The Education of Corporal Gunderson
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.
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
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.
After the parades for the "Gulf War heroes," they decided they needed to reduce the forces. So it was back to treating us like crap. They wanted to kick us out instead of giving us honorable discharges because they did not want to pay us the benefits. I worked a month straight without a day off, and when I got back, their mentality was I should be in formation and have inspections all the time, every day. One day, they pulled a piece of string off my uniform and called me a piece of garbage and said I shouldn't be paid. Hold on a second: I just risked my life, and now I'm a piece of garbage? All that piddly crap meant nothing to me. I did enough to get out with an honorable discharge and get money for college. But a lot of guys got caught up in the system and were kicked out or busted—guys who you'd want to have next to you in a war. The guys who actually think. Unfortunately it doesn't work out that way when you're not at war.
The Gulf War didn't last long, but there were a lot of effects to it. I read that the D.C. sniper was a Gulf War vet. Timothy McVeigh was a Gulf War veteran. No one is talking about the psychological aspects of war. You may not fire a shot, you may be on a ship for the entire war, but no one knows how you'll react after having been under that pressure. Some guys snapped. We're creating more of these situations because the military doesn't take care of them when they get back. We're creating not only more international terrorists but also more domestic terrorists.
I went to school. I took international relations and world-development classes. Before the Gulf, I had spent a year in Japan. I got a degree in Asian studies at the University of Hawaii. I wanted to look at how the world developed. I wanted to look at why I got sent there. The more I look at it, the more it comes down to basic money—defense contracts, oil, resources. It does not come down to human rights. If it did, we would have tackled several other places. It's a farce. It'd be nice if we went into it for human rights, for spreading democracy, for letting people rule themselves, but that's not how it is.
I just signed an online petition for veterans opposed to the new Iraq war. When I'm protesting, I'm expressing the feelings of a lot of people in the service. I think what gets confused with anti-war protests and those who say "support our troops" is they're thinking back to Vietnam when they called our troops baby killers. Today it's a different scenario. I'm out here protesting because I don't want guys killed. I don't want guys exposed to depleted uranium. I just got a notice from Veterans Affairs saying I might have been exposed in the Gulf. All of us guys on the Highway of Death could have been exposed to chemical weapons or have side effects from the experimental drugs they had us take because of the chemical weapons. We were guinea pigs. Gulf War vets are more susceptible to Parkinson's disease and cancer. I'm not sick, and my kid's healthy and fine, but it just pisses me off the way they treat people.
I just heard this lady Marine who's against the war say that once the war starts, we should stop protesting and support our troops by sending them packages. I think we should support our troops by sending them books by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. I craved that kind of stuff while I was in the Gulf.
Now I'm a substitute teacher for the LA Unified School District. I've been working there for about two years. I have to fight to get books that are 12 years old, and I still cannot get enough. And yet we'll spend billions of dollars on a missile. It's like the Gulf War never ends because of the stupidity of what we do. We have so much power and money. There is so much we could do that's positive in the world. Instead, corporations have such a stranglehold on us that we spout out nothing but negative stuff. We go to war, go to war, go to war, and hopefully things will be all right, but it's not.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.