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GI Recounts Desert Tragedy From ‘Friendly Fire’

February 25, 1991

BONN, Germany (AP) _ If the rocket had hit two minutes earlier, U.S. Army Spc. Khiem Ta would not be alive to tell his story of a tragedy caused by ″friendly fire.″

Ta was wounded when rocket fire from a U.S. Apache helicopter tore through his Bradley fighting vehicle as it patrolled inside Saudi Arabia near the Iraqi border. Two other soldiers perished in the inferno.

One had just switched places inside the five-man vehicle with Ta.

″Two minutes later it happened. It was like hell ... intense fire, and intense heat. It was like being inside the center of a volcano,″ said the Vietnamese-born GI, who spoke Monday by telephone from the U.S. Army Hospital in Landstuhl where he is being treated for shrapnel wounds and burns.

According to Ta, the Bradley was on patrol just before midnight on Feb. 16. There were reports of Iraqi forces headed their way, and the battalion commander called in Apaches to ″take out the tanks,″ said Ta.

The Bradley waited for the Apaches to arrive.

″There was a lot of confusion. It was night. The weather was quite bad, there was a sandstorm, no moon, really cloudy, and even with thermal optics you couldn’t see very well,″ recalled the 24-year-old soldier.

At one point, the Bradley’s gunner said he was drowsy. The vehicle commander told Ta and the gunner to switch places. The gunner went to the rear.

Then the rocket tore through the Bradley’s rear deck, exploding inside and killing Spc. Jeffery T. Middleton, 26, and 18-year-old Pvt. 2 Robert D. Talley.

Communications gear and wiring jarred loose by the blast fell on Ta’s head.

″There were sparks flying, smoke and fire. I thought I was going to be trapped and burned alive. I couldn’t see anything,″ he said.

Ta tried to open his turret hatch, but it was jammed. The vehicle commander was stunned, and Ta hit him to bring him to.

After both got out, Ta looked for a fire extinguisher on the vehicle’s rear deck to help those still inside, but the deck had been blown off, he said.

″I wanted to get back inside and pull both of them out. ... But there wasn’t anything I could do,″ said Ta. ″I felt real bad. I was thinking it could have been me. I was down on myself for a few days.″

Ta still shows some anger about the mistake.

″The battalion commander had stressed again and again ... everyone has to make positive identification before shooting off a round,″ he said.

Still, Ta said: ″I joined the army and understood if there is a war I would go, and there is a chance I might get hurt. That’s part of the business.″

Ta has already had considerable luck.

In 1975, he and his family fled Vietnam in a military landing craft that had been secured by his mother’s brother, once an officer in the South Vietnamese marines. Ta was 9 at the time.

They set out across the South China Sea for Australia. About 20 miles out, they were picked up by an American freighter. They eventually made their way to Lawrence, Kan., which Ta now calls home.

Before joining the Army, he studied computer science at the University of Kansas.

Ta said doctors told him he’ll probably be sent back to the United States to complete his recovery.

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