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The Scud That Hit Greensburg : For One Pennsylvania Community, The Gulf War Has Not Ended

May 12, 1991|Paul Ciotti | Paul Ciotti, a staff writer for this magazine, grew up four miles from Greensburg, Pa.

ARLENE WOLVERTON knew what it meant when she saw the black Cougar drive slowly past her little white frame house in the western Pennsylvania countryside, turn around and then pull into the gravel drive. Just 45 minutes earlier, she had called Jan Hvizdos, coordinator of a military-family support group, to ask how the Army would notify her if her husband, Richard, had been killed in the Persian Gulf.

"If you see a car with two men in uniform," Hvizdos had said.

And now, to her horror, there they were, two U.S. Army sergeants, getting slowly out of the car and walking up the drive in the cold gray dawn.

Fighting back hysteria, she picked up the phone to call her mother-in-law. "They are coming now," said Wolverton, an honest and unsentimental woman. "Rick is killed."

The sergeants, from the nearby Greensburg Armory, were on the verge of tears themselves as they began their official litany: "We are here from the President of the United States and the Secretary of the Army to inform you that your husband, Richard, was killed in action on Feb. 25 in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia." But Wolverton didn't let them finish. "Stop! Stop! I don't want to hear it. Don't tell me this."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 23, 1991 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 2 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
In "The Scud That Hit Greensburg," the late Sen. John Heinz' name was misspelled. The editors regret the error.

After they left, Wolverton went crazy. She was a German citizen, married only eight months. Now she was a war widow, alone with a dog and two cats and a husband coming home in a body bag. It made her so furious she tore down the American flag and yellow ribbons from her front door, ripped up the sign from the Operation Desert Storm Family Support Group and threw it in the corner.

"I wanted to burn everything from the military," she says.

She was still angry two hours later when Rep. John Murtha, powerhouse chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, a former Marine and the longtime Democratic representative for Greensburg, called her to offer his condolences. "Your husband is a hero," he said.

"No, he's not a hero," Wolverton snapped. "I don't want to hear that. I want him back." And she slammed down the phone.

RICHARD WOLVERTON HAD SERVED WITH THE 14th Quartermaster Detachment, an Army Reserve unit home-based in Greensburg, a town of 17,000. The 14th's mission, when it was dispatched to the Gulf on Feb. 18, was to go into Kuwait after the fighting had stopped and set up large water-purification units. But the 14th never got the chance.

Five days after the unit's arrival, while it was still in Dhahran awaiting orders, an Iraqi Scud missile fell out of the sky on the warehouse that the unit was using for a barracks, killing 13 of the 69 members outright and wounding 39 others. Fifteen other soldiers from other parts of the country also died in the explosion. It was the worst military disaster suffered by U.S. forces in the entire Gulf War; of the 141 Americans who were killed in action in the Gulf, a quarter died in that single blast.

Unlike regular army units, which draw people from all over the country, the 14th was a reserve unit. Eighty percent of its dead and wounded came from the same geographic area: the Pennsylvania counties of Allegheny, Cambria, Clarion, Indiana, Washington and Westmoreland. And when news of the attack flashed across TV screens, it left families all over the rolling hills around Greensburg shattered, frantic and convulsed with grief.

But on one level, perhaps, they were not completely surprised. They had, after all, grown up in western Pennsylvania. As the mother of one wounded soldier observed, "Things never go completely right for us."

PEOPLE SOMETIMES CONFUSE THE COVERED bridges, soft pretzels and buggy-driving Amish farmers of eastern Pennsylvania with the western part of the state. In fact, because the Allegheny mountains slice diagonally through Pennsylvania, the eastern and western extremities have quite different personalities: The west has a gritty blue-collar vitality coupled with an economy that is chronically depressed. "There's a ruralness there you don't feel at the eastern end of the state, a backwardness, a gloominess," says one Greensburg native who left the area 25 years ago for the Pennsylvania Dutch country. "I sort of perceive it with coal dust hanging over the air."

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