Blue on Blue
"Typical" is a word that many people use to describ
American audiences were treated to video footage of cruise missiles and smart bombs "surgically" lancing into enemy command bunkers and hangars. Stealth fighters swooped over Baghdad, untouched night after night by glowing ropes of antiaircraft fire flung into the sky.
It all made war look easy, an operation that could be switched on and off: 98 ... 99 ... 100 hours ... done. The fighting appeared sanitary, as bloodless as the pixels of a video game.
"It may have been short, but it wasn't pretty," declares Steve Thillen of Columbus, Ga., who served as a sergeant in Tony Kidd's battalion. On Feb. 27, 1991, at about 2 a.m., while fighting against the Iraqi Republican Guard, Tony's company of Bradley personnel carriers was mistakenly shot up by another American unit's tanks, M1A1s built in his hometown. Tony and three other Americans died, and 18 were wounded in the blue on blue (military code for friendly fire).
Then the Army began lying to their families.
"Ornery," said with a smile, is the first word that comes to Wayne Kidd's mind in describing his first son, Anthony Wayne Kidd, as a child.
"He was just a typical kid," Tony's mother, Deborah says. "Just liked to get into everything and do anything he could and hope he didn't get caught."
Their daughter Rebecca, her husband -- ex-Army -- and three children are living with the Kidds, the house once again ringing with high-pitched cries of "It's mine!" and cartoon-show music. A portrait of Tony painted from his basic-training graduation photo hangs on one wall, close to a case containing his medals and a few snapshots.
The oldest of four, Tony could be reckless. Trying to do a flip backward off a swing in third grade, he broke his arm. He broke the other one in high school, playing football in the back yard with his brother Dan and some neighbor boys.
While Tony was growing up, he and his siblings sometimes spent time at their grandparents' house while Deborah worked as a waitress. Deborah's father, Leslie Raymond Davis, had been a belly gunner in the Army Air Corps in North Africa during World War II. "My dad would sit and talk to Tony: war stories. He just captivated, had Tony's undivided attention the whole time," she recalls.
His grandfather's tales and the war movies they watched together sparked Tony to start playing at war when he was about 12. "He'd get the little plastic toy soldiers and they'd stand 'em up in rows on the rug," Deborah says. "They'd be clear across the room and they'd use the marbles as little bombs. They'd either toss 'em or roll 'em across the floor to see how many of these toy soldiers they could wipe out."
"The last one to have a man standing won," Dan says, adding that big brother Tony always won at board games because he invariably had the best strategy.
For a while, Tony wanted to be an astronaut. "I remember getting my phone bill one day," Deborah says archly. "He called NASA to find out ... what kind of classes he'd have to take in school to become an astronaut." And he didn't call NASA Lewis in Cleveland; he called NASA mission control in Houston.
But after receiving a packet detailing all the time and schooling involved to be considered for the space program, Tony changed course.
Having ruled out astronaut as an option, he turned his gaze back to the military. He talked his best friend, Dave Creps, into signing up to join the Army with him after their graduation from Lima Senior in 1988. The recruiter told the two they'd be in a program in which they could go through basic training together and be stationed together. "But that never happened," says Creps. Tony was sent to basic at Fort Benning, Ga., and Creps to Fort Dix, N.J. It was an early lesson in Army promises.
Though Creps acknowledges that Tony really did believe in service to his country, he adds, "Honestly, I think he just wanted out of Lima." The military is a popular exit route from the blue-collar city. Though Lima's population is only about 45,000, Lima Senior High had more than 100 alumni in Gulf War service. Creps himself ended up as an engineer building roads for the Army fuel convoys in Saudi Arabia.
Once in, Tony hoped to train for the Army Special Forces, spurred by the exciting images from recruiting videos: roping down from helicopters and jumping out of planes.
"He was always a wild person," Dan recalls fondly. "Always out looking for adventure."
But at 6-foot-2, he was rejected as being too tall for the helicopters. He next turned his sights on the Army airborne, but a sergeant talked him out of it, telling him that the shock of repeated landings tended to compress paratroopers' spines.
"So then that's when he decided to go into Bradleys," Deborah recalls.
Tony trained as an 11-Mike, the Army designation for an infantryman who rides into action in the back of a Bradley tracked infantry fighting vehicle and then dismounts to clear trenches and bunkers and deal with enemy foot soldiers. The Bradley in which he trained and served normally carries a crew of three -- commander, gunner and driver -- plus six dismounts. In addition to the dismounts' personal weapons, the vehicle is armed with a 25mm Bushmaster chain gun that can fire up to 200 rounds per minute, a TOW missile launcher and a 7.62mm machine-gun.
After he completed basic training, followed by several weeks of additional training on Bradleys, Tony got 30 days' leave and came home.
"As a kid, I always wanted to hang around him, but I was always considered the tagalong, the lost puppydog," says Dan Kidd. But when Tony returned home from training, he invited Dan on a canoeing trip with some friends in nearby Shawnee. "It was nice to have him ask me to come along," Dan says, recalling the moment as marking a new adult stage in their relationship. Tony now treated him as an equal, not the little brother dogging his heels.
"He grew up a lot while he was in the military," notes Dan, who works as a scanning specialist for Exxon in Charlotte, N.C.
Looking at the photo of Tony taken in his dress uniform upon graduating basic, Dan notes his brother's tense expression. "It's funny, he explained to me why he's so upset in this picture. In the military, when they're taking this picture, there's a sergeant or someone standing there beside you. And if you crack a little smile or grin or anything, he says they will punch you in the shoulder until they get the smirk off your face. They want you to look tough in these pictures, he said."
Tony stopped in to see Gary Webb and impressed his former vocational carpentry teacher. "You can just tell when a young man has made his change and he has respect for society and has respect for elders and has respect for himself. And he was at that point," Webb says.
Tony asked Webb if, after he finished his enlistment, he could come back for advice on setting up on his own in the construction trade. "In his business, he would have done well," Webb surmises. "He found his niche in carpentry."
But as basic training receded behind him, Tony may have started finding a path for himself in the military.
He was stationed with the Forward Brigade of the 2nd Armored Division, based at the Lucius D. Clay Kaserne in "a wide spot in the road" called Garlstedt in northern Germany. Within the brigade, Tony was assigned to B Company in the 1st Battalion of the 41st Infantry Regiment -- Bravo 1/41 in Army shorthand. His sister Rebecca was already on the same base as the spouse of Michael Lee Rogers, a sergeant in the 2nd Armored. Mike had helped arrange for Tony to end up in Garlstedt because it was Tony's first overseas assignment, and having family there would make it easier.
Rebecca says that she and Tony talked a lot while they both lived in Germany, as well as some long-distance conversations before he shipped out for the Gulf. She is convinced he saw a future in the military.
"I'm pretty sure Tony would've stayed in and made a career out of it, too," Mike agrees.
Mike, now out of the service after 10 years, recalls Tony's first encounters with his new niece at their family quarters in Germany: "Ashly was screaming, she was only a month old. Tony comes up to me: "I can't take it! I don't think she likes me!' " He breaks into laughter, picturing again the 6-foot-2 infantryman rendered helpless by a tiny baby.
Mike shakes his head. "Oh geez, he loved it over there, he did."
Tony took to the Army life so much that when Mike and Rebecca hosted a Halloween party on the base, while everyone else decided to costume themselves in '50s duds, Tony showed up as ... a United States Army soldier.
In high school, while he worked as a dish-tanker/busser at the same Bob Evans where his mom was a waitress, Tony had met Julia Pratt. She worked across the road at the Ponderosa Steak House. Julia already had a young son, Bradley, who Tony took to deeply.
"When [Julia] first met me," Deborah recalls, "she made the statement, 'I'm gonna marry your son,' she says. "Yes, I am.' "
Early in 1990, the couple set things in motion to make that vow come true. Tony got leave to return to the states. Julia made all the arrangements for the ceremony and reception.
Tony wanted Dave Creps as his best man, but Creps couldn't get away from his own Army duties, which had him overseas at the time. So Tony turned to one of his friends in Bravo, Cpl. Jeff Szkrybalo, a fellow 11-Mike.
"To be completely truthful, Tony was a friend and a good friend, but to be the best man at his wedding was an excuse to get a 100 percent-guaranteed leave time," Szkrybalo admits.
Tony and Julia were married on May 19, 1990. Bradley, just shy of four, was their ringbearer. The couple honeymooned in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., in the Smoky Mountains. At the end of his leave, Tony returned Germany. Julia stayed with her grandmother outside Lima. Dan Kidd says Tony talked about wanting to adopt Bradley as his own son.
Then, on Aug. 2, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded his southern neighbor, the tiny monarchy of Kuwait.
Months of sanctions and warnings followed, but when they failed to dislodge Iraq, preparations were made for offensive action. On Nov. 8, President George Bush announced the decision to send an additional 140,000 troops, doubling U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia. In Germany, the 2nd Armored Division (Forward) was alerted to prepare for deployment.
Tony had been scheduled to rotate stateside that month to Fort Riley, Kansas. But the deployment order froze everyone at their present assignment and automatically extended their enlistment to cover the duration of hostilities. The 2nd Armored geared up to go to war.
Tony was chosen as one of the troops sen to the German port of Bremerhaven to accompany the unit's vehicles on the sea journey to the Gulf. The bulk of divisional personnel flew commercial or military airliners into Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
As the days ran down toward his sailing, Tony managed to make one last phone call home. He was depressed about missing his rotation to Kansas, and about not being able to reach Julia that evening. And he was scared.
As Deborah remembers the conversation, Tony said, "Mom, I have a feeling I won't be coming home."
Stunned by her son's sudden fatalism, Deborah struggled to come up with something reassuring across the thousands of miles.
"Well, you don't need to think that way," she said. "Things could turn out to be a lot different."
"No, I know I'm not coming home. The next time you see me I'll probably be in a casket." Repeating his words, Deborah's composure finally slips, her voice drowning as tears pour down her cheeks.
"He didn't tell me that, but he said he had a bad feeling about it," Wayne recalls quietly. He told his son to keep his head down and not be a hero.
Deborah masters herself exactly as she probably did during Tony's call a decade ago: "The only thing I can tell you is, son, go over and whatever it takes, you kick ass."
The 2nd Armored was reunited with its vehicles at the Saudi port of Al-Jubayl, where the men were housed in giant warehouses. Vehicles were painted desert tan. The men took pills against possible nerve-agent attacks, but the pills gave them the runs. Scud missile warnings sounded so often that the troops began to ignore them.
The allied air offensive against Iraq began on Jan. 17, 1991, and Armed Forces radio cued up The Clash's "Rock the Casbah" to mark the occasion.
1/41 moved into the desert and began practicing. The vehicles and dismounts did full-speed run-throughs of clearing enemy strongpoints on trenches and sandbag bunkers dug for them by the engineers.
Around Valentine's Day, the division moved to Forward Assembly Area Manhattan, where sand berms formed a neutral zone between the borders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. The clock was winding down to G-Day, the opening of the ground war.
On Feb. 24, that attack was launched. The initial push from the south was so successful that the second phase, the "Hail Mary" maneuver to swing around and strike the Iraqis unexpectedly from the west, was pushed up by 15 hours. 1/41 was part of that left-hook punch. The following days and nights seemed to be nothing but forward movement in their vehicles, halting only for refueling.
The ground war was three days old when a faulty voltage regulator disabled the Bradley belonging to Bravo 1/41 commander Capt. Lee Wilson. The company's advance ground to a halt.
Bravo Company, with the rest of 2nd Armored, had just executed a flawless nighttime passage of lines through the U.S. 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. "It's difficult at best when you're doing it during the daytime," says Thillen. They passed through the 2nd ACR "like a sieve," taking up the fight from the cavalry.
Bravo hadn't engaged with the enemy yet, though. And now they had a dead command vehicle.
Szkrybalo and the rest of Capt. Wilson's crew were left behind with the derelict carrier. Wilson commandeered Lt. Mickey Williams' B-26, the Bradley inside which Tony was radioman for the dismount squad. Williams in turn took over B-21, bumping its commander into the gunner's seat, and leaving the gunner, Pfc. David Kramer, to climb down into the dismount bay and cram himself into the "hellhole," a small tunnel behind the driver's compartment.
"[The space] was pretty much packed full of ammo and food and people's gear, but he wedged himself up in there and kind of laid on top of everything," says Ed Stitzel of Fairfield, Ohio, then a 19-year-old private in Tony's platoon.
In the hasty transfer, Wilson inadvertently left his Magellan GPS receiver in his original vehicle.
Handheld GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers employ simultaneous readings from three satellites to precisely determine longitude and latitude. But even though the Department of Defense had been developing GPS for 18 years, the military went into the Gulf War with a shortage of such receivers, rushing to fill the gap by buying up units intended for small-boat navigation and other civilian purposes.
"We had some GPS that we'd never gotten a chance to train on," recalls Stitzel. "I wasn't even aware that it existed until probably a few weeks before we left Germany."
In Saudi Arabia, GPS receivers proved something of a prestige symbol, and many units ended up in the possession of rear-echelon officers rather than in the hands of those on the front line. No one else in Bravo had a GPS receiver, although there were supposed to be at least two per company. Without the satellite fix, they soon veered off course and became lost -- "misoriented," in military-speak.
The dismounts had no idea of the situation. "We didn't know that there was anything wrong," remembers Stitzel.
There were small periscopes above the vehicles' firing ports, but looking out for any length of time made the men motion-sick. They simply sat in the darkness for hours, packed together with their weapons and gear. From sleep deprivation during basic training, they had all learned the trick of catching a catnap under any conditions, even rocking across the desert in a metal box, surrounded by the stink of fuel and the screech of tracks.
"The whole while, you're getting pitched back and forth and dropping around," explains Stitzel. "We'd been in the back of that thing for so long that the days were really running together. I don't even know if I knew what day of the week it was."
"The guys 'downstairs,' ... all they hear is all this firing," says Larry Chaney, who was a lieutenant platoon leader in Delta Company of 1/41. "All they're doing is looking out the firing ports and they can see all these burning vehicles, so they're pretty nervous down there because they don't really know what's going on. ... It's just a pretty claustrophobic situation when you're down there and you're buttoned up."
While Iraqi units were streaming in flight elsewhere along the front, here they made a stand. The 2nd Armored faced remnants of the Tawakalna Republican Guard division, the cream of the Iraqi army. But the result was the same. Though the Iraqis were determined, their tank guns were outranged by 1,000 meters and they had nothing to match the American infrared sights. They fought blindly, for the most part unable to hit back, and they were destroyed.
Steve Thillen, a 37-year-old master sergeant with 1/41's headquarters at the time, diagrams Task Force 1/41's armored wedge as it advanced. 1/41 Infantry's Bradleys had the point, followed by two attached tank battalions, 2/66 Armored and 3/66 Armored, one on either flank. But the wedge flattened out some when it hit the heavy resistance of the Tawakalna Division. On the left of the wedge, 2/66 faced the Iraqis head-on. In the center, 1/41 swung left to engage the same enemy -- on top of which, Bravo Company of 1/41 was off course because of Capt. Wilson's lost GPS. 1/41 strayed in front of 2/66. And during the allied attack, anything in front of you was assumed to be Iraqi.
The American armored wave moving ahead of 1/41 had shot up anything that showed up on their thermal sights. But bypassed Iraqi infantry dismounts and antitank teams with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) began popping up, trying to fire at the vulnerable rear decks of American vehicles. They were mowed down by the machine-guns of the tanks and Bradleys, but not without getting shots off.
The driver of Tony's Bradley, Pfc. Dennis Skaggs, saw a burning object skip across in front of him, probably an Iraqi RPG round. Then something slammed the vehicle sideways and stopped it dead. In the turret, gunner Sgt. Joe Dienstag looked over to find Capt. Wilson gone, knocked from his seat. The dismounts in back were hollering to be let out. Skaggs, flash-burned, couldn't get his hands to work the controls for the ramp. He and Dienstag jumped out, ran to the back and battered open the troop hatch in the ramp with a sledgehammer.
Smoke and shouting men poured out. Skaggs and Dienstag found Tony Kidd and pulled him out between them, but when they tried to set him down he began screaming. In the darkness, Dienstag ran his hands along the wounded man's body until his fingers slid into wet warmth -- both Tony's feet had been sheared off at the shins by a tank round. His combat boots, with his feet still inside, were later discovered inside the wrecked Bradley. Skaggs, a trained combat lifesaver, tore strips from Tony's uniform to improvise tourniquets.
When Tony's Bradley was hit, Stitzel was half-asleep in the back of his own carrier, facing the rear ramp. His squadleader, Sgt. Maceo Shedrick, was on his right, Sgt. David Crumby on his left, all of them knee to knee and elbow to elbow.
"I heard a noise that was, it was really loud, but I couldn't say that it sounded like an explosion. ... Maybe the sound lasted a 10th of a second," Stitzel guesses. "The next time when I opened my eyes, I was laying on my back just outside of the vehicle. The ramp ... wasn't just merely down, but it was blown off and laying on the ground and I was at the bottom of it. It was just incredible pain in my chest, and my ears were ringing to beat all."
The air had been driven from his lungs and he sucked wind desperately, his hands starting to check himself for blood. "It felt like my lungs had been completely collapsed," Stitzel says. He turned his head and found Sgt. Shedrick on the ground next to him, also whooping for air, blood coming from his ear. Their eyes met, wide with shock and fear and pain.
Soldiers dragged Sgt. Crumby from Stitzel's B-21, still alive but with blood pouring from three chest wounds, and a portion of his skull taken off by a chunk of shrapnel. The Bradley was burning. In the driver's compartment, Pfc. Kevin Pollak worked the lever to lower the ramp to let the dismounts out, not knowing the ramp had been blown off. He sustained terrible burns before his seatbelt burned through and he was able to topple out of the vehicle.
Lt. Williams had been blown out of B-21's turret "like a jack-in-the-box," according to Stitzel. In shock and gashed from his buttocks to his knee by the hatch lock, the lieutenant was on the ground with the radio mike still in his hand, calling for help, unaware that the cord was attached to nothing.
Stitzel had been sitting back-to-back with Spec. Manuel Davila. Men tried to get Davila out, but his pack harness was caught on his seat, possibly looped over it so he wouldn't be knocked over while he slept. They couldn't find a pulse and had to abandon Davila's body as the Bradley was engulfed by flames.
David Kramer, the gunner who been displaced from his turret seat to a corner in the hellhole, took the full force of one of the tank rounds, which cut him in half.
The wounded were dragged away from the blazing hulk as ammunition inside began to cook off in the fire. Men who weren't injured formed a "wagon-wheel" around the wrecked vehicles, weapons ready to repel a ground attack. Radio calls went out for medevac helicopters to retrieve the wounded. But the reply came back that the area was too hot to risk sending in choppers.
"People were on the radios just screaming about it," Stitzel remembers.
Thillen says there were other sergeants his age in the battalion who had served in Vietnam. "When they heard that these choppers wouldn't come forward, they were just going like, 'Man, these pieces of shit!' I mean, in Vietnam, the [chopper pilots] would come in and take a round for you."
The casualties finally had to be loaded onto vehicles that could be spared to drive back over the desert to a collection point where it was safer for the helicopters to land. From there, they were flown to the King Khalid Military City Hospital in Saudi Arabia, which had been taken over by a U.S. Army staff and augmented by tent hospitals surrounding it. The evac hospital units tried to maintain patients no longer than 72 hours in Saudi Arabia, stabilizing them for transport to military hospitals in Germany as soon as possible.
Tony Kidd was wounded early on the morning of Feb. 27. Thirty hours later, a ceasefire went into effect. Tony died of his wounds March 1 in the KKMC Hospital, six weeks short of his 22nd birthday.
Early in the morning on March 2, a Saturday, the Kidds' phone rang. Wayne picked up the receiver. An Army sergeant stationed at the Lima Tank Plant was on the other end, calling from Lafayette, east of Lima, where Julia was living with her grandmother. "He told me who he was on the phone and that kind of set it off right there," Wayne says. "First words out of his mouth after that was, 'We regret to inform you...' And then I knew what it was right away."
Like most Americans, the Kidd family had followed the war closely on TV. "We kind of hoped that maybe we might catch a glimpse of [Tony]," Deborah says. With word of the ceasefire a few days before, they had breathed a sigh of relief, believing their son was now safe.
The sergeant came over, picked them up and drove them out to Lafayette. "He didn't really have a whole lot of information," Deborah says. He'd carried the news to Julia, then to Tony's parents.
"He was the first one that said anything about landmines, but he was just telling us what he'd been told," adds Wayne. The Kidds were informed that their son had died of wounds sustained by stepping on a mine.
"The next thing we have to do is we have to wait until the military gets his body stateside. We do that. [Julia] gets notified that Anthony's remains are at Delaware, at the military morgue, waiting for an OK to bring him home." Deborah pauses. "His body sat there from the 6th of March till the 12th because she did not want his body brought home until they could locate Jeff Szkrybalo to have him escort [Tony] home."
But Szkrybalo was still on duty in the Gulf. It wasn't until March 12 that Julia agreed to let one of the military honor guard from Delaware escort Tony's remains home.
The casket was opened the next day at the funeral home, with the body covered from the waist down. "I walked in and I took one look," says Deborah. "I didn't cry. I just looked in the casket. I said, 'That's not Tony.' It didn't look like Tony. To me, it looked like an unfinished mannequin laying there in the casket."
Her son's hair had an orange cast, which the family was told resulted from an embalming chemical the Army used. Because of the delay, his body had begun to bloat, making him look much heavier and more muscular.
Dan, in fact, became convinced it wasn't his brother and wanted to look for a birthmark Tony had on his right shoulder, but Julia refused to let anyone disturb the body.
The visitation was conducted with an 8x10 of Tony in uniform at the head of a closed casket.
On March 15, more than 200 cars made up the funeral procession. Tony received the Army's traditional farewells: the flag-draped casket, the salute of rifle fire, "Taps" played by an Army bugler. He was awarded three posthumous Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, along with an Asian War medal and a gold sunburst medal issued by the Saudi government to servicepeople who lost their lives in Saudi Arabia.
The day after the funeral, Jeff Szkrybalo flew into Dayton, fresh from the desert. He came to the Kidds' house and informed them he was taking Julia to his family's home in Michigan to get her away from the media and attention.
"[Julia] was under a lot of stress and a lot of pressure, that's all I knew," Szkrybalo says.
"She [later] decided to make her life up here with me after months and months and months of thinking and talking about it, so if there's any problems with that I don't see where it could be or how it could be."
Szkrybalo and Julia are now married. Julia Szkrybalo declined to comment for this story. Her son, Bradley Pratt, is 14. Tony's parents -- who were once Bradley's Grampa Wayne and Grandma Deb -- say they were told by Julia that he has no memory of them or of Tony Kidd. The Kidds and Julia's family are completely estranged.
In the spring of 1991, the Kidds received a letter from the military correcting the earlier report. The Army now said Tony's Bradley had been hit by an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade. That seemed more plausible to Deborah than the landmine story. After all, she reasoned, why would Tony have been walking around outside his vehicle at 2 a.m. in an area that hadn't been checked for mines?
But in mid-August 1991, more than five months after Tony's death, the Department of Defense finally released information on Gulf War friendly fire and news articles appeared revealing the extent of casualties and listing the names of those killed. Twenty-eight incidents during the Gulf War had left 35 Americans dead and 72 wounded. (In other incidents, nine British soldiers were also killed by American fire.)
"It was in the newspaper that we found out the third story, that it was actually friendly fire," Deborah says. "[The Army] never actually came to us and told us."
"After a while, I stopped believing what they were saying," Dan Kidd says of the Army. "It got to the point to where I didn't believe that that was my brother that was in that casket," he adds, recalling the distorted features and orange hair.
"I did for a long time believe that he was still around somewhere," Dan admits. "In the back of your mind, you wanna believe that he's still out there somewhere."
The family has never received an account of the days between Tony's wounding and his official date of death. "We don't know if he was still alive at that time or not," Wayne says. "We don't know if he said anything, had any last words for anybody. They never said. Nobody ever told us. We asked to try to find the chaplain that was there for last rites -- no information on that either."
12:00 AM EST
December 12, 2008