March 28, 2016 –
Sgt. 1st Class Russell Barnes, a flight medic and first sergeant with the Army Reserve’s 348th Medical Detachment, was serving a tour of duty in Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Storm on the evening of Feb. 25, 1991.
At 10:27 p.m. that night, Barnes was in Dhahran at the “White Elephant” – an unfinished Saudi hospital being utilized as housing – when he heard a nearby Patriot surface-to-air missile launch, not an uncommon occurrence given that the Patriots provided a defensive curtain against Iraq’s frequent Scud missile attacks.
“We were used to the ‘intercept,’ the Patriot blowing up the (Scud) missile,” said Barnes. “The Patriots had been doing an excellent job.”
At the same moment a couple miles away at King Abdulaziz International Airport, Sgt. Michael O’Toole was alerted to the incoming Scud missile by the airfield’s warning alarm.
“We grabbed our flack jackets and helmets and walked outside,” said O’Toole, who was also a flight medic with the 348th Medical Detachment. “Keep in mind, we had been under Scud attack after Scud attack, and the Patriots were always going up and nailing them; they did a good job.
“The air-raid siren was going off, and you’re supposed to get into your chemical gear, but we were sick and damn tired of it at that point and figured, ‘It’s going to get shot down,’” he said.
“We had a Patriot battery across the runway, and we kept looking at that Patriot battery, but we never saw a Patriot launch,” O’Toole continued. “I watched that (Scud) go across the sky, and I watched it go until it was obscured from my vision by the top of an F-15 hangar.”
Not far from O’Toole’s and Barnes’ locations was Sgt. 1st Class Russell Dearing of the Army Reserve’s 44th Evacuation Hospital. He never saw the incoming Scud because, at 10:27 p.m., he was shopping inside a grocery store not far from the White Elephant.
Just one minute later, Dearing’s life – as well as the lives of O’Toole, Barnes and hundreds of other Soldiers, families and communities – would be forever changed.
“We heard the explosion, and moments later the 2,000-pound warhead shook the ground and shook the floors of the three-story building I was in,” Barnes said. “I was talking with one of my medics, and said, ‘That was close.’”
“We saw the flash on the horizon, heard the bang, and the flash-to-bang time was quick, so we knew this was close,” O’Toole said.
“The front of the grocery store was full-pane glass, and from the corner of my eye I could see it just coming in, it was shaking,” said Dearing, who immediately donned his protective gear due to the threat of the Scud carrying a chemical or biological warhead.
Unbeknownst to Barnes, O’Toole or Dearing, the Scud had struck a nearby barracks building killing 28 U.S. Soldiers and wounding 99 more. Thirteen of those killed and 43 of those wounded belonged to the Army Reserve’s 14th Quartermaster Detachment. In this single missile attack, the 14th suffered the greatest number of casualties of any allied unit during the war.
Following standard post-attack procedures, Barnes had also put on his protective gear. Being less than one mile from the strike site, it wasn’t long before a vehicle carrying the first casualties arrived at his location.
“I remember it as if it was an hour ago,” Barnes said. “It was a female driver, an O-1 or O-2; the van was O.D. green in color and had been donated by the Federal Republic of Germany; all the glass was blown out of the van, and she pulled up and was screaming at me without a gasmask on.
“She was pointing in the back, and I saw the van was full of living and dead, and she was bleeding out of her ears,” he continued. “At that moment, I pulled my gasmask off and said to our radio operator, ‘Get our airships to this building, now.”
Those airships were with O’Toole at the airfield approximately one mile from the strike site.
“It wasn’t about a minute (after the Scud hit) when the radio started screaming for medevac,” O’Toole said. “I was on primary medevac, which means you’re first up. We launched and did a high recon over (the strike site), and we did a low recon.”
Back on the ground, Dearing was moving from the grocery store toward Barnes’ location.
“I drove back to the White Elephant and was going upstairs to my room when I noticed a lady yelling out the window, ‘They’re coming, they’re coming!’ and so I ran downstairs and that’s when the bus and the truck arrived, and I could see these (injured) troops in the back,” Dearing said.
“They pulled the casualties off (the trucks) and they laid this one individual down who had his leg halfway severed, and I’m just in shock,” Dearing added. “I got my senses back and ran back upstairs and made sure that medevac was coming, then ran back downstairs and started assisting with the injured.”
“Trucks brought more casualties, living and dead,” Barnes continued. “They were arriving mostly by ground vehicle at my location. The White Elephant was a partially constructed concrete-and-steel building that was one day going to be a hospital, but wasn’t quite finished. There was one medical aid bag in that entire multi-story building, for all those casualties – and it was mine because I wasn’t on air duty and I had my bag there.”
While Barnes and Dearing handled casualties at the White Elephant, O’Toole arrived at the strike site by air.
“We landed at this big building that was on fire, and I look to my left, and I see 9,000-gallon fuel tankers there,” said O’Toole, who was immediately aware of the potential danger. “All it’s going to take is one projectile to go over and puncture that tank.”
“I approached the building and there were bodies inside, outside, all over,” he continued. “As you would expect, it was mass mayhem. I didn’t see any other medical personnel there. I called right away for all medevac assets.
“So I did a 360 of the building,” said O’Toole, a firefighter and paramedic in civilian life. “In firefighting, that’s what the officer is supposed to do before you make entry inside a burning building; you do a 360-degree walk-around to look for a secondary means of egress in the event of a roof collapse or structural failure.”
Back at the White Elephant, Barnes and Dearing continued to treat incoming casualties.
“We ripped off sheets, blankets, pillows; we made field-expedient splints and slings from anything we could find – pallets, cardboard,” Barnes said. “Our medics and Russell (Dearing) from the 44th Evac Hospital started triage. I had summoned other ground vehicles to turn their headlights on so we could continue to triage the patients and segregate those of different expectant levels.
“We had souls like Sergeant Dearing here who were litter bearers going across rocky terrain and putting (patients) in the UH1 helicopters, and as they would fill up they would go to the 85th Evac Hospital (and other locations),” he added.
“One individual who I helped transport to the helicopter, we had him on a makeshift stretcher – it was basically an Army cot – and before we could get him to the helicopter, he was deceased,” Dearing said. “The helicopters were coming in, and I was consoling him, telling him it would be alright and we were going to get him home.”
“We had used all our organic assets – our UH1s that were available to us – and Mike had a grip on what was going at the strike site,” Barnes said.
Barnes and O’Toole’s medical detachment was an air-ambulance unit, commonly referred to by the call-sign “Dustoff,” a term first used in 1963 during the Vietnam War. Dustoff is an acronym that stands for, “Dedicated Unhesitating Service To Our Fighting Forces,” a motto these men certainly lived up to that night.
“I was wearing a Nomex (fire-retardant) flight suit, I had on Nomex gloves, so I ended up going in and started grabbing people who were wounded, unconscious,” O’Toole said. “These people all had severe flash burns, second-degree and some third-degree burns. Most of them who I talked to just stared at me, and I thought it was ‘traumatic deafness,’ if you will – but it was that their eardrums were all blown out from thousands of pounds of high explosives going off.
“We had to fly them out to the Mercy and the Comfort, which were Navy hospital ships on station,” he continued. “I told (the hospital staff), ‘Call in all your trauma surgeons, your neuros, your thoracics, get your burn people in – you’ve got a bunch of casualties coming.
“I did things I know saved people’s lives that night,” O’Toole added.
As night gave way to morning, the prior evening’s devastation could be seen – and fully felt – by all those involved.
“The next day, when we had daylight, we flew over the (strike site), and one photograph we were able to take from inside a UH1 of that molten, twisted steel – wow,” Barnes said. “We had to set the copter down, and there was American blood in that helicopter on the floor; that was helicopter 6620214, I remember the tail numbers.
“We had POW missions, but before we would dare let an enemy soldier in there, I wanted that blood cleaned so that no boot from an enemy soldier could touch that American blood,” he continued. “So we cleaned it up, put it back into service, started our POW mission and began the process of the after-action review.
“That’s the way it works in a combat zone – you do it, and when you’re finished with it, you digress and look back and say, ‘I hope I made all the right calls,’” he added.
Barnes, O’Toole and Dearing have been looking back and asking that question of themselves for the past 25 years, and are still dealing with the aftereffects of what they experienced that day.
“I’ve been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder,” Dearing said. “I deal with a lot of things that trigger things; one time I was at McDonald’s getting some food, and I walked out and the guy was washing the parking lot, and I looked down and there was a ketchup packet, and I was thinking it was blood and I was seeing this guy wash it. I couldn’t get to my vehicle fast enough.”
“I got a letter from the sister of one of the (military) members, and I never answered it – I couldn’t,” O’Toole said. “I didn’t even read it when I got it, my wife did. I do feel bad about that, but I just didn’t want to think about it, I guess.
“I’m being treated now for PTSD, and I told the doctor about the letter and she thinks that I should just go ahead and answer it even though it’s been 25 years,” he added.
Although the scars inflicted upon these men are a quarter-century old, they hurt as if they were fresh wounds made today. As part of their ongoing healing process, the trio attended the 14th Quartermaster Detachment’s 25th anniversary commemoration of the attack this past February at the unit’s home station at the Greensburg Army Reserve Center in western Pennsylvania.
“I needed to come up here,” O’Toole said. “Sergeant Barnes has really helped me out here, and he said, ‘I think it would be good for us.’ It will never be put away, but maybe to give me a little bit of closure and to see the families.”
“I’ve been here twice, it’s very therapeutic,” Dearing said, noting that he attended the 20th anniversary commemoration as well.
“We’ve asked each other the question – is it to honor the deceased, is it about us, is it about them: why are we here?” Barnes said following the commemoration ceremony. “We never came up with a solid answer, we just knew it had to be done. We’re all wrestling with a little bit of thoughts after; I don’t know if this helped or made it worse, but I know this – if we didn’t come, we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves.
“The hurt locker? We’ve been doing that for 25 years,” he continued. “It’s time to face the music.
“’Dustoff’ always shows up,” he concluded.