1st CAV in the Desert

I served as a Platoon Leader in the 13th Signal Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division during the first Gulf War. We deployed from Ft Hood, TX in October 1990 to Saudi Arabia and then Iraq for the short ground war in February 1991.

At age 23, it was strange and unsettling to spend Christmas away from my family and in the middle of the desert. The night skies were amazingly dark and full of more stars than I had ever seen. The occasional camel sighting did remind we of the three wise men headed to Bethlehem.

The last panel in Doonesbury cartoon below made me laugh. I found this newspaper clipping in my journal from 1990. I didn’t remember having it and probably haven’t seen it in over 30 years.

I was recently interviewed for the Rutgers Oral History Archives about my experience. Below is an excerpt from the transcripts.

KR:  At the end of your first interview, we left off talking about Operation Desert Storm.  What I would like to ask you about first today is, what are your recollections of Operation Desert Storm and the invasion of Iraq? 

BS:  I think the biggest memory and impact was in January of 1991.  We had been in Saudi Arabia since October, just sitting, waiting for the invasion.  We were in northern Saudi Arabia.  I just remember when the ground war kicked off.  We didn’t have any news.  We didn’t have TV or radio like have today, but I do remember seeing and hearing these–they were called MLRS [multiple launch rocket system]–these rockets, and they went off many at a time, and the lights, just watching these rockets take off, knowing they were going north into Iraq as we attacked, and just thinking, “Wow, how much destruction and/or death is occurring at the end of that?”  It was really bizarre and surreal, but that was the only thing I remember and I saw at the time.  It was scary that first night.  We didn’t know if we were going to get attacked with Scud missiles that had chemical or nuclear/biological weapons.  We were mostly scared of chemicals at the time, but it could have been biological.  [Editor’s Note: On January 17, 1991, U.S. and coalition forces launched Operation Desert Storm with a campaign of air and missile attacks on targets in Iraq and Kuwait.]

I do remember the first night, and that was really the only night that I slept in my mask, my gas mask, and the full protective gear.  It wasn’t too hot.  It was January, luckily.

KR:  Were there any religious services when you were in Saudi Arabia or Iraq?  Were there chaplains around to do religious services or counseling? 

BS:  In Saudi Arabia, we were told to not have any outward displays of religion, Christianity, Judaism.  We did, in our tents, have some Christmas [trees], but, again, it wasn’t [extensive].  There were chaplains, but, again, they were told to not put their insignia on their uniform.  As I recall, the officers that were chaplains would have their rank on one side and then you would have your unit on the other, but I think they had either a cross [or] Star of David, and they were told to cover those.  I don’t recall ever talking to a chaplain, seeing them.  I suppose, if it was needed and someone needed counseling, we could have called into the DMAIN, the centralized rear command, and asked for it, but we didn’t need it.  The same for doctors and nurses and medical.  I’m sure these support units were there if we needed them, but I didn’t interact with them either.  We were forward operations. 

For women, we were in the frontlines with our communication vans.  In fact, there were Iraqi soldiers surrendering to some of the units that were in my platoon, and it was a woman that they surrendered to.  She was the sergeant of this little remote radio tower.  It was her and three other soldiers who were men, but Iraqi soliders surrendered to them.  For me, I was like, “Wow, a Muslim man from Iraq just surrendered to a woman, an American woman.”  That was kind of interesting. 

KR:   My next question you have touched upon a little bit in some other questions that we have asked you.  Once Operation Desert Storm was being launched and the invasion of Iraq, what were your experiences like and the experiences of your unit? 

BS:  Once the big launch in January occurred, we left our base, where we had been for many months in northern Saudi, and we convoyed north into southern Iraq.  We left in the middle of the night.  I just remember driving in this huge–it was a deuce and a half–a two-and-a-half-ton truck, very, very uncomfortable, for hours just driving north (20+ hours), but it was pretty exciting, because we knew this was the big thing we’d been waiting for. We’re traveling, and it’s exciting because we’re seeing other tanks and units from Britain and other countries alongside us traveling in the same direction.  Then, we got to a location, and we stopped.  This was where we were going to set up our communications.  I only have one picture from the whole war.  There was a burned-out military–it looked like a tank and it was an Iraqi tank and there were dead Iraqi soldiers on the ground.  It was taken out by a U.S. missile or an Apache.  My soldiers had to call and get body bags and put them in.  I made a decision that I didn’t want to see the bodies, the corpses, because I didn’t want it to stick in my mind.  I didn’t go near it, but we set up camp maybe a hundred meters away from that.  It was kind of creepy to be there.  We were there thirty, forty days.  We stayed there, and it wasn’t long before we won the war decisively.  We were all told, “Okay, time to go home now.” 

More stories and memories to come in my next blog.

Monsoon Winds & Stormy Memories from Saudi Arabia in 1990

I am excited to announce that in October 2022, I will be inducted into the Rutgers Oral History Archives- ROHA (https://oralhistory.rutgers.edu/) in New Brunswick, NJ. This is a great honor as my story will be documented and included with the accounts from hundreds of fellow veterans from the conflicts of WWII, Korea, Persian Gulf War, Cold War and Afghanistan.

In April 2022, two strong and articulate women from the Department of History at my alma mater, Rutgers University, interviewed me about my family history, campus ROTC life, and military experience in the Gulf War.

Me in Southern Iraq, February 1991

A bit about ROHA from their website:

Since 1994, the Rutgers Oral History Archives (ROHA) has been recording the life narratives of:

  • Alumni and/or New Jersey residents who served during times of conflict
  • People with a story to tell about New Jersey’s rich social and cultural history
  • Men and women who helped shape the history of Rutgers University

ROHA’s digital archive features 1,202 life course oral history interviews and over 32,000 pages of fully text-searchable transcripts.

Here’s the cover page of the first interview transcript.

RUTGERS, THE STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW JERSEY

NEW BRUNSWICK

AN INTERVIEW WITH BRENDA SMULL

FOR THE

RUTGERS ORAL HISTORY ARCHIVES

INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY

KATHRYN TRACY RIZZI

and

GWEN ALLEN

PHOENIX, ARIZONA

APRIL 12, 2022

Below is an excerpt of my response to a question about my experience during Operation Desert Storm:

“I was there for about ten months.  Saudi Arabia and Iraq, in those months, there were seasons where there were monsoon rains and winds.  I’ll never forget, one time, I’m in my tent, and a huge windstorm came.  It literally blew the tent off me, and it’s just me on a cot in the middle of the desert.  That was quite interesting.  Everything you owned was in two duffel bags, so you didn’t have a whole lot of clothing.  We did have services that occasionally helped launder our clothes, but, oftentimes, we would wear the same pants for days, and I did not take a shower every day.  Then, when we went into Iraq, water was limited.  I remember, I went thirty days without a shower.  As a woman, that wasn’t as ideal.  We had birdbaths, but for anybody who’s been camping, birdbaths are good for like two or three days.  Thirty days is a whole other experience.  Again, I was young.  I survived.  It wasn’t that bad, but it was just very uncomfortable.  Your body doesn’t stop doing what it does, even though you’re at war in the middle of a desert.  That was that experience.  That’s why I was always envious [that] the Air Force people were in buildings, at least most of them were, and I didn’t get to be in any buildings.  

At the end, when we were leaving the country in April 1991, we went to Khobar Towers, which is actually famous because later, a few years after I was there, there was a big bombing there.  Khobar Towers were in Saudi Arabia, there was a big bombing, and I believe some were killed and injured.  I was only there for a week or two before they flew us back home.  That’s the story about that.  [Editor’s Note: On June 25, 1996, a truck bomb detonated near the Khobar Tower housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing nineteen members of the U.S. Air Force and injuring over four hundred American and coalition military personnel.  The Khobar Towers housed coalition forces engaged in Operation Southern Watch, the no-fly zone operation in Southern Iraq after the Gulf War of 1990-1991.
]”

A Book Is Born!

I did it!

I published my first book, Strong Words and Simple Truths: The Courage to Communicate, on Amazon today.

To those who have been following and reading my blog over the past 8 years, I thank you for your interest and support of my thoughts, ideas and stories.

Words can not express the joy and elation I am feeling today. This is my baby. My legacy. My tribute to my family, friends, fellow veterans, and Toastmasters.

Over the last few months I have created new content and stories to weave the last 8 years of articles together. The book has 8 Chapters (Epics/Themes) where I grouped the over 80 blogs.

The chapters are: Communications, Toastmasters, Creativity, Veterans, Gratitude, the 1980s, Agile, and Science/Health.

What is the book about?

  • Courage, Communication and the American Spirit
  • Strength, Tolerance and Respect
  • Balance, Perspective and Change
  • Science, Health and History
  • Gratitude, Remembrance and Joy
  • Truth and Common Sense
  • Heroes, Adventure and Fun
  • Veterans, Poppies and Honor
  • Creativity, Toastmasters and the 1980s

An amazingly talented young woman illustrated the book with a fun circus theme that my mascot Ernie the Hedgehog endorses. Kudos to Alex Delit Garcia for her great work.

I don’t know what is next but boy am I excited and energized to share this news with you.

If you would like to purchase this fun compilation with a new, creative adventure throughout, please click on the image below for your very own copy. Here’s the book’s website.

Thank you!

What’s It All About?

Since 2013, I’ve been sharing my thoughts, ideas and stories on this blog. I enjoy writing and will continue to post here with fun and interesting photos that are harder to share in a printed book.

As I have stated in my last post, I am about to publish my first book on Amazon and have been mentally preparing for the inevitable question- What is the book about?

Since Strong Words and Simple Truths is a compilation of nine years of articles on a wide range of subjects, the answer to that query is not fitting into my normally pithy response box.

During my bike ride this morning, I came up with the following bullets to describe what the book is about.

I hope to have it live on Amazon in October 2021. Please check out www.thecouragetocommunicate.com for more details.

  • Balance, Perspective and Change
  • Strength, Tolerance and Respect
  • Science, Health and History
  • Gratitude, Remembrance and Joy
  • Creativity, Toastmasters and the 1980s
  • Heroes, Adventure and Fun
  • Truth and Common Sense
  • Veterans, Poppies and Honor
  • Courage, Communication and the American Spirit
Illustration by Alex Delit Garcia

March to May Remembrance

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Photo by Steve Smull

To preserve the memories and honor the sacrifices of those who paid the ultimate price while serving their country, Ahwatukee American Legion Post 64 is dedicated to providing and supporting remembrance services and ceremonies.

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American Legion Post 64 members. Photo by Steve Smull

Beginning in March and running through Memorial Day, Post 64 will have had three events dedicated to honoring fallen and past Veterans.

On March 15, 2019, the members of the post celebrated the 100 year anniversary of the founding of the American Legion.  This special meeting was dedicated to the 1,194 crew members of the USS Indianapolis CA-35 which was torpedoed on July 30, 1945.

At the March meeting, post member John Boyer gave an educational and moving presentation about the disaster, the victims, and the 316 survivors. John is a survivor family member as his cousin, Lloyd Peter Barto, was one of the crew who was rescued after four days in the shark-infested waters of the Philippine Sea.

For more information on the USS Indianapolis Click here.

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On May 15th, Post 64 honored and remembered 45 members who have passed in a special prayer service led by Post Chaplain Rebecca Schmidt.

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John Boyer and Rebecca Schmidt. Photo by Steve Smull

 

The theme of Never Forget will culminate on Memorial Day, May 27, when Post 64 will join over 20 Color and Honor Guards from across Arizona to pass in review at the Parade of Colors. The Ahwatukee post join many others to place over 100 wreaths in a solemn and inspirational Memorial Day Service at The National Cemetery of Arizona in Cave Creek, AZ on 23029 North Cave Creek Roadbeginning at 8:00 am.

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Post 64 Color Guard lined up for the Memorial Day ceremony

The Memorial Day Ceremonies are a very important and respected tradition for veterans and their families across the country and include the presentation of the flag, slow salutes and the playing of taps.  Other services may include prayers, the reading of names, ringing of bells and the lighting of candles.

Click here for more the Ahwatukee American Legion Post 64 website.

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Remembering Armistice Day and Our Veterans

The red poppies are blowing today as the world marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War Armistice (11/11/18).

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As I watch French, German, American and other world leaders come together in Paris to pay their respects to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their countries, I am thankful that veterans are being remembered and appreciated for their service.

An American Legion magazine is spread open on the kitchen table and a poignant photo of a WWII veteran is calling to me.  He is all bundled up in gloves and a blanket and is holding a small US flag in one hand and a hand written sign in another.  The sign reads, “Thanks for Remembering”.

In the end, that’s all most veterans really want- to be appreciated and remembered.

So on this important day, Veterans Day in the United States and Remembrance/Armistice Day in Canada, Australia and many nations in Western Europe, it is my hope that as citizens of the world we can set aside our political differences and reflect on the positive impacts that countless servicemen and women have made all over the world.

There are over 20 million living veterans in the United States, representing almost 10% of the population.  If you don’t know someone who has served in the military, I encourage you to find out more by supporting your local VFW or American Legion posts.

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Marching in a Veterans Day Parade in Denver. Photo by Steve Smull

This Veterans Day is a very special Remembrance Day as we celebrate the centennial of the end of the First World War.

I proudly wear my red poppy to acknowledge the sacrifices made by those died on the battlefield.  I humbly pick up and carry the torch for those who came before me, knowing that they would say, “Thanks for Remembering!”

Happy Veterans Day America

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Reflections on the Mall : My 1980’s Top 40 List

My nostalgic yearning for life as it was in the 1980s continues for a number of reasons. Sad news of the passing of a childhood friend, an upcoming family visit to my hometown and the longing for simpler, more authentic experiences have me pining for my happy days growing up in the small, friendly community of Spotswood, NJ.

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Last year I wrote a two part series on the popular Netflix series Stranger Things and the Dungeons & Dragon phenomena and today I am excited to share with you the latest update on Stranger Things season 3.

This quirky teaser trailer for season 3  had me LMAO and vividly remembering my first job at the Brunswick Square Mall in 1983.

I visited the shopping mall the other day and it just didn’t have the same positive vibe that I remember growing up.

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Photo by Michael Galinsky

It looks like we will have to wait a bit longer to get our next 1985 fix since season 3 of Stranger Things isn’t scheduled to release until mid 2019.

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The other thing I loved about the 1980s was the music.  Everyday I listen to SiriusXM radio on my drive to work and I always end up on the 70s, 80s or Classic Vinyl/Rewind channels.  Hair Nation is also a favorite channel with its compilation of arena rock concert music.

Images of black and white band jerseys come flooding back every time I hear a song from Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Rush, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel or Lynryd Skynryd.

 

I also enjoyed Casey Kasem and the weekly Top 40 countdown so I thought I’d share with you my own list of memories from the decade of big hair and great movies.

The Top 40 List (in no particular order) of the things I miss most about the awesome 80s:

  1. Hanging out with friends and listening to records or cassette tapes for hours on end.
  2. Playing Asteroids, Space Invaders and Pac Man at the video arcade.
  3. Waking my Dad up bright and early on my 17thbirthday so he could drive me to the DMV in Rahway, NJ. He let me drive his 1972 Chevy Chevelle to take my driving test to get my license.
  4. Listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall on my Sony Walkman.
  5. Back to school shopping and getting a shiny, new Trapper Keeper note book.
  6. Paradoxes in clothing trends: Black parachute pants. White Painters pants, Overalls.  Day glow colored spandex.   Peach colored anything.
  7. Quality movies like Back the Future, Ghostbusters, E.T. and The Terminator.The list is endless.
  8. Hanging out at Brunswick Square Mall and my first job at York Steak House.
  9. Getting a slice at Taverna Pizza parlor for lunch during senior year at Spotswood High School.
  10. High quality teachers like Mr. Muschla, Mr Dziedziak and Mr. Perosa.
  11. Great coaches who inspired and motivated: Jean Lonergan Puff and Bruce Nissenbaum.
  12. Playing in large piles of leaves in the front yard.
  13. Watching or marching in the annual Memorial Day parade.
  14. Eating a Carvel banana barge with nuts after eating pizza.
  15. Making cassette tape mixes by recording them from vinyl albums or the radio.
  16. Listening to classic rock on FM radio WPLJ.
  17. Being able to go over to someone’s house unannounced and just knock on the door and ask if they want to come out and play.
  18. Climbing trees and occasionally having someone break an arm.
  19. Building forts in the woods.
  20. Playing in the “dirt piles” behind my house.
  21. Sitting around an open fire in the woods.
  22. Going to Devoe Lake and sitting by the small waterfall on the Immaculate Conception church side overlooking the American Legion post.
  23. Watching Fourth of July fireworks over Devoe Lake from the church parking lot.
  24. Play acting and performing skits with my friends on Maiden Lane and Bruning Lane.
  25. Riding our bikes to places my parents didn’t know about.
  26. Exploration and the sense of wonder at discovering new and buried things.
  27. Playing kick ball in the street until it was dark.
  28. Riding my bike and unicycle to school without a helmet (it’s amazing I survived).
  29. Watching my friends play D&D.
  30. High School Marching Band and Color Guard pride.
  31. Swing sets and dodge ball at recess after lunch at Appleby school.
  32. Walking home from school on the railroad tracks.
  33. Playing video games at the Sorrentos pizza parlor on Main St and Devoe Ave.
  34. Jumping off home made, wooden ramps with our bikes.
  35. Storytelling at sleepover parties.
  36. High school yearbooks with hand drawn artwork on the covers.
  37. Using a shiny, new Apple II in high school computer class and learning BASIC.
  38. Fun and festive carnivals behind the Catholic church.
  39. Fishing in down at the outlets and rivers.
  40. Going to the Movie City Five theater and it costing $1.50 to see a movie.

Friends Don’t Lie and Other Stranger Things- Part 1

“The Past is a foreign country: They do things differently there”.

–L.P. Hartley 1953

Why am I longing for the year 1984 like it is some quaint, simple and authentic nation that values loyalty and character?   Is nostalgia clouding my view and causing me to misremember this strange decade that is now viewed as “retro” by the Millennial and Z generations?

I blame this recent love and fascination with the 1980s on the popular Netflix series Stranger Things. I finished watching season 2 three weeks ago and it really has me obsessing about big hair, parachute pants, and the video games Pac-Man and Asteroids.

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Movies seemed bigger and better forty years ago and we were forever changed by ET, The Terminator, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Back to the Future, Ghost Busters and Gremlins.   The themes of good vs evil seemed more simple, sincere and powerful. Films were more about entertaining and less about lecturing.  The plots and characters seemed more fun and whimsical. Being an adrenalin junkie, I loved the intense adventure, risk taking and the fearless dedication to noble and sometimes scary causes.

I found myself pondering the question of why Stranger Things resonated so strongly with me and millions of others?

Being a proud and slightly older member of Generation X,  I reached back into my memory banks with the help of photos, high school year books and interviews with childhood friends.  From this I distilled the following four reasons for why the early 1980s were so totally awesome and how the Stranger Things cast and plot exemplified them:

  • Freedom
  • Adventure
  • Loyalty
  • Character

The tight group of friends in Stranger Things had an important and secret mission on their hands and I related to the huge amount of Freedom they were afforded by their parents.   As a latch key kid with both parents working, I had large  amounts of time on my own where I could explore and be with my friends.

Unsupervised Adventures were another hallmark of growing up the in the early 1980s.  For me, the only planned or scheduled events were sporting events at school (or via a bus) during the week, orchestra and marching band practices.  Most of my memorable experiences were outside playing in the street, at the lake or in the woods. By far the most exciting adventures were spontaneous.

Defeating the demogorgon and rescuing Will from the Upside Down was the ultimate adventure in my book.  I loved how many of the parents in Stranger Things were completely oblivious to what their kids were up to!

The theme of Loyalty really hit home for me during Eleven’s strong expression/tantrum of “Friends don’t lie!”.

Mike, Eleven, Lucas, Dustin and Will had a strong and trusting bond of friendship that enabled them stick together, count on each other and accomplish their heroic mission. I identified with this sense of commitment as I still have loyal connections with a number of friends from my childhood and adolescence.

The concept of Character in Stranger Things resonated with me in two ways with two meanings. First, I loved the character development of the underdog heroes and the references to Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). I also felt a strong sense of virtue and moral code among the friends.  I dig more deeply into the D&D influences in my next blog ( part 2 of this series).

I can’t tell you enough how much I enjoyed Stranger Things. On multiple levels, for a multitude of reasons I became enthralled, reminiscent and excited. While I’ve always been a big Sci-Fi fan (Ray Bradbury rocks), there was something special about this mix of characters, plot and time period. It truly warmed my heart.

Seeing and feeling the loyalty, love and trust of family and friends makes we want to travel home soon to my small hometown so I can take a walk down by the water with my sister, brothers, nieces and nephews.

“The Past is a foreign country: They do things differently there”.

Stranger Things reminded me of just how different our world has become in the past 40 years and how lucky I was to grow up during a time of relative peace and innocence.

I’ll end with a Top 20 List of the things I loved about the 1980s (in no particular order).

  1. Hanging out with friends and listening to records or tapes for hours on end.
  2. Making custom cassette tape mixes. IMG_4511
  3. Watching actual music videos on MTV.
  4. Being able to go over to someone’s house unannounced and just knock on the door and ask if they want to come out and play.
  5. Climbing trees and occasionally having someone break an arm (ok, maybe I don’t miss this part).
  6. Live rock concerts.
  7. Playing in the “dirt piles” behind my house.
  8. Sitting around an open fire in the woods.
  9. Going to Devoe Lake and sitting by the small waterfall overlooking the American Legion post.
  10. Play acting and performing skits for no apparent reason.DSCF8413
  11. Riding our bikes to places my parents didn’t know about ( and would have had a heart attack if they had).
  12. Exploration and the sense of wonder at discovering new and buried things.
  13. Playing kick ball in the street.
  14. Riding my bike and unicycle without a helmet ( it’s amazing I survived).
  15. Swing sets and dodge ball at recess after lunch at school.
  16. Playing video games at the local pizza parlor (Sorrentos).
  17. Jumping off home made, wooden ramps with our bikes.
  18. Storytelling at sleepovers.
  19. Overalls and white painters pants.
  20. High school yearbooks with hand drawn artwork on the covers.  See the Pegasus photos above and below.

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In Part 2 of this Series on Stranger Things and the 1980s, I’ll dive into the magical world of D&D which played such a pivotal part in the Stranger Things series to date.

I recently interviewed a childhood friend from Spotswood, NJ, Peter C., who shared with me his experience with D&D over the past 39 years and his thoughts and perspective on the early 1980s and the Stranger Things series.

Stay tuned for more tidbits, trivia and insights from a Dungeon Master!

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