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Army Reserve unit from Pa. bore brunt of Iraqi strike in first Gulf War

By MICHAEL A. FUOCO | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 25, 2016

Twenty-five years ago today, during the waning days of Operation Desert Storm, an Iraqi Scud missile slammed into makeshift Army barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 29 soldiers and wounding 99.

Hardest hit was the 14th Quartermaster Detachment, an Army Reserve unit from Hempfield. Thirteeen soldiers were killed and another 43 were wounded. The deadly attack resulted in the greatest number of casualties during the first Gulf War. The water purification unit had been “in country” for all of six days.

The dead and wounded will be honored at a ceremony at noon today at the reserve center, where a memorial commemorates their sacrifice. Among those who will be in attendance are three people whose lives are inseparable from the tragedy.

Sgt. Mary A. Rhoads was leaving the barracks to get something to eat when Spc. Beverly S. Clark shouted a Trivial Pursuit question at her. Spc. Clark, who was playing the board game with five other reservists, teased Sgt. Rhoads when she gave the wrong answer.

Sgt. Rhoads, then 34 and a meter maid in California, Pa., laughed, too. She had purchased the game and was happy those she looked after like a mother hen were enjoying themselves. She was particularly close to Spc. Clark, 23, of Armagh, Indiana County, who had transferred to the detachment from another reserve unit.

Sgt. Rhoads and several other soldiers she was traveling with were several miles from the compound when they heard the explosion. They rushed to the scene. Sgt. Rhoads ran to the back of the building but wrenched her knee on a twisted girder and was pulled from the building by other soldiers.

Outside, lined in a row, were the dead, including all of those who had been playing Trivial Pursuit. She hugged Spc. Clark’s body, wailing, as flames burned.

Since then, Ms. Rhoads, now 59, has endured serious health problems, including Gulf War Syndrome, and said she has “survivor’s guilt. You can’t bury that. It will never go away. I just live with it every day. It’s hard to talk about. I just feel guilty.”

She recalled that two nights before the attack, she was on guard duty with Spc. Clark on top of the barracks. A mist was forming in the desert. “Look,” Spc. Clark said. “The angel of death.”

For Spc. Kelli George of Finleyville — at 22 the “baby” of the detachment — guard duty was a godsend. If she hadn’t been tired from guard duty that day, she likely would have been playing Trivial Pursuit with her fellow reservists. Instead, she was lying on her cot nearby, listening to music on a Walkman. The next thing she remembers is coming to in hell.

“I had been lifted 10 feet or so beyond where I had been in my cot. It felt like I had been cracked on the back of the head or something. I was sort of dizzy,” Ms. George, now 47, recalled. “Ammo was catching fire. There was screaming. I saw things that evening I wish I could erase. It was complete chaos, a lot of confusion. Getting out of there seemed like it took forever.”

She had shrapnel wounds, her ankle was fractured and her eardrum was perforated. “Most people weren’t so lucky,” she said. “I literally was 10 feet from where my friends were [playing Trivial Pursuit] and they all died. It’s really strange that I was spared.”

Since then, she got married and the couple had a daughter. But a dozen years ago, her husband died and she had to move back in with her parents. The couple’s daughter, Brooke, 20, is a sophomore at California University of Pennsylvania.

Ms. George, who was 30 percent disabled by the attack, worked for a time at Washington County Children & Youth Services and is two credits short of a psychology degree at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it,” she said of the attack, which caused her PTSD. She had counseling but then “I sort of dealt with it and tried to go on with my life. Maybe I didn’t go about it in the best ways. I self-medicated and did other things I shouldn’t have done when young.

“I think there is a lot more awareness of [PTSD] now. It’s a terrible thing to try to deal with yourself, to keep it all in and try to maintain some sense of normalcy. There were times I should have talked about things to people.”

Norman Madison, 78, of Monessen, attends ceremonies at the memorial every year. His son, Spc. Anthony E. Madison , 27, was one of the 13 members of the detachment who perished.

“I enjoy being around the families of others who passed with him. It helps me a lot when we tell each other our problems. I look at his picture and I cry but it subsides and I go on my about my daily business. It’s something that stays on your mind constantly — especially when your house is full of [memories].”

Even before the detachment’s deployment, Mr. Madison had dreams that tragedy would befall his son, a former high school football player and boxer who had served three years in the regular Army. “I knew he wasn’t going to come back. I dreamed of it almost every night over a month.”

Mr. Madison told his son of his fears just before the unit shipped out. Spc. Madison shook it off. “No, daddy, I’ll be all right. I won’t be in harm’s way. I’ll be back.”

“He was a good kid,” Mr. Madison says sadly. But gladly he says the same about his son’s son, Anthony Madison Jr., 30. An Army staff sergeant, he has served two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and is preparing to ship out to Japan. He was 5 years old and his sister Tacarra was 3 when their father was killed.

As for his grandson’s safety, Mr. Madison said, that same fear he felt 25 years ago remains … but is different. “I worry about him really bad,” he said, “but I never dreamed about him. That’s the good part.”

mfuoco@post-gazette.com

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