OWOSSO — In the spring of 1983, Eugene Numerick’s life was happening in a hurry: He got married in April, graduated from Morrice High School in May and started active duty in the U.S. Air Force in July.
He had no way of knowing that eight years later, he’d find himself in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, feeling the shockwaves of exploding Patriot and Scud missiles as U.S. troops, in Operation Desert Storm, defended Saudia Arabia from an invasion by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces.
Or that he would come home with health woes caused by exposure to toxins.
“It was pretty peaceful back then, though we did have the cold war,” Numerick, 54, said Wednesday. “I enlisted because my best friend did. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career, so I signed up for a four-year hitch in the Air Force.”
Later, he would re-enlist and serve for an additional five years. Numerick was a security specialist, providing protection for such U.S. military assets as fighter jets and tanks. Attached to the 4409 Operational Support Wing, his rank was staff sergeant.
After basic and security specialist training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, Numerick was stationed at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda for 21/2 years. It’s where his and wife Beth’s first child, a daughter, was born.
Next stop — in June 1986 — was Sicily, where Numerick spent two years securing ground-launch missiles. In July 1988, he and his family moved to New Mexico, site of Holloman Air Force Base, where Numerick performed aircraft security for nearly four years.
In January 1991, he was deployed to Saudia Arabia for Desert Storm as a replacement.
“I was as patriotic as any guy,” Numerick said. “I wanted to help our allies. I believed in our mission.”
Desert Shield and Desert Storm were two parts of an operation by a coalition of nations to first protect Saudi Arabia and then to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait after Iraq invaded in 1990.
After a stop in England and a flight that gave him an aerial view of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Numerick landed in Riyadh, where “it was raining like the dickens.”
Numerick was stuck in crude, temporary living quarters for a few days before moving into a new and luxurious condo complex. The Saudis had built the condos for Bedouin citizens, but they didn’t want to live there, so the government turned it over to the coalition forces, he said.
He was fast asleep inside his condo one night when a fellow soldier, dressed for battle, burst into the bedroom and shouted, “We’re being hit by mortar fire.”
Needless to say, Numerick was shaken, but he recovered quickly and ran up to the roof with his weapon, a live round in the chamber. At first, he saw nothing unusual.
“Then fireworks lit up the sky,” he said. “It was Patriots taking out Scuds. You could feel them where we were, 20 miles away.”
Patriots are surface-to-air missiles; they were used by the U.S. Army and allied nations to intercept Scuds, tactical ballistic missiles launched by Saddam Hussein’s troops.
Numerick’s group, which provided security for mission-essential aircraft at the Riyadh International Airport, stayed relatively safe through Desert Storm, though the massive explosions of misfiring missiles often rattled them.
One day, danger came to call when a Scud exploded at the end of the airport’s flight line, about a mile from the security building.
The next morning, Numerick and a buddy checked out the “big honking” hole in the ground the missile had made. It was “big enough to fit a truck,” he said. He pocketed a piece of shrapnel as a souvenir, and still has it.
Numerick was overseas for only about 21/2 months, but said he has suffered serious health problems as a result of his service there. He believes he and many other soldiers were exposed to potentially toxic substances, including possibly chemical weapons deployed by Hussein during Desert Storm.
Soldiers were assigned protective gear — hood, gas mask, suit, and rubber boots and gloves — but weren’t required to wear it at all times. Numerick recalled a day, after the war ended, when he and one of his troops walked to a burger bar located about a mile away.
Halfway there, alarms sounded.
“We ran all the way back to the base and found out it was a false alarm,” he said. “But we went back to the burger bar with our gear.”
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers who served in Desert Storm returned with the worst kind of souvenir, lingering health problems.
“When I got out of the service in 1992, I was fine,” he said. “But in 1998-99, I started having asthma and joint problems. I just hurt for no reason.”
In 2010, he was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes widespread muscle and bone pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. He also suffers from arthritis in his feet and hands.
“I’m in serious pain every day,” he said. “I’m 54 years old and I have the body of a 70-year-old.”
It took five years of fighting with Veterans Affairs, but Numerick now receives disability benefits.
“I just wish they would admit it,” he said. “They should own up to it.”
Numerick hasn’t let pain hold him back. He’s worked security at the Social Security office in Owosso for 25 years. He is currently finishing up a bachelor’s degree in social work.
Recently he signed up to join the Owosso American Legion Post 57. He is working with State Rep. Ben Frederick, R-Owosso, to post a road sign on M-52 honoring Desert Storm veterans, and raising money to pay for the sign.
On Memorial Day, he rode a bicycle pulling a model for the M-52 road sign in three local parades.
“I’m glad I served,” Numberick said, “but it’s so different now. I’m definitely not against protecting freedom. But now, kids are coming back with missing limbs and they don’t know how to function.”
Numerick and his wife of 36 years have two adult children and three grandchildren. They belong to United Pentecostal Church in Owosso, where the couple met as high school students.
His hobbies include travel, reading, writing and bicycling.
He sometimes thinks about his days in the service, and said he wishes he’d made the military his career. On the other hand, he’s happy to be living in Owosso.
“It’s neat to be in another culture,” Numerick said, “but there’s no place like home.”