The Education of Corporal Gunderson

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

Then it turns out we were just a diversion force. They never told us that. It would have been nice to know. So we were the backup troops for the troops that went into Kuwait. My unit took over the camp of the guys who did go in, and we stayed there. We sat there for two days doing nothing. By the time we finally left, the rumor was that a general for the Marines on the ship was arguing with a general on land about what each side was going to do. That's pretty much the way things run. It's about who's going to get more medals.

One day, we were dropped off on helios [helicopters] in the middle of the desert, and we did not even know where we were. We wandered around until we found an infantry platoon. We followed them around for two days; then we met up at their rally point. We just stayed there, and when we finally contacted everyone else on the ship, we found out a large part of the battle was on the beach, and we were way out in the desert. So we came back to the beach. A friend of mine, Leon, they had me go with him. I was navigating the Humvee, driving people back and forth to the beach, and we'd just dropped off one load and were headed back. It was getting dark, and our lights were off. The infantry was nearby practicing firing because we could see the red tracer rounds all around us. We had to throw on the lights so they wouldn't hit us with their practice rounds. They didn't bother telling anyone; they were just shooting. That was my second brush with death, and I thought, "This is so stupid. We're going to kill ourselves."

Salute: Gunderson with the USS Tarawa
behind him

We drove into the areas outside Kuwait on the third or fourth day of the ground war. By the fifth day, it was over. We drove on the Highway of Death. It was a five-hour drive, like LA to Vegas. It was the only paved road. And when you got on it, everything was blown up everywhere. It just reminded me of Mad Max. So we stopped a couple of times. We were walking toward some bunkers in the distance, and we saw these two black lumps in the sand. When we got up next to them, we could see they were two Iraqi corpses blown to pieces. It was just a strange day. All around us, all these oil wells were burning. There were rotting bodies, but you didn't smell them because the oil just kind of blocked out any other smell. It was a blackish-burnt smell. Everyone gathered around where these two people had been, and there was this hairy feeling. The fog coming in just happened to cover the sky at that moment. It turned day into night. The sun went from yellow to dark orange. It was surreal. The sky was black; there were dead, charred pieces of bodies lying around; all kinds of vehicles and equipment were blown apart—it looked like the end of the world.

We sat in a camp in Saudi Arabia for two weeks. One of the lousy jobs I had was washing down equipment exposed to chemical and biological agents. They'd meter us and determine what amount of radiation we could take. The types of agents we were told about—a needle points to that stuff—it makes the whole body turn to blisters. These are the disgusting things we have and have sold, and now people are using them against us.

One thing about it is there were a lot of things they don't show on the news. They only show the guys who want to be there. They show all this high-tech equipment. Well, our equipment was old, obsolete equipment. We wore the same green uniforms that we always wore. We didn't have desert camouflage uniforms. We got those two months after the war was over. And the only way we got it was they were loading vehicles into a ship. That night, a guy ran up to camp and told us the big supply boxes were out. We started rummaging through and ran off with a handful of clothes. That was the only way my squad got desert camis. Basically, that's how it goes: you take what you need for survival; you don't ask.

We were gone a total of seven months. We came back to San Diego in mid-July 1991. I'd run into these new guys, and a few were gung-ho and said they wanted to go to Somalia. I tried to tell them what happened to me, how miserable it was, how stupid my jobs were, how I risked my life for nothing, really. These guys wrote me back while they were out there and said, "This is exactly like you said. This sucks." You're not movie stars. You're not some Rambo. It's not like that. By the time you go to war, morale has gotten lower and lower, and you don't care if you kill somebody or not.

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