CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Kenneth J. Falls
Desert Shield/Desert Storm Oral History Interview
US Army, 82nd Engineer Battalion
Date: February 13, 2019
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, William Elwell
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker
Kenneth J. Falls was born in August, 1970 in Brooklyn, New York. Though he was not from a military family, his grandfathers and great-uncle had served in World War II. Falls described his 18-year-old self as an “independent spirit” seeking to live alone; this attitude convinced him to enlist during his senior year of high school (in 1989). By entering the army’s Delayed Entry Program, he deferred basic training until after his graduation.
Basic training took place at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The experience was “interesting,” though the adaption to military life challenged Falls somewhat. “I thought I knew better than everybody else; I was a very rambunctious teenager… I had a lot of growing up to do.” He exited training a changed man.
Acing his ASVAB aptitude test, Falls had the choice of any career in the military. However, at enlistment, he had admitted to smoking marijuana in high school. This came to bite him; six weeks into training, the army used this reason to change his career from Signal Security Specialist to Combat Engineer. Frustratingly, Falls also lost his position as training platoon leader. “Although, it was a good thing,” he added, “because I met my wife because of it.”
The most important lesson Falls took from basic training was the value of the team. “It’s not about you anymore,” he said. “It’s about a team. When one fails, basically the whole team fails.” In addition, Falls grew up in a relatively homogenous community, but basic training, and by extension military service in general, had him work with people from varied backgrounds. (In fact, Falls was the sole Caucasian man in his squad. Jokingly, they referred to themselves as the ‘Ghetto squad plus one.’ He chuckled, “You can guess who the plus one was.”) This brought his attention to both the value of diversity and the sins of prejudice.
After training, Falls took leave between Christmas and New Year’s. On January 2, he landed in Frankfurt, Germany, soon joining Charlie Company of the 82nd Engineer Battalion in Bamberg. For nine to ten months, Falls remained in 3rd Platoon, 1st Squad.
Falls spent much of his time in Germany training. His first major operation was the 1990 “REFORGER,” (from return of forces to Germany) a large annual multinational exercise. He enjoyed the first REFORGER, recalling fondly the trips through quaint German towns alongside foreign troops. Unfortunately, the scale of the exercise was reduced after the Gulf War, and henceforth it “wasn’t as much fun anymore.”
One time, Falls was aboard a bus of GIs heading to guard duty along the Czech border. After crossing a bridge, the lieutenant disembarked to ask a question, only to realize he had entered Czechoslovakia! Fortunately, this did not cause an international incident; the GIs were simply directed to turn around.
In April of that year, Falls began dating a German national, Diana, from a small Bavarian town. In August, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait; in November, Falls received word of his upcoming deployment to the Middle East. At this time, he contacted his family and borrowed several hundred dollars to buy a ring at the base exchange. Falls did not speak enough German to explain everything to Diana’s parents, yet showing her mom the ring, she smiled. With this approval, “crying my eyes out,” he proposed to his girlfriend: “I’m going to war, and I want you to know I’m coming back for you. Will you marry me?” She said yes.
On December 2, Falls left for the Middle East. He awoke at “zero-dark-thirty” and was fed steak and eggs, “the best meal you’ll ever have.” The first sergeant did not sugarcoat the briefing, explaining that the Iraqis had the world’s fourth largest army, and he did not expect his troops to return. “[He] scared the s*** out of us,” Falls said. “The rubber met the road at that point. Here I’m a 19-year-old kid, and I’m being told that I’m probably not gonna be coming back. Kinda scary.”
In order to deploy, each company needed full manpower, so men from the Individual Ready Reserve (former active-duty troops) were called in to fill slots. This shuffled organization, and Falls transferred from 3rd Platoon, 1st Squad to 1st Platoon, 1st Squad. He also changed roles from an M113 Armored Personnel Carrier driver to M60 machine gunner for that squad.
Boarding the plane was an odd experience; though stepping onto a civilian airliner, the troops were “armed to the teeth” with their full complement of weapons. They flew to Dammam, a Saudi Arabian port city on the Persian Gulf. While at Dammam they received their complement of military equipment that was shipped from German. Afterwards, they moved to King Khalid Military City, a large compound north of Riyadh. With endless desert and matching architecture, Falls described the landscape as a “sea of brown.”
Despite shipping in advance of personnel, the unit’s gear travelled by sea and arrived a week or two late. The troops lived in a warehouse while waiting for it to arrive, after which they painted it desert brown. Subsequently, Falls moved to a tent city, where the bathrooms were akin to wooden porta-potties. To clean the stalls, the bottom tubs, filled with excrement, were periodically removed and their contents burned using JP-8.
Around Christmas, Falls relocated to the “neutral zone,” a diamond-shaped un-administered area along the Saudi-Iraqi border. The troops lived in squad-sized tents. Bathroom accommodations were nearly non-existent, and MREs were consumed in lieu of full meals. A chaplain arrived to deliver a Christmas Mass, which Falls attended.
In mid-January, Falls saw coalition aircraft and rocket artillery bombarding Iraqi border positions. “At night, our whole horizon was just, constant barrage, and constant fireworks, and constant explosions.” The ground war began in February. At Falls’ position on the front, the offensive commenced at Tapline Road, named for a nearby Saudi oil pipeline. His platoon was attached to the 3/2 Armored Cavalry Regiment and consisted of four M1 Abrams tanks, one M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, and his M113 armored personnel carrier (carrying the engineers). Their regiment screened ahead of the 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions.
Falls was stationed in the personnel bay of his M113, with his M60 covering the vehicle’s left side. With their light aluminum armor, M113s were vulnerable to anything larger than rifle rounds. For extra protection, the crew riveted fencing material with sandbags to the vehicle’s sides. The M113 was also equipped with exterior smoke launchers to provide some visual concealment if necessary.
The first Iraqi positions, manned by malnourished troops, were quickly overrun. Advancing constantly at 30 to 40 miles per hour, it was three days before Falls’ unit stopped for respite. His squad and one other camped for about six hours, with tanks and Bradleys surrounding them on all sides. Falls was on guard duty first, alongside a soldier from the other squad.
Falls decided to patrol jointly with the other soldier, making conversation to keep himself awake. But the sergeant interjected, telling him to patrol alone, and only around his squad’s position. In his exhausted state, Falls replied that he would do it his way. “Do I have to come down there and kick your ass!” the sergeant boomed; Falls told him to do so.
A fight erupted, with Falls and the sergeant rolling in the dirt and beating each other up. “Falls, get off me!” the sergeant yelled, awakening everyone. Falls’ squad leader could have wrought upon Falls serious punishment for disobeying an NCO’s order. Fortunately, he understood that Falls was exhausted and did not press charges. (The encounter became an inside joke among the unit, with soldiers occasionally teasing Falls by yelling, “Falls, get off me!” in jest.)
Falls continued with the offensive, which halted upon encountering heavy resistance from the elite Republican Guard. Thus, his unit waited for the 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions to catch up, before advancing en masse. The subsequent Battle of 73 Easting would see the Guard’s elite Tawakalna Division annihilated at the cost of just six American lives and 19 other casualties.
Three of those deaths resulted from an unfortunate mistake. During the Iran-Iraq War, the US had supplied M113s to the Iraqis, which remained operational into the Gulf War. Unfortunately, an M1 Abrams misidentified a friendly M113 as such an Iraqi vehicle and destroyed it with shellfire.
Afterwards, the battalion commander demanded that Falls’ captain personally collect the bodies. The captain, worried about his safety on the still-contested frontline, refused. This angered the troops, and Falls henceforth refused to salute the captain, believing he was no longer worthy of such respect. The captain was relieved within a few months of returning from the war.
Falls was lucky, as the casualty was the M113 he had been assigned to in 3rd Platoon, 1st Squad. He also noted that the incident was brushed aside, with much misinformation spread. Falls read a book about Gulf War casualties published by USA Today, which had incorrect dates and causes of death for the three deceased tankers.
The war progressed, with Falls’ unit advancing north through the desert. Reaching the Euphrates River, they looped east and then south, entering Kuwait from the north. The sight and smell of oil wells left burning by the retreating Iraqi Army pervaded. “All you see is tons and tons of black smoke, and these fires raging all around us.” He did not enter Kuwait City, though he saw the buildings and lights in the distance.
Though the Gulf War was known as the first conflict in which GPS was used, Falls explained that night vision technology was what really won the day. (Or more accurately, the night!) “They [the Iraqis] gave us a good fight during the day,” he said, “but at night they had no idea what the hell hit ‘em.”
At this point, the war ended. For several days, Falls processed Iraqi POWs, his duties consisting of separating the enlisted men and officers, and guarding them. Interrogators and translators dealt with the prisoners further.
Afterwards, Falls conducted demolition missions to disarm Saddam Hussein’s military. “Every day, nonstop, for at least a month,” he entered Iraq during UN-specified hours. Falls destroyed munitions, oil trucks, tanks, planes, depots, an ore-mining facility, as well as spent coalition ordnance left on the battlefield; “Everything that we could possibly find that was militarily-related.”
These operations were conducted so often that “the rulebook got thrown out the window.” Engineers smoked cigarettes near the ordnance, and blasting caps rolled loose on the floor. “We didn’t care anymore!” Falls laughed. (He also noted that Jordan had lied about supplying Iraq, showing a picture of Jordanian ordnance he had destroyed as proof.)
Falls had some chances to interact with the people and culture of Iraq and Kuwait. He remembered driving through a small Iraqi (or possibly Kuwaiti) town, where jubilant children greeted them with small American flags. “That’s why,” Falls added, “when OIF, OEF was happening, it was so confusing, ‘cause now they hated us again.” At one point, he also visited Ur. The men received a day off to explore the ancient Sumerian city, and Falls showed pictures he took of the Great Ziggurat and the remains of Abraham’s biblical house.
In early April, Falls’ unit relieved the 101st Airborne. At 50 to 60 miles southeast of Baghdad, their position marked the furthest advance of coalition troops during the war. Temperatures soared over 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day. Inadequate logistics precipitated a water shortage, and each soldier was rationed just 1.5 liters per day. “It was supposed to be the best well-fed military in the world,” Falls exclaimed. “We still had our MREs, so I guess I shouldn’t complain!”
Falls had received two sets of Desert BDU uniforms before the invasion began. He spared one as a clean uniform for his wife to see upon his return. To keep it neatly pressed, he slept atop it each night. On the other hand, this gave him only the other uniform to wear, which, as expected, soon became very smelly!
At the end of April, Falls finally received orders to depart. Flying to Germany, the stewardesses and crew gave the troops a heroes’ welcome. Soon after, he returned to the United States and partook in a ticker-tape parade along Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes. (His mother was part of a military support group, whom Falls walked with.) While home, he also attended his sister’s wedding.
After flying back to Germany, Falls received an extension of his two-year tour overseas in order to accommodate wedding plans. Diana had always wanted to marry a man in uniform; yet, she did not like Falls’ standard-issue dress greens. Thus, he surprised her by buying his own pair of dress blues for the ceremony!
As a combat engineer, Falls held licenses for a plethora of vehicles and equipment. The vehicle he drove during his final year in Germany was a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck, or HEMTT [HEM-it], a large eight-wheeled truck with a rear crane. (The vehicle was so tough, Falls mentioned, that it once bounced down a hillside with minimal damage.) One day, he resolved to deliver flowers to his wife as recompense for a fight they had had the previous day. Though lacking a civilian vehicle, Falls had his HEMTT.
Falls told his NCO he was going to bring the vehicle to the wash rack (it wasn’t particularly dirty, but “that’s what the military just does anyway,” he chuckled). Instead, however, he got onto the Autobahn, picked up flowers at the florist, and then delivered his gift to his wife’s workplace. “Needless to say, I got some serious brownie points that day,” Falls exclaimed, “…but I could have been in jail!” Shortly before this interview, he told the story to his former platoon leader, asking if he would have been arrested. “According to my mood that day!” he responded, “…but probably not. I probably would have had you on some serious extra duty though!”
During his last six months in Germany, Falls served under a CO whom he got along with “very well.” Failing to convince Falls to remain in the military, the CO assigned him an easy final job of handing out basketballs at the base gym.
Diana, a practicing Catholic, induced Falls to explore the faith. In Germany, he began attending Mass on post. Through this, Falls became friends with a chaplain (a major or lieutenant colonel), one of the few instances of fraternization he experienced with an officer. Regarding this subject, Falls took the opportunity to mention Lieutenant Mead, his platoon leader, “an officer I would follow anywhere.” Interestingly, Mead was from the family who ran the namesake notebook company.
Just before his term’s end, Falls used the month of leave he had saved up to travel with his wife. With a Honda Civic, a tent, and two dogs, they drove across Europe.
Falls did suffer some personal setbacks while overseas. Unfortunately, Diana suffered a miscarriage. In addition, after leaving the military, he did not wish to remain in Germany (and likely become a factory worker, the trade of most American expats there). Falls’ wife initially had misgivings about leaving her parents and moving to the US, which strained their relationship for a time. Fortunately, things worked out.
Before leaving Germany, Falls arranged to become a reservist drill instructor in New Jersey. His training was to take place immediately after returning home, but upon reporting to Fort Dix, the military cancelled the plans. He explained that he would leave the army if the deal did not progress, but they refused to budge. Thus, regrettably, Falls retired. “I think it would have been fun,” he lamented. “I would have probably done the 20 years that way.”
Just after retiring from the service, Falls sought to join the VFW group in Port Monmouth, New Jersey. Unfortunately, the member who he talked to, a grumpy Vietnam veteran, discouraged him. “He basically said I didn’t fight in the war. So it kind of left a bitter taste in my mouth.” (Falls understood the man’s animosity, as Vietnam veterans had been “spat upon,” while Gulf War Servicemembers were hailed as heroes.) Though he never joined a group since, Falls noted that he is “more open to it now,” believing that things have changed.
Falls has not participated in many reunions. He did plan to attend a 2018 Memorial Day March in Washington DC, but cancelled because many former unit members could not make it. Nevertheless, Falls has remained in contact with dozens of fellow soldiers. He noted an in-person meeting with Jeff Anderson, a soldier who had been in a different platoon of his company.
Falls proudly mentioned the planned construction of the National Desert Storm and Desert Shield War Memorial in Washington DC. He believed the monument’s location next to the Vietnam Memorial would be fitting, as many Gulf War NCOs had served in Vietnam.
Entering the civilian world, Falls and his wife began saving money for a house. Diana worked at a daycare, and Falls was employed by a contractor as a nighttime alarm monitor. In addition, he worked another job part-time, and used his GI Bill to attend school at Brookdale Community College full-time. They had their first child, a daughter, but lacked medical insurance and worried their efforts could be nullified by an emergency. Thankfully, their fears proved unfounded, and they bought a house a year later.
After earning associate’s degrees in electronics, engineering, and mathematics at Brookdale, Falls transferred to the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He only attended for three more semesters, leaving to start his own business with his wife. “I even missed my college graduation ‘cause she went into labor with Kenny, our second [child],” Falls added. “Which is pretty cool, it’s a good thing to miss it for!”
Though never injured in combat, Falls experienced strange physical ailments soon after returning from the Middle East. He discovered burns on his gums and vomited blood, but did not connect these issues to anything at the time.
Years after his discharge, Falls noticed he felt more fatigued than the people surrounding him. When hiking with his sons in the Boy Scouts, he would quickly become exhausted, while the scout leader, a Vietnam veteran in his 70s, would remain active all day. In addition, his best friend, despite being twice his weight, always had much more energy. “I feel like an old man trapped in my body,” Falls said.
Initially, Falls ascribed these conditions to aging. Talking to his former unit members, however, he discovered that many experienced similar symptoms. Seeking answers, Falls visited the War-Related Illness and Study Center in East Orange, New Jersey, and then Georgetown University Medical Center.
It became apparent that Falls suffered from “Gulf War Syndrome,” a multisymptomatic disease still not fully understood. “A bunch of weird things,” afflict him. He does not process oxygen normally, has an unusually small brain stem, and suffers from eczema. Other members of his unit suffer from brain cancer, liver cancer, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Falls participated in a four-month dietary study with American University, which revealed that he should become gluten and glutamate free. These dietary changes have had a major impact, reducing his pain from a “6” to a “4 or 3” out of 10. Still, this “new normal” has remained troubling, and in some ways, has exacerbated with fatigue and age. “My dad is 75 years old. My dad can do more than I can. There’s something wrong with that.”
What angered Falls the most, however, was the effects of the illness on his children, who all have “little weird things going on.” Most significantly, his daughter was born with a coarctation of the aorta; as a result, she suffered through pneumonia and multiple surgeries. One day, googling her ailment, he found a paper of a study done on Gulf War veterans. The correlation between the war and her condition was the most prominent point. “That had me angry… Why does she have to suffer from something I did?”
Falls encountered much difficulty with receiving assistance from the VA. He had to prove that his symptoms were consistent over many years. Falls was denied entrance into the VA system because his income was too high. In addition, he was unable to receive benefits for his daughter’s condition, finding that the VA only allowed such for Vietnam veterans.
Falls expressed his frustration on a Desert Storm veterans’ Facebook group. (Networking on Facebook consistently proved valuable for him during his tough times.) This got him into contact with a high-up VA official, who directed Falls to tell his local VA group that he was classified as “priority group 6” and could not be denied aid because of income. He did just that, which “rang a bell somehow”; finally, he would be receiving assistance! “And they still screw it up,” Falls exclaimed. “They put me in as a Vietnam veteran with Agent Orange!” Despite these difficulties, he did ultimately “luck out” by corresponding with an excellent VA physician.
Understanding the institutional troubles he faced himself, Falls has done all possible to help fellow soldiers afflicted with Gulf War Syndrome, such as writing “buddy letters” and assisting with receiving financial or medical aid. Some veterans were receptive to his help, while others were not.
The cause of Gulf War Syndrome is still unknown, though Falls listed a number of possibilities: anthrax vaccines, malaria pills, depleted uranium ammunition, or even chemicals blown about by sandstorms. Whatever the source, he attributed the syndrome’s impact to a lack of attention regarding the health and living conditions of soldiers. “There was no planning, it was like the Wild West,” Falls said. “…I talked to OIF, OEF guys, and they even say, ‘we have camps.’ We didn’t have a camp… we were just in the middle of the desert.”
Falls did not serve alongside women in combat. He did note that there were some female pilots, as well as many women in medical and support roles. Though explaining that his thoughts may have been influenced by the standards of the time, as well as the circumstances of serving in poor desert conditions, Falls expressed reservations about women serving in combat roles. His main concern was for the potential of sexual assault against the women. “Some of these guys are animals,” he lamented. “I hate to put it that way, but just, no respect even for themselves… They were thrown in the military because they had to go to jail or go to the military. And they acted like it.” Falls also worried about favoritism for women showing itself during combat, as well as the handling of personal hygiene on the battlefield among a mixed-gender unit.
Falls enjoyed showing patches from his service. During the war, he wore the patch of the 7th Engineer Brigade. There was also the patch of the 3/2 ACR, the parent armored unit he was attached to. (He felt “very proud” to serve alongside their tankers.) He also displayed the patch of the 3rd Infantry, the division his unit reported to just after the war.
Falls earned a number of medals for his service: Army Commendation, Good Conduct, National Defense, Kuwait Liberation (one each from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), and Southwest Asia Service. He was awarded a number of unit badges, including one equivalent to a Silver Star. Falls also had challenge coins, as well as unit crests sporting Paul Bunyan’s blue ox, Babe. (His unit’s cheer was, “Blue Babe, sir!”) Finally, there were his dog tags; interestingly, one was colored red to indicate he had a bee sting allergy.
In addition to his awarded commendations, Falls showed an Iraqi gas mask he had received by trading away his military-issued winter coat (which was useless in the desert). He also unsuccessfully attempted to bring home a captured AK-47.
Having seen battlefield casualties first-hand, and suffering from the debilitating effects of post-war illness, Falls knew too well that warfare was not like the glory and glamour of Hollywood portrayal: “There’s nothing like that.” Nevertheless, he remained proud of his medals and the service to his nation that they represented. “I definitely enjoyed the job I was doing,” Ken Falls affirmed.
On March 31, 2019, Kenneth Falls was presented with a Quilt of Valor by Rebecca’s Reel Quilters Guild of Middletown, New Jersey. The event was held at the National Guard Militia Museum in Sea Girt, and in attendance were the Falls’ nine children as well as grandchildren and other relatives and friends. Quilt of Valor presentation footage taken by his daughter.
Falls was proud to be awarded the Valorous Unit Award. The Valorous Unit Award is the second highest United States military unit decoration which may be bestowed upon a military unit after the Presidential Unit Citation.