The following is an essay I wrote in January of 2002 as part of an english class.  It is a recollection of my experience at being present for the Khobar tower bombings.

In May of 1996, I was deployed as part of the 4404th Expeditionary Squadron from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Southern Watch.  Desert storm was over with Kuwait liberated and Saddam Hussein supposedly put in his place. I had never been to the Middle East and was looking forward to a ninety-day adventure, never dreaming of just what lay in store for me there.  My wife, left behind with two small children, was not enjoying the prospect of me leaving.

I had been in the Air Force for four years, and I was just beginning to experience more responsibilities in my job. I was a typical young enlisted man still naïve about life in general. Once our group of personnel arrived at Dhahran AB, we processed in and quickly fell into the daily routine. We were doing the same jobs that we usually did at our home station so the transition was easily accomplished.  My job was as a Munitions System Specialist and it was our duty to build, store, and perform maintenance on all the munitions items being used on base.  The only thing that really changed was the scenery, I remember how bleak and barren the desert looked there, no real life at all, just dirty little shrubs that tried to pass themselves off as real plants.  The heat was almost unbearable, it would get up to about 120 degrees during the day and then at night it would drop into the high fifties.  Dhahran was also not too far from the ocean so it would get very humid at night.  Water would condensate on everything once the temperature dropped, so much water in fact, that it looked like it had just rained.  The base itself was divided into two parts, the working part that had the runway, and the housing area.  These were divided by a local civilian highway which we crossed everyday to get to our work site.  The housing area was originally built by the Saudi government to house a group of poor nomadic people.  These nomads however had strict religious codes and they found it intolerable to have someone else’s bathroom above them, so they refused to use the apartment style complexes.  Most of the buildings were six to seven stories tall with two wings on either side of the main building giving it a “T’ shape.  About six weeks into our tour, June 25, 1996, my day was going by the same as countless others. Being assigned to the night shift, we had to catch the bus at 10:30 P.M. in order to get to work on time. So, as usual, I was getting ready for work around 9:30 P.M.  My room was one small room of eight in our suite on the sixth floor of building 110 in the Khobar Towers housing facility.  Our balcony overlooked the dining facility.  I had just finished getting dressed and was ready to put on my boots when I heard a rush of wind outside my window rattling the panes.  Windstorms in the desert are pretty frequent, so I thought nothing of it.  Then the lights dimmed to a dull glimmer of light, almost going out, then flickering they came back on to full strength.  That’s odd.” I thought to myself.  The whole room then started to violently shake, I stood there trying to keep my balance.  It was as if I was on a boat in the ocean with the way the floor was rocking and swaying.  Then it was over, what had seemed to last for hours had actually happened in just a few minutes.  I wondered to myself just what had happened.  I thought maybe we had just had an earthquake, but I would soon find out otherwise.

I pulled on my boots and went into the common area of our suite.  The common area was originally set up like a den. It had two couches, a couple of single seat chairs, a coffee table and a television.  My footsteps were crunching as I entered.  The room sparkled as if someone had scattered diamonds around for all to share, except it was shards of glass.  Glass from our now shattered balcony doors.  One of the other guys in the suite was already in the room, a sick, shocked look on his face.

“What happened?” I asked him.

“I don’t know, some kind of explosion.” He said. “I was sitting there when it happened.” He pointed to a chair near the recently shattered glass doors.  We both silently looked at the six-inch shard of glass that would have punctured his temple, if the heavy curtain had not snagged it first.  Still, it had made it two-thirds of the way through the curtain.  Besides the shock he was now experiencing he had not been hurt, amazing considering the sheer volume of glass not littering the room.

“My, God…” I muttered to no one in particular as I looked around the room.  One of the couches directly opposite the sliding doors was covered in broken glass.  Shards ranging in size from about two inches to almost ten inches were embedded throughout its length, it was as if an army of ten thousand fairies had taken offense at our couch and launched a salvo of tiny, crystalline, arrows to kill it.  If any one had been sitting there they would have been dead.  By this time all our roommates were out of their rooms, confused and shocked by the sheer destruction of the room.  We then went out onto our balcony to see if we could see anything.  A crowd of people surrounded the dining facility, and it looked like they were carrying some people on makeshift stretchers.  There were no other clues as to what had happened, there weren’t even any sirens going off.

“Maybe an oven blew up in the chow hall.” Someone suggested. I really didn’t think that sounded right but I didn’t argue.  It was then that the large plume of white smoke caught my attention, drifting casually up into the dim night sky like a thief slyly slinking away from the scene of the crime.

“Look at that!” I said pointing to the still rising cloud.

It was then that the evacuation of the buildings started.  We all just sort of shifted gears, going into our training mode.  All the drills and exercises we had done before were now paying off.

We didn’t have to think about what to do we just did what we were trained to do.  As we left the building, we entered a frenzy of moving bodies.  People were everywhere with no clue as to where to go.  I distinctly remember one Technical Sergeant running by. As he saw us he yelled at us “I’ve seen something unexplained! Follow me!”.  It struck me as funny to hear this military version of Chicken Little call out his nonsensical message of doom, but we all dutifully ran after him towards the Base Exchange.  He never said anything else that I know of, and I do not recall seeing him after that.  Once we got to the Base Exchange we were told it wasn’t safe there and to go to the dining facility (where we had started).

Soon the officers started getting some order and began breaking us down into our respective squadrons so everyone could be accounted for.  Generals were barking orders to their subordinates who then barked the orders on to us.  They were doing exactly what they were trained to do, give orders, and we obeyed them.  It was not the right time to be asking questions, and not knowing the entire big picture, we followed their instructions hoping that at least they knew what they were doing.  We were all told to get against the buildings and sit, for shelter against snipers, and await further instructions.  There was a woman nearby, a Staff Sergeant, crying hysterically.  I just remember hearing her, I never saw who she was but she was loud and very annoying.  I wanted to slap her to shut her up, to tell her that her uncontrolled blathering doesn’t help the situation.  I didn’t do anything though, we all just sat there each of us in our own private hell, confused, scared, and trying to deal with it as best we could.  We sat there waiting, making sure the wounded in our little groups were bandaged as we could, while they waited to see one of the too few doctors available.  We waited for hours until finally we were told to go back to our buildings and start the cleanup process.

As we swept up the broken glass and debris in our suite, we watched CNN to find out exactly what had happened.  It took the news agencies another hour to finally get the story right, and that was when we found out we had been the target of a terrorist attack.  I wasn’t able to call my family until the next day, my wife burst into tears as she heard my voice, as she too had been watching the news and had heard about what had happened.  I was having a hard time not breaking down myself as we talked.

“It was worse not knowing if you were dead or not and waiting for that call,” She told me, “and then when the call came I dreaded to pick it up fearing the worse.”

“Well, I am alright, they just had to organize how to let hundreds of people call their families.” I explained to her.

“I just want you home.” I could hear the pleading in her voice with her unreasonable request.  She knew exactly when I would be home and that if I were needed here longer that I would be staying.

“I’ll be home soon, just try not to worry.” I knew that it was not going to be much consolation for her, but it was all I could think to say.  When I hung up, I was ready to go home right then.  I wanted to put my arms around her and softly whisper that everything was all right now.  That would have to wait; I still had a job to do.  Nineteen soldiers were left dead, over three hundred wounded, and all of us in shock.  We were in our highest state of alert for the next week, responding with the utmost seriousness to all new bomb threats.  We were taking shelter, or evacuating buildings at least three times a day from new bomb threats.

The next three days were spent cleaning up the area of the attack.  During the clean up I got a chance to see “ground zero” where the attack had taken place.  The destruction was immense.  The exploding truck left a thirty-foot deep crater eighty feet in diameter, and blew the concrete barriers into the fifth floor of the building.  The building itself looked as if someone had torn the front of it off, exposing its insides like a dissected cadaver.  It was an eerie feeling

knowing that nineteen of my fellow servicemen had died in that building without even knowing what hit them.

My whole outlook on life changed on that one day in June.  I learned to be thankful for what you have because you never know when it might be taken away.  Of all the things I remember about that day, I don’t remember ever hearing a blast or explosion.  I know there was one because others I talked to did remember it.  But for me while the room was shaking it was as if I was in a soundproof room, cut off from all the sounds of the world.  I recall no sounds whatsoever until after it was all over, but even today when a door slams I jump.

The Fourth of July is especially hard, on the day we celebrate our independence and freedom, every time one of those large rockets explodes overhead I cringe in subconscious fear.  My mind instantly flashing back to another place and time, if only for a moment.  Then I pause and wonder when next we will have to pay for our freedom with the blood of those who serve, and whether my life will be part of the price.  I still serve my country working full time in the Missouri Air National Guard, but I would gladly go to war and die to provide my family and friends with peace and freedom.