I offer these writing prompts for extra credit opportunities for my writing students. Here is a response to the “Writing Out the Storm” prompt that I persuaded one of my students to share. He generously agreed to do so. I believe you will find this description of a sandstorm in Kuwait, where this young soldier was stationed, a captivating, up-close-and-personal view of a climactic event few readers will ever witness. It also gives Americans a unique glimpse of some of the realities our honored servicemen and servicewomen encounter on their tours of duty. For these reasons, I decided to pull it from the comments section of the prompt post and feature it “up top,” here. Phyllis Nissila
The barren wasteland that is the Middle East seldom offers a natural wonder that would leave one breathless. In 2006 I was a Private in the United States Army who had just arrived in Camp Buehring, Kuwait. My knowledge and experience in the Middle East was non-existent, at best. I had only heard stories of the sand storms that occur there resulting in everything from company-sized elements being stranded for hours if not days, the storms’ ability to turn day to night, to the sand blasts even wearing the paint off of vehicles. Little did I know what an incredible force those sand storms actually were.
One sweltering afternoon my team and I were returning to our tents after indulging in lunch, where the only forms of sustenance consumed were ice cream and Gatorade, when our venture came to an abrupt halt. We noticed off in the distance the horizon was being engulfed into an impossibly large wall of matter that seemed to continue upwards into the farthest reaches of the atmosphere. What the eye could barely make out as terrain features and structures in the distance were quickly consumed into the eerie rust-colored cloud as it raced across the Earth’s surface, looking as what I could best describe as the shock wave emitted by the explosion of an atomic bomb ravaging the surrounding landscape. As the minutes passed and the dismal “cloud of doom” drew nearer, our awe faded to a sense of panic when we speculated that our tent was still a five-minute run away. Given the storm’s pace, and our ability, the race was on.
Gasping for air, we had reached our tent with little time to spare. At this time, the unbearable heat began to subside giving way to a much cooler, stiff breeze. We had reached the safety of our tent; now all we had to do was ride the storm out. We stood outside to experience the full effect of what a sand storm truly is. Looking towards the “wall” of the storm, this was now within a few hundred meters, I felt as though I was at the foot of an immensely huge mountain that was determined to run me down. The bright blue sky quickly gave way to a reddish-brown hue of light. The wind was so violent I could not help but to feel as though I was intoxicated due the inability to maintain my balance. My uniform, which did wonders in protecting my skin from the hot Kuwaiti sun, did little to ward off the painful tingling sensation due to the abrasion of the sand cutting through it. It felt as though I had a numb appendage that had been improperly slept on, throughout every square inch of my body.
After enduring several minutes of the hell that lay just outside the door of our quarters, I decided that I had had enough and returned inside. That same rust-color haze had made its way into the tent. The walls of the tent slapped against its steel frame creating a deafening concussion throughout the room. Visibility inside was reduced so much that I could hardly make out the faces of those at the other end of the tent, approximately one-hundred feet away. Spare t-shirts were quickly fashioned into a hasty breathing apparatus by ripping them in half and wetting them to prevent too much dust inhalation. Our face masks helped us draw air without engaging our gag reflexes but quickly turned to mud and frequently needed rinsing. Mud formed around and in my mouth, the grit in between my teeth was nearly intolerable, my eyes burned. Even tears, a reaction to the stinging sand, turned to mud.
We were only 3 hours into this ordeal. Frustration was setting in. I believed the situation was a bad as it could get. As it turned out, I was wrong. The generator that powered our tent suddenly shut down; its air filter had become clogged and starved the engine of air. A fellow mechanic and I were summoned to engage the secondary generator for the time it would take us to tend to the other. At the time I was completely unaware of the fact that during a sand storm the tiny particles of sand racing through the air across metal surfaces created an electrical charge due to the friction they create. I reached out for the handle that housed the operating panel of the generator. My hand almost came into contact with the door, when I was certain somebody had punched me with all his might in the center of my back and then stomped on both my feet simultaneously. As it turns out, I had just been dealt a walloping dose of electricity. I regained my senses then attempted to make sense of the situation. I simply left that generator alone and moved back to the other, where I cleaned its filter and simply restarted it. Although I neglected to address the checklist that goes along with it, luck was on my side this time and everything went without a hitch.
I returned to my cot inside the tent where a few friends had convened and were playing a game of Spades. I had never been so happy to just be inside despite the conditions. This was by far one of the most miserable circumstances I had ever endured, and I was eager to relax as best I could, anyway. I retrieved a bottle of NyQuil from a bag beneath my cot and sipped it as though it were my morning coffee. A few games of Spades had come and gone when drowsiness set in. I retreated into the farthest allowable depths of my sleeping bag as though I were a caterpillar forming a cocoon, to ride the storm out in a peaceful slumber.
I awoke to a thumping and scratching sound the next morning. As I emerged from my sleeping bag, I noticed the tent still maintained that dreadful haze. Doors at each end of the tent were open, and through them entered the most beautiful sight, the sun. The haze and the noise were created by a four man detail with push brooms sweeping up the massive amounts of dust left in the tent. I rose still fully clothed from the day prior and went outside into what was already blistering temperatures. Never have I been so thankful for something as simple as sunshine and a clear blue sky.
Our squadron left Kuwait a few days after that. I would return to Kuwait four more times in my overseas duties and would experience more sandstorms as well, but never again did I experience one as horrible and miserable as that. Kuwait is many things, but a scenic route is not one of them; every rose has its thorn I guess. Yet for as horrible as the sandstorms are they are beautiful (at a distance) and captivating in their appearance proving to me that there is beauty in everything.
Photo from the public domain