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If they called me tomorrow, I'd go in a heartbeat

Bob Pieper was 27 years old when he was called up and deployed with the 79th MP Company.He was searching an Iraqi prisoner of war, when the prisoner began addressing him in well-spoken English.

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Robert Schmidt, a member of the 79th MP Company that deployed to the Gulf 25 years ago.

Why, hello, neighbor

Bob Pieper was 27 years old when he was called up and deployed with the 79th MP Company. Pieper still has memories of his Gulf War service that he declines to talk about. One of his fonder memories was almost surreal: Pieper was searching an Iraqi prisoner of war, and the prisoner began addressing him in well-spoken English. "I stepped back and asked him where he was from, and he told me that he had graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1985."

When Pieper told the prisoner he was raised in South St. Paul, the Iraqi said his wife and children lived just across the Lafayette Bridge from where he lived. After graduating from college in 1985, the Iraqi went back to Iraq to visit his parents, he told Pieper. It was a bad time to return home. Iraq was in the midst of an eight-year war with Iran. People came knocking on his door, telling him to join the army or they would kill his family. "I don't know what happened to him, and the thing kind of bums me out," Pieper said.

Veterans 'have that bond'

Robin Johnson is a 45-year-old mother of three college-age children. Johnson, who was 20 when she was deployed, said it took her a long time to open up about the things she experienced in the Gulf War. At one point in her life, she tried to completely forget about that time, even getting rid of letters she wrote at the time. She also suffers from fatigue, muscle weakness and other health-related issues likely due to her service in the Gulf. Yet, she always enjoys being around other 79th MP soldiers whom she served with. They understand what it was like.


"I"m always comfortable around other veterans anyway," Johnson said. "You have that bond, whether you served with the individual or not. You just have that camaraderie." It was only about four or five years ago that 79th soldiers began holding get-togethers and reunions. "The first time we got together, it was at another service member's house. Oh, God, I didn't want to leave. They only know what you were going through."

Weekend warriors? Nah

Norman Hecimovich was the company's then-56-year-old first sergeant at the time of the deployment. A veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, Hecimovich was a revered father figure to his troops with a penchant for pithy witticisms. He knew of what he spoke. "I put in 42 and half years in the military," Hecimovich said. "I used to tell my troops: 'Common sense is a flower that doesn't grow in every garden.'"

Hecimovich speaks proudly of the 79th Company's service during the war. Back then, active duty soldiers had the attitude that Army Reserve soldiers were "weekend warriors that really couldn't accomplish a mission," he said. "It was just the opposite. We were assigned to a battalion over in Saudi Arabia. And we were the only reserve unit. And we were the best in the whole battalion."

Toxic fears

Mark Maass, a 79th MP soldier and mechanic, said the scariest moment of the deployment was the time the company was staying at Khobar Towers, a large apartment complex in Saudi Arabia. The company was waiting for its vehicles. They had no ammunition. It was then that President George H.W. Bush announced the U.S. was officially at war, going from Desert Shield to Desert Storm. Scud missiles fired by Iraqis would be flying overhead, and U.S. Patriot missiles would soar upward to intercept and knock them out of the sky. Debris would be raining down around them.

Others describe soldiers huddled in a darkened stairwell, dressed from head to toe in protective chemical weapons gear, waiting for the attack to end.

"The scariest part was in Khobar Towers," Maass said. "The alarms are going off, and we had to put on (chemical protective) gear. ... One of the worst fears is that they were going to throw chemicals at us, in which there is proof that they did. It just wasn't as toxic by the time that it reached us."


'I just didn't come back the same person'

Robert Schmidt, a retired Lake City police chief, was the 79th MP Company's operations sergeant at the time. He recalls the exact moment when the war got real for him. Schmidt was part of an advance team to arrive in Saudi Arabia. They were feet from away from one of the docks when ship after ship of howitzer rounds began to be unloaded. The next day, they began unloading caskets, pallet after pallet, shipload after shipload.

"That's when it became real for me, that it really sunk in," Schmidt said.

Schmidt was forced to retire as a Lake City police chief because of injuries he suffered during his service in the Gulf War. He said the war changed him, made him more serious, less happy-go-lucky.

"The things that you used to like to do or things you used to like to eat, you no longer eat," Schmidt said. "I just didn't come back the same person."

Yet, when asked whether he would do it again, Schmidt doesn't hesitate.

"If they called me tomorrow, would I go? In a heartbeat," he said.

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