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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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