Gulf War veterans recall Muslim distrust

By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff, 11/11/2001

From the distance of a decade and a hemisphere, the Gulf War seems a fuzzy memory to many civilian Americans, a video game of a conflict that was over fast, and half-forgotten. But it's clear that Osama bin Laden saw it differently.

His campaign against the West began with his protest of US troops in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. And he has used lingering anger about the Gulf War to recruit supporters and terrorists.

But while many Americans have found that anger baffling, some Gulf War veterans say they aren't surprised. From postings in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait 10 years ago, they saw firsthand the layers of resentment: the grudging acceptance of ''infidels'' on their soil, the assumption that Americans were morally corrupt, the cultural tendency to hold a grudge for a long, long time.

Now, Gulf veterans look to the Middle East and Central Asia and see some of the same combatants, grievances, dangers. ''This is basically an extension of the Gulf War,'' said Paul Perrone, 36, of Methuen, who served on an air base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He said he fears for what US soldiers will encounter in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, and what they'll face when they come home.

Several Gulf War veterans said this Veterans Day is especially poignant, since they find themselves torn over the military: deeply supportive of US soldiers, deeply cynical of the military bureaucracy. They complain of the mysterious, debilitating health problems that have come to be known as Gulf War Syndrome. Some have spent a decade fighting with the government for information, medical claims, and recognition.

Venus-val Hammack, 48, a Lynn native who served in the Gulf, said her children refuse to celebrate Veterans Day, in protest over her illness. Now she's concerned for US troops overseas - suspicious that some have already been harmed, fearful that if they encounter biological attacks, they'll have to fight for benefits in years to come.

''I honor them, I respect them, but I want to scream at the top of my lungs to them: Watch your [back], because the government won't,'' Hammack said.

Gulf veterans said they know how dangerous the situation is for current troops in Afghanistan, whether from land mines and the fear of biological weapons, or from the mere fact of being Western soldiers on Muslim ground.

''They look down on us. They frown on us heavily,'' said Kirt Love, 37, an Army mechanic who served on the front lines in Kuwait and has since become a Gulf War Syndrome activist. Many locals he encountered in Kuwait, he said, assumed that all Americans had venereal disease and that all American women were immoral. He said he saw Saudis approach women guards at his camp, put money in their hands, and refuse to let go, assuming that the uncovered women were prostitutes.

Frustration about Western women could spill out into the streets, said Hammack, who served as a paralegal, guard, and driver in the war. When she took a group of female soldiers into the streets of Riyadh for an errand during the war, locals hit them with batons, asking why they weren't covered and didn't have male escorts. To make them stop, she ducked into a store, pulled out a credit card, and bought some robes.

When the Saudis learned she was Muslim herself, Hammack said, she was able to break through some of the cultural barriers. Some local women invited her to tea and showered her with curiosity, asking how she could work with men, and whether life in the United States was really what they'd heard - a place where you could go to any mosque you wanted, travel by any train you chose.

But Hammack said she was always considered an outsider, quite aware of how the Saudis viewed her mission. ''They were using us as rent-a-cops,'' she said.

American troops often bristled at that treatment, and chafed at the restrictions of Muslim society, such as the prohibition on alcohol, said John Cianci, 38, an active member of the Rhode Island National Guard who processed POWs 30 miles from the Iraqi border.

''For any country to be able to dictate that to our country while we're defending it, it bothers you,'' he said.

On a military visit to Kuwait last April, Cianci found that little had changed; in a local coffee shop, American soldiers weren't served until their local escort arrived. The 18- and 19-year-old soldiers who accompanied him on this latest trip had trouble understanding why they weren't appreciated more.

But Love said he can understand the local response. ''How would you feel if we had Saudi Arabians that had a military base here in America?'' he asked. ''No one appreciated us over there. The only people who appreciated us were the people that we liberated. Joe Public out there was like, `Thank you, now get lost.'

Love said he has come to realize that Middle Eastern resentment goes back further than the Gulf War, to decades of US foreign policy and perceptions that American promises aren't always kept.

Hammack said her time in Saudi Arabia has also given her a better understanding of the culture and ''how long and how deep the memory goes.''

Besides, Perrone said, locals had few illusions about American motives. ''I never fully expected them to be appreciative,'' he said. ''We didn't really go over there to protect Muslims. We went over there to protect oil.''

Yet he has no regrets about the way the Gulf War began, or the way it ended. He said, ''A lot of people have been coming up to me and saying, `If we had taken care of this in 1991,''' this wouldn't have happened. But he disagrees.

''If we had gone in there and taken out Saddam, the resentment would have been worse,'' Perrone said. ''We went to war for all the right reasons. Everything that we're doing today is for the right reasons, too.''

Others have mixed feelings about the way American troops should be used in the current war. Love said he hears the cry for ground troops, the argument that, if Americans engage Taliban soldiers face-to-face instead of from the air, the United States would earn more local respect. He's unconvinced.

Bin Laden's foot soldiers ''don't respect much of anything but their own culture,'' he said. ''We're not going to win with them no matter what we do.''

And while Perrone supports the current war, he, too, is doubtful that it will end our problems with fundamentalists, or bridge cultural gaps that are so profound.

''We're going to have problems with these people for the rest of their lives,'' he said. ''These people are going to be a thorn in our side forever.''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 11/11/2001.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.