A Small Town Comes to Terms With Scud-Attack Losses
ONE YEAR AFTER DESERT STORM
ON Feb. 25, 1991, Staff Sgt. Dave Campbell was lying on his bunk in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, thinking about getting up, thinking about the air sirens that were wailing. Suddenly, he was flying violently through the air.
"It wasn't a boom. It was a crack, like someone had taken a baseball bat and hit you on the side of the head. I may have blacked out.... It seemed like I lay there a good while."
Staff Sgt. Lester Bennett had turned down the Trivial Pursuit game and was heading toward the outdoor showers when the sirens started. He turned around and was bending down to sit on his bunk. He was 50 feet away from the blast.
"I was reaching out there for the bunk and I couldn't reach it. I kept thinking: This is a heck of a way to die. But I heard a voice say: 'It's not your time.
It took two hours for the news to travel from Dhahran, to a big brown house in Johnstown, Pa. Corey, Sergeant Bennett's middle son, heard it first on the radio.
"Mom, there was a Scud alert in Dhahran, but don't worry," he called out from the basement. "They said a Patriot [missile] hit it."
The Bennetts' concerns grew as news about casualties came in. At 11:30 that night, they learned the unit hit by the Scud was headquartered in Farrell, Pa. That could only mean Bennett's Army Reserve group, the 475th. Elaine Boxler, whose husband was also with the unit, heard the news and telephoned.
"Why don't you come over here?" Vicki Bennett remembers suggesting. Mrs. Boxler agreed.
Of the 69 men and women assigned to the 14th Quartermaster Detachment of the 475th, a water-purification unit, 13 were killed and 43 wounded. These casualties are tallied up as one of the hazards of war - a war, with surprisingly few casualties on the allied side. But the men and women of the 14th Quartermasters weren't full-time soldiers, just part-time reservists far from the front lines.
It's easy to understand that war has changed things for them. "No one who was in that building will ever be the same," Bennett says. "Period."
A year later they are still evaluating how their lives have changed.
Ironically, families went through some of the worst emotional turmoil. There were conflicting reports from the news media and a lack of concern from the Pentagon, several families say.
For example, Sergeant Campbell was 15 or 20 feet from where the missile hit. Doctors at one point gave him only a 10 percent chance of survival. Incredibly, Gail Campbell knew nothing of this, not even his whereabouts, for 10 days - and that only after the Campbells' pastor, L. Rus Howard, barraged the Pentagon and Saudi Arabia with phone calls.
"The Pentagon needs to develop a better way to deal with families," Mr. Howard complains. "They [Pentagon officials] just flat out didn't know what was going on."
In Johnstown, the same confusion reigned. At 2:30 in the morning after the attack, a soldier Bennett knew called Mrs. Bennett saying he had been injured. He also reported that several other people in the unit were all right. Sgt. John Boxler was missing in action.
By the time the Pentagon informed Mrs. Bennett her husband was wounded, she had already talked to him directly. A helpful AT&T operator spent three hours calling hospitals in Saudi Arabia and then Germany to track Bennett down.
It took nine days for the Pentagon to inform Mrs. Boxler that her husband had not survived. Mrs. Bennett was at the Boxler home when the soldier and military chaplain arrived.
"Have you ever lost a brother? Then you know what it's like," Mrs. Bennett remembers the chaplain telling the widow. "It was so cold and formal," she says. "I have a lot of bitter feelings, particularly about the way things were handled." That bitterness toward the military appears widespread in the unit.The headquarters of the 14th Quartermasters is a red-brick building across the street from a Roman Catholic high school here in Greensburg. A new monument is going up out front, which will be unveiled on
the one-year anniversary of the attack. In the meantime, someone has fashioned a makeshift memorial of two concrete blocks and five small American flags. Wipe away the winter condensation from the glass-framed plaque and you can read the names of the 13 who were killed: Sergeants Boxler and Alan Craver, specialists Steven Atherton, John Boliver, Joseph Bongiorni III, Beverly Clark, Frank Keough, Christine Mayes, Anthony Madison, Stephen Siko, Thomas Stone, Frank Walls, and Richard Wolverton. A brown mold h as started to eat into both sides of the white paper list.
Inside the reserve center sits Dave Campbell. "I don't look at myself as a hero," he says, even though he is often treated as one. "For me to be in a parade, it's like: Why?" He has been in four parades since his return.
For a man who wasn't expected to live, Campbell looks extraordinarily fit. He is wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes. His cropped blond hair makes him look almost boyish. A long-sleeved green shirt hides his injured left arm. It takes awhile to realize that Campbell can't do much with his left hand.
Is he bitter about the injury?
"I'm too lucky to be bitter," he says. "When I was conscious, I had a lot of time to lie there and stare at the ceiling and do a lot of thinking.... It gives you a little different perspective."
The response from the community was overwhelming. "You are an everyday Joe, no one special. [But] you would not believe that there would be that many people there ready to help." The Campbells' church, Hamilton Presbyterian, alone raised more than $10,000. Other gave directly. During Campbell's hospitalization, a local auto shop put new tires on his car for free.
The biggest donation, though, came from a wealthy Texas businessman who heard about Campbell's situation. Army regulations allowed only two family members to fly to Saudi Arabia; the businessman bought tickets so that Campbell's wife, two daughters, and sister-in-law could see him. He also paid for medical equipment to be shipped over to Campbell's hospital.
Before the attack "I thought I would accomplish my goals if I could go through life without hurting anybody," Campbell says. "But he made me realize ... if I ever get the chance, I could help somebody else as he helped me."
It has slipped past noon in the living room of the Bennett home where, for several days after the Scud attack, neighbors and friends and a support group gathered to offer condolences and answer the flood of phone calls that were coming in. Vicki Bennett quit her nursing job last month - in part because she wanted to spend weekends with her family, in part, she says, because it was hard to feel compassion for patients' problems after her own experience. She now works for the Red Cross.
Elaine Boxler too finds it harder to feel compassion since her husband's death. When a neighbor's daughter died recently, she didn't react in the old way. "I should have been devastated," she says.
Bennett's feelings emerge more slowly. He doesn't dream about the incident, but "there's not a day that goes past that I don't think about it. I guess the hardest part is being alone with your thoughts. It's scary sometimes.... Too many things put us in that spot at that time, which lets you know how much control you really have. My church attendance isn't the same. [But] I am more convinced about divine existence."
"The hard part was there was no pattern to the deaths. It wasn't a whole section here. It was one here, one there.... It's hard to justify a lot of the deaths. The ages ranged from the early 20s to John [Boxler], being 44. I had a hard time with that at first. Why was I spared?"
"Someone has something for me to do."