Posts Tagged ‘Khobar Towers’

This is the day we remember and thank our veterans, for reasons too numerous to count.  Let’s also take a moment to thank their wives, husbands, children and the rest of their family members.  Some of my own memories will illustrate why:

Back in the summer and fall of 1969 and into January of 1970, I was pregnant while my husband, Jack, was overseas in Thailand during the Viet Nam war.   The Viet Nam war was the first one beamed to us via television, and my in-laws, with whom I was living at the time, and I were riveted.  Somehow we managed not to voice our fears to each other, but night after night I watched the images of the fighting and listened to the news reports – one endless reel of videotape, it seemed at the time – and wondered if my baby would have a father.   I was just 20 years old at the time, and only had about 18 months of work done toward a college degree; I tried to envision a future of telling my baby about a father who was gone, but the images never became real.  My mind wouldn’t go there.   So I lived with a kind of low-lying, every-present daily tension.  It was wrapped around unanswered questions, the wait for the mail, the very rare phone call from one of Jack’s buddies who had made it home before him and was calling to see if we were O.K.   We had until June to go; we marked off the days on a calendar, something thousands of other families did, too. We celebrated Christmas by sending care packages overseas, unsure if anything would make it.

Then one day in late January, it was time to go to the hospital – the baby was coming.  We went to the nearest military hospital about 15 miles away in Oakland, Calif.    My mother-in-law, Marge Hubbell, sat with me and bore my fright with her calming presence.  There was a new doctor in the delivery room I’d never met before; my regular doctor wasn’t on shift that day.  The military makes decisions, you adjust.

And then, at last, we were able to greet Miss Diana Lyn Hubbell and say, “Welcome to the world!’  The joy was overwhelming, and I remember being up all night in a kind of euphoria, calling friends all over the country.  But perhaps the most touching moment of all came the next day when, though a combination of kind telephone operators and generous ham radio operators, we managed to get a call all the way across the ocean and to the far northeastern corner of Thailand.  I had to shout, and each operator – I think there were five altogether – had to relay the message to the next operator, until Jack finally got the news that we had a healthy little girl who now had my middle name, as we’d discussed.  The relays back and forth across the ocean took a long time and a lot of shouting, but finally there was one last shout of “I love you!” and the call ended.

And then I heard it – the sound of applause throughout the entire maternity ward.  Military wives were clapping and cheering in support for us; they just clapped and cheered, on and on, for long, warm, sustained minutes.  The show of  support went through to my bones.

– – – – – – –

Fast forward many years later.  Jack and I went on to have a son, John, and later divorced; John was now in the Air Force himself, a 23-year-old developing great leadership skills.  The year was 1996, and I was running my public relations firm in Missoula, Montana, with a staff of four employees.  I don’t remember the day of the week, but I remember the phone call.  It was about 4 p.m. on a summer afternoon, and one of the employees had left work early to run some errands;  he was the one who called.  “Kathy, I don’t know – have you heard the news?  I don’t know if I should tell you this.”

“Well, then, just tell me,” I said.

“A bomb has gone off at an Air Force base in Saudi Arabia.”

“Which one?” I asked.  “There are two.”


“That’s where John is.”

I don’t remember what I said after that.  It must have been something, because I remember hanging up the phone and turning to face the rest of my staff.  But I almost couldn’t talk.  Somehow it was determined that friends in a business across the hall would drive me home; once there, other friends came to sit with me and wait.

I didn’t want to turn on the TV, because I didn’t want those images burned into my brain if they were the last images to be associated with my son.  The bombing was at Khobar Towers, the residential complex for the base.  In my heart, I had two gut-level reactions: the first was “John isn’t dead.”  The second was, “Those kids are so well trained; they’ll get through it.”

Mel and Kathy, the friends who waited with me, kept a low-level conversation going.  I called John’s “first shirt” at his home Air Force base in Utah, but was told they didn’t have much information yet; in fact, he said, CNN would have news about as soon as they would.  Still, I didn’t want to see the images.

So we waited.  Some hours later – not more than three or four, I think – the phone rang and I grabbed it.  “Hi, Mom,” was all John could get out, because I was crying so hard at the sound of his voice.  “Oh, I guess you heard the news,” he finally said.  It turned out that he’d missed the bombing by about five minutes; he’d been driving a truck across the base directly to the towers when the bomb went off.  His job at that moment was to relieve another airman from duty and take him in for more training.  The airman John was to relive was stationed as a lookout on top of Khobar Towers, and had sounded the alarm when he saw something suspicious below.  He survived, too.

John saw and heard the blast, and called in for permission to enter the building and help since the ambulances weren’t there yet.  That’s what he spent the next 18 hours doing; going into that building over and over again, for rescue and recovery operations too difficult – too graphic and too gruesome – to write about here in any detail.  When he and his fellow airmen were finally ordered to stand down because of the building’s instability, John could still hear people screaming inside; all of them could hear the screams, until they finally faded away.

In the next hours, days and weeks, I became glued to CNN – dependent upon CNN – scared to death to watch CNN.  I worried about another bomb.  I worried about post-traumatic stress, something John’s father had gone through for a very long time after returning from Thailand.  I worried about all kinds of attacks for all kinds of reasons.  The image of Khobar Towers, the entire front of the building ripped off, embedded itself in my mind.

Six weeks later, with no further attacks, John returned to his home  base in Utah, and came up to Montana for a visit.  We went up to Glacier National Park, a trip that I’d been planning those six weeks — feeling that all I could do was be sure that John had images of beauty to somehow seep into his soul and soften the edges of the terror.  We took an 11-mile hike from the top of Logan Pass along the Highline Trail,  then over a pass filled with beautiful meadows, to a back country chalet.  From there it was four steep miles downhill back to the “Loop” in Going to the Sun Road, and a hitch back up to the top of the pass to retrieve the car.

I don’t know how much that trip might have helped John; I just know that he was able to talk to the lovely young woman, Angela, who has long since become his wife, and to his sister, and perhaps a little, to me.  A long time later he told me the nightmares had stopped after about a year; he felt lucky for that.

Me?  As with many – perhaps most? –  military wives and mothers in those days, I didn’t know anyone else to talk to who was going through what I was going through – not with Diana’s birth,except for those lovely brief hours in the hospital;  not with the stress that invaded Jack in Thailand, not with John’s narrow escape and descent into hell in Saudi Arabia.  You were expected to cope on your own.  I did, and yet I didn’t: I had my in-laws, and I had the amazing women in that maternity ward, who all understood; I had my good friends Mel and Kathy.  But I didn’t know anyone else who had gone through quite what I’d gone through and understood the constant, daily levels of  fear and tension.

I wonder if those were the years when I developed my habit of working long into the night so that when I went to bed, I would pass out – I wouldn’t have to think.  I wonder how many other wives and mothers now find themselves silently coping in similar ways.

If you know a family with a loved one in the military, remember to thank them, too.  Better yet, reach out with a phone call or a card.

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A friend and I spent a long time talking this weekend, as we took a quick and welcomed overnight run up to Glacier National Park – our annual September trek.  Neither of us wanted to watch the 9/11 remembrances today; we even avoided going to the church were we have been long-term members.  I tried to turn on TV to watch out of some sense of loyalty, and turned it off again.

It’s too heavy.  We remember too well.

For my part, it renews thoughts that perhaps we could have seen it coming.  Here’s a list of the attacks against the U.S. leading up to 9/11:  List of major Islamic attacks & plots against America

See the listings for 1996?  My son, John, was there at Khobar Towers.  He was driving across the base when the bomb went off, headed to the towers to relieve another airman from duty and take him for further training.  The other airman – who happened to be from Montana, close to where I lived at the time – ended up being the person who sounded the alarm when he looked down from his guard position on the rooftop and saw a truck that didn’t look right.

John got to the towers before any ambulance did, and he radioed his commanding officer requesting permission, which was granted, to enter the building to help.  He spent the next 18 hours helping to pull out bodies and body parts from the site.

I’d received a phone call at work about 4 p.m. that day that a bomb had gone off.  I went home to wait for word, not knowing if my son were dead or alive.  Friends came to wait with me.  I was one of the lucky ones: three or four hours later, the phone rang, and the minute I heard my son’s voice, I burst into tears.  He said, “I can tell you’ve heard the news.”

There were families who waited all night that night for word.

He came home about six weeks later, and we went up to Glacier, where we hiked from the top of Logan Pass, along the Highline Trail, 7.4  miles back over another pass to Granite Park Chalet, then 4 miles almost straight downhill through thick brush to the Loop in Going to the Sun Road.  My theory was that seeing so much stunning beauty might replace or at least co-exist with some of the terrible images now burned into my son’s mind.

I thought about that hike a lot as we got to the top of Logan Pass yesterday, and watched others start out along the Highline Trail.  The beginning of the trail is tough: it’s cut into such a sheer cliff face, and is so narrow, that the Park Service has bolted a garden hose with a chain running through it into the rock, so that you have something to hang on to as you walk that first half mile or so.  It seemed much longer than half a mile at the time, but perhaps it’s not.

That green hose with the chain in it became my security on the first part of that trail; it was just so scary.

You have to look ahead down the trail and prepare.  You have to do a little research.  You have to have the right shoes, carry water, be ready to make noise so that you don’t surprise grizzlies.  There had been several grizzly sightings along the trail in the days just prior to our visit; in fact, just below Granite Park Chalet we passed through an area that was the scene of a renown fatal grizzly attack back in the 1960s, memorialized in the book “The Night of the Grizzlies.”  (I didn’t tell John that part until later.)  I was singing along the trail in a loud voice when we rounded a bend in the brush and came upon a park ranger.  I apologized for sounding kind of strange – and he said “No, you’re doing exactly the right thing.”  You don’t hike silently at Glacier; you make noise.  It’s a safety measure, and if you plan ahead, you’ll be informed of that.

I’ve always wondered if, as a country, we were looking ahead before 9/11/01 – or just reacting.  I’ve wondered that about airport security ever since; we seem to put new measures in place based on past incidents, as if any terrorist would try the same thing twice.  I’m not sure that – even today – we are anticipating very well.  I don’t have inside information, so I could certainly be wrong; but somehow, I still wonder.

In any event, Khobar Towers was itself too heavy then, and is too heavy now.  My son lived; but he now lives with the memory of being told to stand down, that it was no longer safe to enter the building – and hearing the screams of those remaining until the screams faded and were no more.

Ten years ago today, I was helping others across the country to plan a protest against our government’s anthrax vaccine policy  – that of forcing U.S. service members to take this experimental, unproven, highly reactive vaccine against their wishes, when batches of it had already been found to be contaminated or aged or simply unsafe.  I’d traveled to Washington D.C. the year before to witness Congressional hearings, and met many of the young men and women whose health had been permanently ruined by the anthrax vaccine, and whose government did not want to reimburse them for the damages done.  I still run a web site for that issue today – a total of 11 years later, now.

I got up on the morning of 9/11/01 to a phone message that perhaps we should cancel our planned protest in light of what had happened at the Pentagon, and of course immediately went to the TV – and learned of all the events.  I saw the second plane hit the second tower.  I remember thinking, “This isn’t an accident – not twice.”

It’s too heavy.  I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when President Kennedy was shot; when Martin Luther King was shot; when Bobby Kennedy was shot.  I don’t know at exactly what point I began to wonder what country I was waking up in each morning.  Perhaps it was after I became aware of the Pentagon conducting medical experiments on our troops – something Congress acknowledged and wrote about clear back in 1994 with something called the Rockefeller Report.  Perhaps it was when I read “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” about the massacre at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s, as I tried to understand more about some projects I was working on with Native Americans on reservations in Montana.  I don’t know when I began wondering.

But I can’t stay there.  I have known for years that t would rob me of any last vestiges of sanity.

What do I do for our own future?  One of the things I do is I teach.  As I teach at the university level, I find I am developing a renewed faith in the generations coming up in our country.  They don’t understand everything yet; they simply haven’t lived through enough yet.  But I think there are many, many of them who are trying to figure out what they can do to make the world a better place.  One of the things my colleagues and I try to teach them is strategic thinking and planning; looking forward, scanning the environment, anticipating.

I hope they make it.  I work in the faith and the belief that they will.  I hope they don’t have to wake up wondering exactly what country they are living in, and having to fight through those dark, dark clouds of doubt.

My ancestors came over here in 1732.  They fought in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Mexican War, World War II, Viet Nam, and the second Gulf War.  There are probably more instances that I haven’t finished researching yet.  I can’t look at all they did and give up on this country.  I can’t look at all that my children and grandchildren and I have been given in this life and say this country isn’t worth it.  It is.

But we do need to re-ignite the dream; we do need to be better at anticipating; we do need to cherish each other and drop the anger.  When I saw hikers on the Highline Trail yesterday, I could only hope that the stunning beauty of Glacier National Park was healing for them as well.



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