Iraq veteran recalls fears, lessons learned

U.S. Air Force veteran Chuck Foster at the Willow Creek Diner in Heppner. Foster served overseas several times during his 10 years of active duty, working as a security guard, policeman and medical administrator. In the foreground is a miniature T barrier, a type of wall used for blast protection on military bases in the middle east, covered with signatures of people who served with Foster at a field hospital in Balad, Iraq.

Chuck Foster spent most of his Air Force years “in the rear with the gear,” but he still felt the fear of being in harm’s way and the frustration of fighting a Middle Eastern war.

American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are not certain who the enemy is, he said, or from where the next offensive will come. They must be constantly on guard; a paper bag in the street could hold a bomb, a young woman at a checkpoint could be strapped with explosives.

“The rules of engagement are different than it was for our fathers and grandfathers, and a lot of Americans don’t understand that,” he said.

A guard at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, Foster joined the Air Force when he was 19 years old. He’s served as a security guard, policeman and medical administrator in several countries including Panama, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Foster was present at the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, in which 19 American servicemen died. He was in a game room when the bomb, a sewage truck packed with explosives and parked at the perimeter fence, exploded.

“What saved my life, I think, was that a guy came in and wanted to play a video game,” Foster said. “I wanted to go for a run around the perimeter, but I was procrastinating.”

Foster said he first felt an electricity in the air, a loss of pressure. Then the lights went out, the walls started shaking and the television screen cracked. They heard an enormous boom.

Foster broke his nose diving for cover in the dark; he thought it was an earthquake. When he and the other man made it outside, they saw a huge fireball near the perimeter. Foster made his way to a medical area and helped bandage the wounded.

It was the only time Foster felt truly in danger, but it was enough.

“My heart goes out to guys who go outside the wire,” he said.

In 2009, Foster manned the front desk of a theater hospital in Balad, Iraq. His momentos from that time — a miniature barrier wall covered with signatures, coins of recognition from his wing chief and wing commander — testify to a job well done.

“For making every day a happy one!” a Capt. T wrote.

Foster spent some of his spare time in the hospital chapel, distributing care packages or wrapping gifts for wounded soldiers.

Foster now lives in Heppner with his wife, Katie, and their 5-year-old daughter. He learned valuable lessons in the military, he said, not the least of which is to roll with the punches.

“I always say, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade and add a little sugar,” he said.

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