The Education of Corporal Gunderson

I joined the Marines to get a good education, and all I got was a crummy Gulf War

Photo by James BunoanI'm originally from Las Vegas. I now live in Long Beach. I was honorably discharged from the Marines as a corporal. I was deployed to the Persian Gulf out of Camp Pendleton the week after Thanksgiving in 1990. It took about 40 days to sail there. We stopped off in Hawaii, then sailed over to the Philippines, where we stayed about five days. We were hiking around the base when we walked into a village. It was the first time I was exposed to that kind of poverty. These people were dirt-poor. People were living in cardboard shacks with dirt floors. Kids were dirty and in rags. These three small kids—I'd say they were five to eight years old—came right up to me and asked if I had candy or anything they could have. I threw them a cracker and a cookie, and they scrambled after them. I could not believe they were fighting over something I did not even care about, a crappy piece of cracker and a tasteless cookie. I was really overwhelmed to see this right outside a base with billions of dollars' worth of ships and equipment. It really got me thinking about what we were doing there.

When we left the Philippines for the Gulf, tensions were high. Everyone was kind of counting down to the day we'd attack. A lot of us were thinking we might not be coming back. My job was combat engineer. We cleared minefields. On my ship, the USS Tarawa, the rumor when we left was 80 percent of the people on the ship were supposed to die. Me for sure because we were the ones who go in before anyone else; we go in before the war starts. We were the ones who'd get picked off by snipers or blown up by mines.

I got to the Gulf in the beginning of January. I remember the day the air war started (Jan. 17, 1991). I was standing on the flagship of our fleet. We tried to listen to the BBC to find out what was going on, but they did not let us listen to anything. They kept us in the dark. So I did a lot of reading. Books were passed around. I started reading conspiracy books because that's all there was. I wanted to know about how the world worked. I can't remember the exact book titles, but they were about the government and corporations, like one about how light bulbs are made to wear out by a certain time so people are forced to consume more. We would talk about stuff like that a lot. After that, I didn't trust anything.

Two of our ships were hit with water mines. That was discouraging. A bunch of people from those ships were packed onto the Tarawa. We were squeezed in like sardines. Life was not very nice at the time. We were dropping people off in Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia, just for a night, and they let us off to make phone calls at the phone center. That was the base for all the ammo, so Saddam Hussein was throwing Scuds that way. He was not just shooting blindly; he knew our ammo was there, stacked up three or four pallets high. A half-hour after we got back to the ship, a Scud came right for it. There was this drill where they'd lock us Marines into the berthing area while the Navy personnel on deck counted down over the loudspeaker until a bomb hit. So now they were telling us a Scud was definitely coming, that this was not a drill, and they started counting down: 10, nine, eight . . . They got all the way down to three and then there was complete silence for, like, a minute. We were supposed to be dead. Finally, someone on the loudspeaker said the Scud had been shot down. People who had not made it on the ship yet—they had dove into all these bunkers right by the phone center—told us when they got onboard that they saw the explosion and that one of our Patriots had hit the Scud. It landed in the water right in front of the ship. People stationed there said it happened all the time, but that was our realization we were really at war.

When the ground war started [on Feb. 17], our job going in there was to attack the beach in Kuwait. When we landed, they gave us a clip with 10 rounds of ammo. What a joke. I was in the LA riots a year later, protecting a GM dealership in South-Central, and we got double that number of clips. That really struck me. When we attacked the beach, it was highly fortified. Since we were supposedly going to be clearing the minefields, I wanted to know what we were up against, what kind of mines we should be looking for; they wouldn't even give us that. Somehow, we got it through the sergeant I was with—it was siphoned down through intelligence that were stamped top secret—that some of the mines the Iraqis had planted there were American mines. And I thought, "Jesus, what's all this about? What are we fighting ourselves for?" I thought we were fighting guys using all Russian stuff. I just couldn't believe what we were doing. This was stupid.

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