one of those harsh realities of all of that.”
One Kuwait City resident had purchased a brand new Mustang GT car before Iraq invaded and, to celebrate the liberation, drove the car out of hiding to an overpass on the main freeway into the city. There, he did a burnout to read “I love the U.S.”
“He almost got shot multiple times, and after his tires were missing off the back of his car — because he used them completely up —it sat there on his axle, and he came out and he hugged every Marine that he saw,” said Dick.
The 100-hour ground war was officially ended on February 28. After the liberation, cleanup began. Military equipment was burned.
Dick doesn’t remember exactly when the battalion returned home — “Calendars at that point were irrelevant” — but he recalls well the reception they received once they were back in California, some of the first troops to return.
On the interstate, every single car was parked and people were cheering on the side of the road. “I’ve never seen so many people in my life,” Dick said. “They talk about when Vietnam veterans came home, and they were shunned or protested against and shamed. That sure changed.”
While a normal drive from the air force base to Camp Pendleton is about an hour, the journey by bus took three. The bus pushed forward at near walking speed as greeters attempted to jump in the windows and congratulate the newly returned troops. Every 10 feet, someone threw a case of beer in the bus.
The bus driver, a Vietnam veteran, allowed other Vietnam veterans on the bus to speak with the Marines.
Dick received his airplane ticket and arrived at the Central Wisconsin Airport on March 30, the day before Easter 1991. Wearing his desert camouflage and devoid of change, he called his brother at his workplace in Stratford from the airport desk.
The rest of his family wasn’t aware yet of his return home. When his parents and siblings arrived at a home to move a refrigerator, Dick hid behind the front door to surprise them. His dad pushed the dolly through the door, and Dick took hold of it and nonchalantly said, “Let’s get this fridge moved!”
“That was an awesome day,” he said.
After visiting a few hours with his family, Dick called up a friend and gathered with a group of his underage friends at a Colby bar that was hosting a live band that night. Since he didn’t have any civilian clothes, Dick arrived in his military outfit and persuaded the owner to let them in to have a drink.
The crack of the opening beer was, for him, the sound of the war finally coming to an end.
THE BATTLE AT HOME
Though the foreign war had ended, another type of war was heating up at home.
“You never get out of a war. It’s always with you in some shape or form,” said Dick. “It just changes direction.”
In the years to come, around a quarter of veterans of the Gulf War would report a complex range of chronic symptoms that would be dismissed as psychosomatic or else not taken seriously.
While he doesn’t look it, Dick is disabled, similar to other veterans he knows who served in the same region.
Since his service ended, Dick has had no feeling in his arms or legs. He has to listen for his feet to hit the ground when he walks and watch his hands perform tasks. Other times, his legs or arms will suddenly stop working, and occasionally he will suffer from terrible cramps, which he describes as full-body Charley Horses, for days on end.
Dick points to a bump on his arm he calls his Little Brother. “There’s a spot where the muscle won’t release properly because the nerves won’t let it release,” he said. “My nerves are shorting out the point where sometimes the signal goes to the wrong muscle. The chemicals we were gassed with are dissolving the white matter that’s around my spinal cord.”
In the Gulf War, Dick was given experimental Anthrax shots and pyridostigmine bromide, or PB, pills that were intended to counteract the effects of nerve agents. These were supposed to be frozen until administered, but their chemical composition changed when they melted to their blister packs in the hot desert sun.
“Some of the bombs we were gassed with over there were sold to the Middle East by our own U.S government back in the 70s and weren’t supposed to be sold,” he said.
Retired as a performance service mechanic and business owner due to his condition, Dick starts off each week by calling the VA to check his schedule for the upcoming week based on last week’s evaluation. He attends electroshock acupuncture, the only therapy that appears to help, plus physical therapy, pain evaluation, and natural pain management treatment which uses yoga, essential oils, mindfulness, and breathing techniques rather than opioids to treat pain.
While Dick receives regular treatment from the VA, the task of getting approved for coverage was an uphill battle that stretched to the very final year of appeals just 6 years ago.
After the Gulf War, Dick finished his service in Japan and Korea, later acting as a personal driver for a battallion commander until being discharged in May 1992, at least on paper.
“You’re never out of the Marines,” said Dick. “Once you’re a Marine, you’re always a Marine.”
His health was already beginning to deteriorate by the end of his service. When he mentioned the lack of feeling in his hands and legs, he was told his combat radio pack, which was heavier than his body weight, had pinched the nerves in his arms. But the lack of feeling continued for years after he was done carrying the pack.
“I could hold a burning lighter to my hand and not feel it,” he said.
Dick struggled to get assistance from the VA, until the final year came for an appeal. “They were going to deny me the rest of my life. In 2013 I finally had enough,” he said. “I could hardly move or function. I called up the Wood County VA representative. I said, I’m not taking no for an answer. They’d all say it’s all in my head. They think you’re trying to scam benefits.”
The new representative at that time decided to dig into Dick’s case and came across a study at the University of Wisconsin through the VA, which tested pain and brain stimulation for Desert Storm veterans. Dick decided to take part and pay the gas to drive down to Madison twice a week.
The test involved placing a heating and cooling device in the hand while the participant is distracted from the temperature changes and the MRI machine by brain exercises. After a few months, Dick’s lack of brain activity for his left hand attracted the attention of a research doctor at the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center in New Jersey.
“He said, you’re the prime example of the veteran I’m looking for,” Dick said.
The doctor flew into Madison to conduct a separate test using the heating/cooling device while scanning brain function. On a 0 setting, the device gets colder than an ice cube. On a 10, it gets hot enough that most people would try to shake it off. The doctor said he could try increasing the setting to 15.
“When we pulled that device off my hand, it look like a piece of charred toast,” Dick said. “He said ‘That’s weird, you’re not even blistering.’ There’s no nerve function to tell me to blister to protect the underlying skin and muscle.”
A faint indented outline of a square in Dick’s left palm is the only remnant of this test. He thinks of it as a blessing — tangible proof that his condition was not psychosomatic, but real.
Dick was sitting in a deer hunting stand the day after Thanksgiving in 2014 when the study center asked him to come to New Jersey to conduct more tests that would help with his final appeal, which was looming in just a few weeks. He got the money together to purchase a one-way ticket that weekend until his return in mid-December.
“They did so many tests on me, it was mind-boggling,” Dick said. His medical file was so huge, that the first attempt to scan the file to the DAV office in Milwaukee, where his appeal case was being handled, didn’t work.
“Because it was a holiday month, it had to be in close of business that day before they could take it under consideration, so I was sitting in the airport trying to communicate over by cell phone,” he said. Fortunately, his appeal was extended by another day.
The next Monday, Dick received a call from the DAV rep that the file was so extensive, the case would be reopened from the beginning. Finally, in January 2015, Dick was placed on 100 percent disability.
While today he can no longer run his business, Dick keeps his shop as a hobby, which has gotten him through his darkest times. His two college-aged sons and their friends still come out to tinker with their projects.
“I considered myself the best motorsports mechanic,” he said. “I have a good reputation behind that.”
Dick lives near Hewitt with his wife Sheri, his two sons and 13-year-old daughter. He considers his wife of 24 years as his best support through the years, when the side effects of the war kept him from being able to work, play ball with the kids, or even move.
“I keep hell of a sense of humor, that’s the other thing that will get you through a bad day. I always say to people, things could be worse,” he said. “I’ve been in a lot of worst case scenarios, and I could take those dark days. Even in a bad, dark day, you can find some sort of humor in it.”
In January, Dick traveled to Madison to be honored at the State Capitol for the 29th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm on January 17, 1991. Just the month before, a design was approved for a new privately funded National Desert Storm and Desert Shield War Memorial in Washington D.C to be constructed near the Lincoln and Vietnam Veterans Memorials, with hopes of being dedicated by Veterans Day 2021. To learn more and to donate, visit www.ndswm.org.
To Dick, the memorial means bringing awareness to what was essentially a short conflict, and its lingering effects in the veterans who suffer from Gulf War Illness. Plus, it recalls the nation’s dependence on oil — which during that time was in jeopardy when Iraq invaded Kuwait.
“It’s part of history,” Dick said. “You can’t ignore parts of history. It got us where we are today, if you forget that, you’ll end up back there eventually.”