Today is 11 November, a day when many countries around the world honour the members of their armed forces. The date recalls the end of hostilities of World War I in 1918. In Commonwealth countries, the date is known as Remembrance Day. In the US, Veterans Day is an official federal holiday.
In many countries in which INSP works, veterans make up a significant proportion of individuals experiencing homelessness. Today, to mark Veterans Day and Remembrance Day, we speak to The Contributor vendor and veteran Brianna C.
Below her interview, Brianna also writes for us about her experiences in Kuwait in the early 90s.
Interview by Skip Anderson, The Contributor editor
What would you like to talk about today?
11 November is coming up. That’s Veterans Day. I served in Operation Desert Storm [in the Gulf War in 1990-91]. I’ve been homeless several times in my life. The first time was when I was 16 years old. I didn’t have a tent or anything, so I built myself a lean-to. I did that for about eight months. Then I met a family who let me stay with them. I stayed there about six months until I got arrested for somebody else’s crime. Someone had snatched a purse at Harding Mall. But I didn’t do it. I’m not a thief. The judge gave me the choice of getting locked up or going into the military. So I joined the Army in 1976.
Did you like being in the Army?
Yes. I loved it. It taught me how to survive and it taught me a new job. My first stint, I was 11 Bravo Infantry stationed in Berlin, Germany. I loved it. The people are nice. I’d like to go back, especially since the Wall came down. I was on the West side. I got a short tour of East Berlin when I was over there—there were still buildings that had been shot up from World War II. They hadn’t done many repairs yet.
Did you do a second stint in the Army?
Yes. The second time I was in the National Guard for eight years. I volunteered to go to Desert Storm—I was around 34 at the time. I got to Saudi Arabia in July 1991 when the military operations had been going on for about a year. A bunch of us had volunteered to go over to the war, so they sent a group of us to replace 107 Maintenance Unit out of Wisconsin. We became what they called the ‘combat car wash.’ We cleaned military vehicles before they stored them. They had us working 20 hours per day and only let us sleep for four hours. It was that way every day for the three months I was there.
What happened after three months?
They flew us from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait. The airport was severely damaged—they only had one runway working. I saw the damage the Iraqis did to Kuwait’s infrastructure. The Kuwaiti government gave us a book with photos from torture sessions the Iraqis did with Kuwaiti citizens—they did terrible things.
How long were you in Kuwait?
About eight months. I was one of the last to leave Kuwait. Then I came back here and got out of the National Guard. I had been promoted to sergeant while I was over there, but I didn’t like it. I had wanted to get away from the people who were in that unit who had treated me badly.
In what way did they treat you badly?
Nobody would be my friend because I’m different than they are. I had been in the regular army and they had not, and that was a problem for some of them. So I resigned my commission in 1993 and took an honourable discharge.
Thank you for your service.
You’re welcome. I’d do it again if I had to. But I’m 100 percent disabled [receiving 100% disability compensation from the US Department of Veterans Affairs for a service-connected disability]. I had been fighting for years trying to get disability and finally got it in 2007. At first, I was determined to be 30 percent disabled. Then eventually they jumped me up to 100 percent.
Does the VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] take good care of you?
Yes. They’ve taken real good care of me once I got 100 percent disabled. Before then, I had problems with them.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about today?
I can’t think of anything else, except that when I came back I stayed with my family for a little bit. And I ended up homeless for a second time about three months after I got back. My dad and I didn’t get along. I left on my own accord because he was charging me rent to live there, which I didn’t think was right since I was his child returning from the theatrer of war. He let his other children stay there rent-free. My dad is a Vietnam veteran, and he took his post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) out on me. He told me I wasn’t the same person I was before I left. He would beat me and lock me up in my room. He never admitted to having PTSD and still hasn’t to this day.
When was the last time you spoke with your father?
When I came back from the Gulf War, he would always stay in his room watching TV. The only time he would talk to me was when he wanted the rent money.
I’m sorry about that.
It’s OK. I’m over it now. I think all of those years getting beaten by him made me a stronger person.
Is he still around?
Yes. He’s still alive. But I won’t speak with him again; I won’t have anything to do with him, even though he’s the only parent I have. My mother committed suicide when I was 10 years old.
I’m so sorry. Are you currently homeless?
No. I’ve been in housing for about three months after living on the street in Nashville for about two years.
I’m glad about that.
Me too. I’m in Hermitage. I’ve talked to some of the people who buy papers from me out there, and they’re behind us. They don’t like the law [Metro Councilman Steve Glover] has proposed to outlaw selling papers to cars from the curb. That would kill my income as well as the social aspect of talking to my customers during the transaction. I don’t have many friends and those exchanges mean a lot. They put a smile on my face.
INSP publishes an international vendor story every week. Come back next Wednesday to read another story from one of the thousands of inspirational men and women who sell street papers.
SCUD Missiles and Death Valley: my experience in the Gulf War
By Brianna C.
I arrived at Dhahran Air Force Base in Saudi Arabia on 6 June, 1991, as part of a replacement team for 107th Maintenance crew out of Wisconsin. We got desert uniforms, hats, and boots. We were taught to always watch rooftops for snipers, and to keep an eye on vehicles driven near the base’s perimeter—you never know if or when one might blow up.
The area was defined mostly by warehouses. Our sleeping arrangement was in Quonset huts, but in the three months I was on that base, I sure didn’t spend much time in there. Our jobs primarily were washing equipment—we became the ‘combat car wash’. We started out working eight hours and were off eight hours. We washed all the equipment that was being loaded on the navy ships.
The water we used was mixed with diesel fuel. Three weeks into my deployment, I dislocated my left thumb. The medical facility told me there weren’t any X-ray machines on site, and gave me a sling, some pain pills, and light duty for a few weeks. My thumb on my left never healed properly, and I continue to have difficulty grabbing and holding things.
There were 125 oil-well fires around, and they are putting out a lot of smoke. Usually, by 2 p.m., it looked like darkness had come upon us, and every other day chemical alarms sound.
Inbound scud missiles flew overhead from time to time, sometimes hitting the base. By the end of September, we were asked to volunteer in Kuwait and if any of us wanted to be active duty. I went to Kuwait but didn’t take active duty. I had a son to raise.
When we got to Kuwait, we moved into the warehouses where we slept divided by temporary partitions. On our first mission, we walked around marking areas for the military to eliminate. I found a Russian rocket launcher and tagged it for demolition by artillery. We later went to a recreation area — something similar to a state fair — where we found several hundred pineapple hand grenades. We tagged those too, and contacted an ordinance crew to eliminate those as well.
That December, I was told to move United Nations vehicles from A to B. I was struggling to get a stubborn vehicle to move when my right arm got pinned beneath its tire. I screamed for help for what seemed like 10 minutes before help came. They picked me up and carried me to a chopper and gave me some morphine for the pain. I woke up dazed and confused. Someone informed me that I was in a Kuwait hospital. After a few days, they put my arm in a sling and put me back on light duty so my skin could heal. I get put on vehicle dispatch and phone duties. I even got to serve as temporary platoon sergeant for one day. My arm healed and I was back to full duty two weeks later.
The Kuwaiti government invited us to eat with them and taught us a great deal about their culture. The food was great. After socialising with them, they took us to a mass grave where they took bodies out. Those that could be identified were relocated to families’ private plots; and others would go to the public cemetery.
They gave us two books. The first one showed Iraqi soldiers and the torture techniques done to Kuwaiti people. The second one showed destruction to Kuwait. The former was gruesome; the most heinous of the unthinkable acts made me cry, others just made me sad.
The first time I drove through Death Valley, I felt like the angel of death was behind me, but not fast enough to catch me.
In our sleeping quarters, each partition had two beds and two small lockers. I had been having trouble sleeping ever since I arrived in Kuwait. The workdays were 20 hours long, so I kept thinking that I would eventually get tired and sleep. But I kept waking up each time I would fall asleep.
There were 125 oil-well fires around, and they are putting out a lot of smoke. Usually, by 2 p.m., it looked like darkness had come upon us, and every other day chemical alarms sound; my gas mask was only equipped with training filters.
While in Kuwait, my responsibilities were varied. One week, I was ordered to use a forklift to place concrete security barriers around portions of the perimeter of Camp Doha—it took me two full days to get them all placed. My next mission was to clear a blown-up MASH unit.
My crew and I had were on the ground looking for unexploded ammunition; it was stressful not knowing whether we would get blown up or not. We did find something, so I had to back out and wait for another team of people to disarm and remove them. The day after, I was able to clear all the tents and damaged equipment.
We would regularly get missions to take water to troops in Camp Monterey, near the Iraqi border. First time we went to them, we had to stop and turn the convoy around at what they call Death Valley —the plot where our allied forces stopped the Iraqis traveling from Kuwait City.
The roads were impassible on this day, littered by blown vehicles, burnt bodies, and loot the Iraqis stole. We returned to Camp Doha and waited for three days for other troops to get one lane cleared.
The first time I drove through Death Valley, I felt like the angel of death was behind me, but not fast enough to catch me. Before I would come home, I would travel Death Valley at least one hundred more times.
One day, as we travelled back to Camp Doha after delivering more water to Camp Monterey, I was driving the lead vehicle. As we neared the last stretch of Death Valley, we realised the rest of the trucks were not behind us. I saw an overpass and I pull off the road to climb up it to see where everybody is, and I get halfway up the hill and bullets come at me. They are so close to my head that I can feel them.
I turned around, stepped to my right, and ran down the hill. I had a weapon with me, but no ammunition. As I got back to the road, the rest of the convoy showed up. I try to hand-signal them to keep going, but they didn’t understand. I ran to the trucks as bullets flew across the road. I finally get them moving so I ran to my truck and followed behind them safely to Camp Doha.
One day, near the end of my tour, I was walking from the motor pool on my way to the mess hall when I came upon some soldiers spraying bug spray to kill the flies. I walked through a fog of the spray and watched as a truck pulled away and an M-203 grenade exploded. All in the vicinity had flak jackets on, but there were three people on the ground with damage to their hands and arms. They were evacuated to a medical facility.
My departure day neared, but not before four scud missiles exploded upwind from us. Officials assured us that the weapons did not contain chemical warheads. When that proved false, officials said we were too far away for the chemicals to harm us. This is something I would think about as soon as I would step off the plane stateside.
As my last day neared, I was asked to train allies to do maintenance on our equipment. I finally got my orders to leave Kuwait in May 1992, but my departure was delayed after a truck pulled alongside the barrier and blew up the apartment building that I stayed at when I first got there.
Fortunately, that was my last delay before returning home. I took an 18-hour flight to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. And, as soon as I got off the plane, I vomited what looked like pieces of tissue. They gave me a medical screening, but they rushed me through it. They told me I had damage to my hearing and astigmatism in my eyesight, and gave me glasses to wear.
I immediately left Fort Bragg to return to my father in Nashville. But there was no welcome home when I landed. I had to call my family for someone to come and get me. I felt like I was some kind of killer by the way the people were staring at me. I didn’t feel appreciated for my service.