Several vet buddies have been posting on Facebook what was one of the most terrifying nights of my life. 20 years ago this week, anyone who was in Desert Storm will likely remember what universally became known as “Hell Night”. We were on the march towards Kuwait City, and we had several small engagements along the way. As evening approached a strange, dark pall began to descend over the entire theatre, a thick, grayish-black fog that hung heavy in the air. It smelled of diesel, smoke, cordite and burning rubber. Occasionally we’d overtake a pocket of Iraqis wanting to surrender, throw them some MRE’s and point south and tell them to haul ass. We encountered a field strewn with unexploded Rockeye missle bomblets, requiring a ground guide to walk us through it. Burning tanks and armor littered the desert around us.
Eventually it became impossible to proceed as night began to fall, and Capt. Espinoza gave us the news that a large column of Iraqi armor was advancing on us, attempting to split the two Marine divisions in half, and expect to be overrun sometime in the night. He had always been a bit dramatic, but this really sunk in as the sky grew black. Before long, the air became like ink, and it happened very quickly. I paced off about 10 steps from the corner of the Gypsy Wagon (our humvee) and started to dig. I remember digging a hole about 5 feet deep and barely wide enough for me to stand in. It was the fastest I’d ever dug anything in my life. I still don’t know how I was able to dig it so narrow. I could hear Johnson and Haase somewhere around me doing the same thing.
At some point, I stopped to pry out the “Christmas tree buggers” from my nose, which was a common practice over there in that dusty sand. I remember my thoughts like they happened yesterday: “this is it, Bowman. I am 8,000 miles from home, can’t see and will likely be overrun by tanks and maybe killed, they’ll bury me in this shithole, and I’m picking my nose.” The strangest, eerie calm came over me at that point as if it was all going to be ok, there wasn’t anything at all I could do to change my predicament, and I was ready for anything that came my way, including death. So I stopped picking my nose and continued to dig out my emergency hole.
After awhile I crawled towards the Gypsie Wagon, finally found it and climbed in the passenger seat. I sat there with Johnson for a bit, listening to the radio traffic, trying to figure out what the Hell was going on around us. We had been ordered not to use our flashlights out of light discipline, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I scanned what I thought was the horizon with a German night vision scope we had looted from an Iraqi bunker earlier in the day, and saw nothing. It didn’t work in the thick blackness with no visible light to amplify. There were Marine tanks to our left flank, and they were engaging the Iraqis at near point-blank range. We could hear their shots, and then the “splash” of their impact came immediately afterwards. We could feel the shock and concussion of their guns as they fired but couldn’t see a thing. They fired all night long like this. ’Boom–whack. Boom Boom–whack whack’. Every now and then, an occasional tracer round would flash past us or we’d hear machine gun fire behind us.
I have never, ever experienced darkness like that. I remember standing there in the night with my hand just inches away from my face, trying to see it. It was surreal. I knew that my fingers were just right there, yet they weren’t at all. I had to tap my nose just to convince myself that I wasn’t dreaming or I wasn’t mistaken. My eyes never adjusted. There simply was no light visible anywhere to adjust to. At one point I thought it was some sort of sick joke from the heavens, or that I had entered some alternate universe or the Earth has passed into a black hole. Maybe I was even dead. It just made no sense. The cold sounds of war all around us, Fox Battery squawking on the radio, my heavy, congested breathing told me that there was a world somewhere just outside this black curtain that enveloped my head, but I couldn’t comprehend it. How was it even possible? Was it just smoke? The fog of battle? I learned later that Johnson had flicked his flashlight on a few times, but couldn’t see what he was looking for. I couldn’t see him do it, either. Impossible darkness. Again and again, I checked my hands…it was like having a black mass of anti-matter between my nose, my mouth, and my fingers. I could open my mouth, I could pick the buggers out of my nose, I could wiggle my fingers or move my hands. Yet none of it was connected; they all acted as independent entities in that dark sludge, unrelated organs not a part of my body, lost in time and space, enveloped in nothingness. The tanks blasting off in the distance shook me back to reality, but I never could get used to that darkness. They might’ve been right next to us or 100 miles away– it was all the same in that soup. The tanks had thermal sights, and were really giving it to the Iraqis that night. Without those sights, they would’ve been just as blind as we were. Their booms comforted me. I could’ve slept all night long with those rounds going off, wearing them like a warm blankie. But I didn’t.
While walking down memory lane, going over these thoughts from 20 years ago, I came to a sudden and somewhat embarrassing realization that this is what every single moment must be like for a blind person. Guys like Cpl. Matt Bradford. At least my lights went out on Hell Night gradually over a few hours. His lights went out in a flash and he woke up to the same Hell and now gets to live it every second of his life. At the Bowman Lodge we’ve tried to give our vets the best of things– good scotch, bourbon, and beer, Cuban cigars, a luxurious bed, great food, and good hunting among good men. But I’d give every single bit of it back– the ranch, the lodge, everything…to restore Matt Bradford’s eye sight and to cure him of having to relive my Hell Night every day.
And Hell Night was just one night for me over there. It wasn’t the best or the biggest battle we fought during the “100 hour ground war”, but it produced memories of a sensation I don’t want to ever experience again. Give me a rifle, a knife, Hell– a rock, and I’ll fight to defend my own life and that of the brother next to me. But take away the visible means of defense, and the sheer panic and terror that it causes will immobilize you. You can stack up all the other vile memories– no showers for 4 months, the flies, dysentery, the damn oil fires, lack of email (didn’t exist back then) and little contact back home, all of it…and it won’t compare to what some of our vets have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 5 years. Yes, all wars are different. And all wars are the same.
For some it may now be living without a limb. Or two. Or with no eyesight. Or no hearing. Headaches. Anger. Chronic pain somewhere…everywhere. Burns. The list goes on.
Man can withstand physical pain. Some say it makes us stronger. But what of those nightmare memories? What of the loss? It may all be relative. Everyone copes in different ways. To heal the spirit is our end goal, and it is a lofty one indeed. I believe this is the most difficult obstacle in a wounded warrior’s walk. They all live with their own private Hell Night somewhere in their mind, and it will always be there, that alternate universe of darkness that we wish didn’t exist.
Here’s to all my brothers from Battery F, 2nd battalion, 14th Marines, and to 20 years of staying alive. And here’s to all the other vets who’s eyes are still open, but only see night….