A Utah National Guard member in Saudi Arabia said he was sound asleep when he heard the banging of doors and shouting in the halls as the air offensive against Iraq began about 2:30 a.m. Thursday, Saudi time.
Since then, soldiers have been required to wear charcoal-lined chemical weapons protection suits whenever they go outside, and the members of his group, the 144th Evacuation Hospital, regularly practice safety procedures.Tremendous clamor accompanied the beginning of the Thursday morning offensive. "Suddenly a person appeared in my room telling us to put on our gas masks, turn all lights out and stay in our rooms," said Staff Sgt. A.J. Walkowski.
Walkowski said he fumbled through the darkness to find his gas mask. "I put on my gas mask and checked to make sure it was sealed. Then I sat back to listen to the startling news that spewed from my radio."
Armed Forces Radio has been the group's primary source of information about the U.S. and allied attack against Iraq and Iraq's missile launches against Israel and Saudi Arabia the day after hostilities began. The military radio network has been broadcasting news bulletins around the clock, Walkowski said.
Couriers also brought information to the group during the hours of the first attack. "We were all directed to apply strips of tape to all of the glass windows" to keep breaking glass from injuring someone in the event of an explosion.
The group was also instructed to put survival provisions in a backpack - enough to sustain them for two to three days if the area came under attack and they were required to move out.
Walkowski said the hospital staff spent its first several days in the Middle East on Bahrain, an island in the Persian Gulf. The group moved one week ago and is now living in a dormitory-style village about 300 miles from the Kuwait border. The Saudi government built the village as a Bedouin camp about 10 years ago, but it had never been occupied, Walkowski said.
Some of the hospital staff has been sent near the Saudi-Kuwait border with ambulance crews, but additional doctors and nurses have been added to the staff, bringing the group's size to about 460. The hospital represents the largest group of Utah soldiers in Saudi Arabia.
"We're relatively safe here," Walkowski said. "We're getting the ground set up so we can establish our hospital."
Walkowski called the Deseret News at about 5 p.m. Friday, Saudi time, or 7 a.m. Friday Salt Lake time. "We've heard no air raids or sirens. We haven't seen or heard any of that, we've just heard about it on the radio."
Some military units have access to televisions and have been watching the conflict unfold. "Where we're staying we don't have access to TV. We get everything from the radio."
Walkowski said the daytime temperatures have been comfortable - in the upper 70s - but that wearing the "MOPP" chemical weapons protection gear is cumbersome and leaves the soldiers covered with charcoal dust.
Most soldiers in the area have been able to get to telephones to call home since the attack began there Thursday morning.