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 Special Veterans Day

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the headline and photo on the front page of my local newspaper the Ahwatukee Foothills News yesterday. There I was, standing in front of The Buzzed Goat Cafe wearing my Post 64 American Legion hat. The picture was taken after a speech I gave at my book launch party. One of the main focuses of my short talk was to share my experience in the US military and pay tribute to the veterans and honor their service and sacrifice.

I read aloud the excerpt below from my book Strong Words and Simple Truths: The Courage to Communicate.

Here is the introduction summary of Chapter 6: Veterans and Remembrance.

“Heroes are people who put themselves at risk for the benefit of others.” 

-Oliver North 

The first veterans I admired were my father, uncles, and cousins that served in the U.S. Military. Most of them, my dad included, were deployed across the globe to fight for freedoms during World War II. Their strength and resolve inspired me to become a leader and a servant to others. They were my Strong Man role models.

The idea of selfless service was instilled in me at an early age as I watched my parents and my dear cousins Joey, Patty, and Richie, volunteer for countless events at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). Although my small hometown was only a few square miles, it was home to not one but two veteran organizations—The American Legion and the VFW. Every year when I was growing up, our town would have a Memorial Day parade that concluded at one of these two posts. In my family, Memorial Day was a special day marked by a solemn remembrance ceremony in the local cemetery. 

My time on active duty in the U.S. Army in the early 1990s was relatively short and painless, but it left a lasting imprint on my perspective, leadership style, and values. 

After college, I learned of the “Duty, Honor, Country” mantra of the U.S. Military Academy. I never forgot the crucial importance of remembrance and respect for those who have sacrificed in service to their nation. 

The veterans I have encountered have a strong sense of integrity and commitment to their families, friends, and community. They are a tough and resilient lot who are some of the most kind, generous, and boisterous people I know. 

The Strong Man is my tribute to all people who have served their countries and communities. Please join me as I share some of my thoughts on this important topic. 

Happy Veterans Day!

Here’s a link to the newspaper article.

For more information, check out my website.

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!

Strong Connections, Healthy Brains

A 3 Point Inspection Plan for a Battle Ready Body

One of the things that surprised me most when I served in the US Army was the insane amount of time spent cleaning- whether it was cleaning our equipment, our weapons, our boots or the bathrooms,  it seemed like we always polishing, maintaining and recovering things. At the time, I didn’t fully understand and appreciate why there would be so much focus on Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services otherwise known in the Army as PMCS. The sergeants and officers in my unit were obsessive about this and we had these checks on the training schedule more days than not. And so my platoon did Physical Training (PT), inspections and equipment maintenance nearly every day. Why did we do this? To be in the best, most high performing condition and ready for battle.

Now let’s think about how many cars you’ve owned in the last 25 years? How many oil changes, tire rotations and maintenance checks have they had?  How many 15 point inspections were done?  How much time and money have you spent to ensure that your vehicle was in good condition and ready for a road trip?

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One of the things that puzzles me about American society today is how much time and energy people put into the care of their motor vehicles and how much less effort and focus is put into maintaining their bodies.

Speaking of bodies. So far on this planet, how many human bodies have you had?

Last I checked, we only get issued one body at birth.

The good news is, unlike a car or machine, our bodies are self-healing and adaptable, we just need to give them the proper care and attention.

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I am excited to share with you a simple 3 point inspection plan to help get your body battle ready.

One of my favorite bands of the 1970’s is Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR) and this is how you can remember the three points:

  1. Connect

  2. Care

  3. Recover

First let’s talk about the importance of Connections.  What I miss most about being in the military is the camaraderie, bonds and cohesion. I always felt like I was part of a supportive team.  Someone always had my back.  The value and benefit to having a strong circle of good friends and family should not be overlooked in today’s virtual world.

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Positive support, help and encouragement from others is shown to increase our immune systems.   People with a positive network of friends and family that they can personally connect with have longer life expectancies.

Organizations like the American Legion, VFW, Toastmasters International, Rotary Club, and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) like the Military Veterans Network (MVN) at my company Charles Schwab help bring people together and promote common bonds.

 

The second point in the Inspection Plan is Care, specifically self-care.  We have all heard about the importance of eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated and getting enough physical exercise.  I’d like to highlight and focus on two other factors that have a huge impact on your health and wellbeing- Sleep and Stress.  The importance of a good night sleep cannot be overstated since stress and sleep are often inversely proportional.

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Quality sleep plays a vital role in the body’s ability to heal and repair itself and is necessary for the brain to rebalance by clearing out harmful toxins.

Recover is the third point in the plan and involves rebalancing and restoring your body, brain and mind each and every day.   I find this to be the most interesting area with the discovery and application of new science and technology.   Advances in neuroscience have fueled the emergence of new Brain Performance centers across the country.

Last year, I took part in a six month program for military veterans at a Vitanya Wellness center in Tempe, AZ where I experienced the benefits of reducing my stress, increasing my sleep and restoring my neural balance through a combination of brain health supplements and brain wave entrainment devices. By consistently taking care of myself and leveraging these new techniques and protocols, I found that my resilience, mental sharpness and memory improved in ways I had not thought possible.  For more information click here.

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Technology aside, there are many things you can do each day to help yourself to recover and rebalance including yoga, meditation and other restorative activities.

One of the things that perplexes me most about my fellow humans is their ability to learn and gain so much knowledge about what is good for their health and well being and then how rarely, if ever, they apply it!

It is my hope is that you will remember the importance of a daily PMCS- just like I did while I was in the Army.

Take care of the one body you were issued at birth because there is no plan B- there no spare one sitting in your garage.

Do your Preventative Maintenance Checks and Service and the daily 3 Point Inspection to have a battle ready body for as you travel in your journey of life you will encounter twists and turns and the inevitable steep hill.

Know that positive connections, proper self-care and recovery can give you the strength and resilience to power through the tough days and overcome whatever obstacles cross your path.

Connect, Care and Recover with spirit and zeal.

Take care of your amazing organic being and let it take you on the ride of your life!

 

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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The Day After Memorial Day Inspiration

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At my Toastmaster’s meeting this morning, I missed the opportunity to give an Inspiration after leading the group in the Pledge to the Flag.

Here’s my belated message to the In Ahwatukee Toastmasters club:

Message Text:

Yesterday was Memorial Day.

The Word of the day was Remember.

The Song of the day was Taps.

The Image of the day was a long line of wreaths decorating the gravesites.

The Flower of the day was the red Poppy, blowing in the fields.

The Emotion of the day was too powerful and immense for words.

Memorial Day represents one day of national awareness and reverence, honoring Americans who died defending our nation and its values.

Yesterday day was Memorial Day.

This day of remembrance is always an emotional one as I visit national or local cemeteries for the annual services and tributes. This year the tears flowed stronger than usual as I listened to the heart-wrenching story of a Gold Star Mom who kept the memory of her son Christopher alive with a moving tribute of love and inspiration.  Tina’s son was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2004 and she shared many joyous memories and touching impacts of his short life.  He and all the others who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country will not be forgotten.

Yesterday was Memorial Day and it was a powerful and moving day for me to remember.

Yesterday was a time to pause, reflect and pay our respect to our nations’ many heroes who have shown us that Freedom is Never Free.

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Photo by Steve Smull

 

 

Calm, Steady and Flying Strong

I cautiously boarded a Southwest Airlines flight from Austin to Phoenix last Thursday, two days after the horrific engine failure that took the life of Jennifer Riordan, a bank executive and mother of two.   I quickly found myself a window seat like a normally do but this one was the second row, much closer to the front of the plane than I usually get.  I guess more people were choosing aisle seats that week.

The story of the dramatic emergency landing by Navy veteran Tammi Jo Shults captured my attention and made me reflect on what it means to be a hero. 

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A gift from Angie. Photo by Steve.

The news of the tragic event hit home for me since I have been flying on Southwest in window seats overlooking the engine numerous times this year.   The details of how the plane was forced to make a harrowing and rapid descent after one of the engines exploded in midair was chilling to say the least.

Hero is a word that gets used a lot in the news today and is often associated with masculine acts of strength and bravery.   Stereotypes and Google images bring up muscled men with capes.

Stereotypes Shattered in desert wars and at 30,000 feet

My experience and observations on the battlefield during the first Persian Gulf war were that the women Army officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) I served with in the US Amy were rocks-  strong and solid leaders who were calm under pressure and seemingly less agitated than their male counterparts.

Last week, I was most impressed by the calm and collected voice of Southwest Captain Tammi Jo in comparison to the stressed and strained vocals of the man communicating with her from Air Traffic Control.  The former F-18 fighter pilot was composed, steady and in control of the situation.  Her skill, professionalism and “nerves of steel” were recorded for everyone to hear and I loved it!

And then there was Peggy Phillips, the confidence and self-assured Registered Nurse who performed over 20 minutes of CPR on the battered and severely injured Jennifer Riordan.  There was no question, no hesitation- Peggy just launched into action doing what she was trained to do.

When praised and called heroes these woman replied that they were “simply doing their jobs”. These women were doing what they were trained to do, performing at the high standard they set for themselves.

Yes, Tammi Jo and Peggy did their jobs that day with the strength and the skill of true professionals.   True heroines who were calm and steady and refreshingly humble.

Imagine a world without heroes.   I can’t because I know too many strong, capable women.  Women who are Mothers and above all else love, support and nurture their children. Women who make sacrifices to give their families the best that they can.

The Mothers I know may not be piloting a plane in an emergency landing but day in and day out they work their asses off and make a positive difference in their kid’s lives.  Just like my Mom did for me and my siblings.

Mothers are Heroes.  Women like my Mom, Virginia; my sister, Barbara; my niece, Heather; my sisters-in-law, Shanon and Katie and my dear friends Andrea and Marie.  They all have and continue to impress me.

They are the unsung heroines of the never-ending drama and psychological thriller we know as life.

These heroes may not wear capes but I can visualize a large “S” across each of their chests.    They are more than Super, they are Supreme.

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Mother and child I photographed at a Me Rah Ko “The Photo Mom” seminar in Bastrop, TX

The Super Hero Mothers I know and had the great honor of being raised by may not have piloted an F-18 or a Boeing 737 but they are masterfully navigating, guiding and steering their families under enormous amounts of stress, pressure and sometimes chaos.

It is these women that I deeply respect.  It is to these heroes that I salute.

I thank Tammi Jo Shults and Peggy Phillips for their skills and bravery last week on Southwest flight 1380 for they have rekindled in me the passion and motivation to appreciate and recognize all the calm, steady and strong heroes in our midst.

Thanks Mom!