View Full Version : ‘It Sucks Being on the Sidelines’

04-05-03, 05:47 PM
Gulf War I vets watch the current war in Iraq with a mix of guilt, relief and frustration

By Seth Mnookin

April 5 — Patrolman Jose Soto humps the overnight beat in the Bronx. A stocky guy with a dusting of razor burn on his bald head, Soto is soft-spoken and deliberate. He calls men he’s just met “Sir.”

A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, he was on vacation in North Carolina. In the airport, Soto ran into a group of Marines fresh out of Camp Lejeune. “I was just hit with a chill, all these guys, 18 and 19,” Soto says, gently rocking from side to side in the hallway of the 52nd Precinct’s station house. “Just this sense of deja vu. That was me. I grabbed them, and we got in a little prayer circle, bowed our heads. And I just said I hope they all stay safe.”
As American and British forces push into Baghdad, the entire country is riding a roller coaster of real-time broadcasts from Iraq. Veterans of the first Persian Gulf War are watching the news with their own unique range of emotions. Some find themselves obsessively glued to cable news deep into the night. Others can’t watch and get physically ill at the sight of desert combat. Many feel guilty they’re not fighting this battle, guilty that they weren’t allowed to finish off Saddam Hussein a dozen years ago; many more worry that their counterparts this time around don’t have the manpower and might in place to do the job. Finally, a surprising number of vets are talking out publicly against this conflict, questioning both the war’s rationale and whether American troops are adequately prepared for chemical or biological attacks. The Missouri-based Gulf War Veterans Association, a group formed to publicize gulf war syndrome, is even taking a vocal stand opposing the current conflict.
In the Bronx, it’s coming up on midnight, and Soto, a veteran of the Army’s 82d Airborne Division, is talking with Eric Figueroa, a wiry and intense foil to Soto’s even demeanor. Figueroa’s also a cop in the Bronx, and he’s another 82d vet from the gulf war. “We’re finally back there,” Soto says, talking about Iraq. “And I think we should have been back there a lot earlier.”
“It’s definitely time we finished the job,” Figueroa says quickly. When the order to retreat came through, the 82d was about 150 miles south of Baghdad, among the most forward of allied troops. Figueroa and Soto, who were fighting alongside—and trading berets with—French soldiers, thought there was a chance they’d push on through to the Iraqi capital.

“It’s real hard to watch from the sidelines,” says Anthony Swofford, the author of the acclaimed gulf war memoir “Jarhead.” “Hell, if we’d gone on these poor guys wouldn’t be dying right now. We had a bigger force, and an already devastated opponent.”
At the American Legion Hall in Levittown, N.Y., Kurt Miller and Mike Kilbride, former Marines both, talk about why they weren’t allowed to topple Saddam. “The rules of engagement are always politically dictated,” Kilbride says, his eyes glued to the TV showing CNN behind the bar. “And our rules were we there to liberate Kuwait. Period,” Miller says. More to himself, Kilbride murmurs, “It sucks being on the sidelines,” he says, echoing Swofford and drinking from his Diet Coke.
A question floats across the bottom of the TV screen: WILL THE IRAQIS FIGHT AGAINST SADDAM? “No, they will not rise up,” Kilbride says. “They don’t know whether we’ll help them out. This time, we need to do it alone. “It’s going to be a lot harder than it was when we were there.”

Several hundred miles to the south, in North Carolina, Douglas Waddell isn’t sure he even knows why he was in the gulf a dozen years ago. Waddell suffers from a range of illnesses he attributes to gulf war syndrome. “Watching the bombs make me kind of lose it,” he says. “I have post-traumatic stress.” Waddell feels the American political establishment set itself up for the current conflict. “It’s like an operation for cancer,” he says of the first gulf war. “We took out part of the leg but left the cancer there. Of course we’re back. But I think it’s about oil. If we really wanted to get Saddam, we would have done it the last time.”
Waddell is one of a growing number of vets who say American troops could be decimated by a biological or chemical attack. “Our gas masks didn’t work, our training was for s—t,” he says. “It’s no different now.”
Back in the Bronx, Eric Figueroa is preparing to head back out on patrol. As part of the countywide task force, he jumps from hot spot to hot spot, as it were, going from knife fights to drug deals gone awry. He’s been working 12-hour days, from 6 at night to 6 in the morning. One of his responsibilities is to help with security at the antiwar protests that are bubbling up around the city. “They seem ignorant to me,” he says. “But that’s part of what America is.
“I’m watching the TV religiously. And it upsets me. I feel like I’m sitting here not doing my part.” Figueroa and Soto are both in the Reserves and know the likelihood they’ll get called up increases with each day of battle.
Figueroa and Soto are good soldiers. They salute and don’t question orders. But as the night drags on, they show hints of their frustration. “Why do it the first time if we’re not gonna do it right?” Figueroa asks. “It’s like, you do a project in your house and you’re cheap about it. It’s gonna fall apart. And then you’re going to need to go in and do it right.”


Vets Kurt Miller (left) and Mike Kilbride at the American Legion Post in Levittown, N.Y.



04-06-03, 09:24 PM
I can say from first hand experience, being on the side lines Royally Svcks. I have also wondered, as I've posted before, why we were not allowed to do our jobs the first time. Semper Somber Dave

04-22-03, 07:57 PM
just wasnt our time to go to baghdad. im just glad its mostly over. im a little less anxious now.

04-22-03, 08:00 PM
Not my fault I never got a set to the big sand box in the middle east. I was ready to go, but never got called. I guess it's like the guy who rides the bench as an NFL player on a Super Bowl Champion team. I still got my ring!!!!