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Scud Alert: After the Blast

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

GREENSBURG, Pa., Feb. 27, 2001 – Ten years ago, a wartime tragedy struck Hometown USA.

Feb. 25, 1991, an errant Iraqi Scud missile hit a makeshift barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 28 U.S. reserve component soldiers and wounding 99.

Thirteen of the dead and 43 of the wounded belonged to the Army Reserve 14th Quartermaster Detachment. The 14th suffered the greatest number of casualties of any coalition unit during the war.

The detachment, a water purification unit headquartered in this town of 60,000 about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is part of the Army Reserve's 99th Regional Support Command.

Shortly after returning home, Jack Gordon, editor of the support command's newspaper, the Checkerboard, interviewed several detachment members about their experience. Their stories show what it was like after the blast. Ten years ago, Vaughn Leer was a specialist, Rob Rankin was a sergeant and David Campbell was a staff sergeant.

When the war buildup started, the Pennsylvania Army Reserve soldiers said they knew it was likely they'd be called up. Their detachment is one of the military's few water purification units. They'd only been in Dhahran about a week when the Scud hit their barracks.

"The first night we were there, the siren went off," Leer said. "That was the Scud alert that really scared everyone, and everybody panicked because nobody knew what was going on."

The alarms quickly became routine, however. Every night, sirens warned of Iraqi missiles.

"We'd hear the sirens and prepare to mask," Rankin said. "One alarm, about 3:30 in the morning, you could set your watch to. Every night that one came."

The reservists could see the Scuds fly overhead and they saw U.S. Patriot missiles intercept them.

"Some people used to stand outside and watch them go over," Leer said. "We never really thought we were in danger of a Scud hitting."

The Iraqi missiles looked like "an uneven plane trail," said Campbell, who would watch the night skies while on guard duty.

He'd been told that prior to their arrival, the Iraqis hadn't fired any Scuds for about a month or so. "But that week," Campbell said, "they started up again."

When the Scud hit the barracks, Leer and Campbell were lying on their bunks. Rankin was playing cards.

"After eating," Leer said, "I had laid down because I was going to be on guard duty at midnight. I'd just woken up and I was getting my gear together and had to go to the latrine. Some people had caught a mouse and my attention was drawn to them.

"I was just turning my head around the other way when the Scud hit the building. It went dark and there was a bright blue flash. It went down the wall to a fuse box and it exploded, and then I was thrown through the air.

"After I knew I could move again, I felt for my head, since I somehow thought my head was taken off when I was flying through the air. I stood up and checked myself for obvious signs of injury. I saw the hole in my T-shirt and was then just concerned with getting out of the building."

Despite a neck wound, Leer helped carry people from the building before being medically evacuated.

"I didn't remember, but from what I heard, I carried two or three people out," he said. "They said I passed out then."

Campbell was also awake when the missile hit. He heard the sirens, but then they stopped. He was alarmed when they started up again, "and about that time, it was there."

He woke up in a corner in terrific pain.

"It broke four of my ribs, punctured my lung, and a piece of shrapnel had shattered my shoulder," Campbell said. "When I landed (my arm) was underneath me. I could reach over with my right arm, but couldn't feel my left arm. It wasn't laying beside me where it should have been. All I could feel was a bloody mess. I thought I'd lost the arm."

Rankin and his uncle, Ron Rankin, also a sergeant with the detachment, carried Campbell out.

"They told me my arm was still attached, so I felt better already," he said. "I remember those two -- when they leaned over me."

Rankin recalled that one minute he was playing cards, the next the lights went out and he was suddenly sitting on the ground surrounded by burning fires. He never heard the blast.

"I was screaming, but I couldn't hear anything," he said. "I didn't know I had broken eardrums. I turned around and saw my Uncle Ronnie. He was hit on the side of his face with shrapnel. His face was covered with blood.

"He asked how I felt and I told him my shirt was wet. He pulled my shirt up and I had a big gash in my back. After that, we started pulling the others out."

Later, Rankin's Uncle Ron ended up on the medical evacuation bus. He'd been wounded in the shoulder by a big piece of shrapnel. 

"But when we were carrying people out, he didn't feel it," Rob Rankin said. "We just did it."

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