“I still don’t know if the bloody footprints on the ground are those of a survivor or one of the 19 who lost their lives that day.”
Those are the words of Master Sgt. Norma Gillette, U.S. Air Forces Europe – Air Forces Africa Innovation and Transformation Office superintendent and survivor of the Khobar Towers Bombing terrorist attack 25 years ago.
On the night of June 25, 1996, a bomb was detonated near the Khobar Tower housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Airmen and injuring more than 400 U.S. and international military members and civilians. The towers housed coalition forces supporting Operation Southern Watch, a no-fly zone operation in Southern Iraq.
Gillette, a Michigan Air National Guardsman from the 110th Wing, Battle Creek Air National Guard Base currently on orders to Ramstein Air Base, was an active duty senior airman on her first deployment serving as a dormitory manager at the time of the attack.
Gillette recalled the evening of June 25 began just like any other night on deployment.
“It was hot that night, unbearably hot, so a friend and I sat in one of our common areas instead of walking the perimeter,” she said. “All of a sudden, the glass door shattered, and we were blown across the room. We had burns, cuts and couldn’t hear – [we] didn’t know what had gone on.”
Gillette explained anyone able to walk immediately assisted in the care of the wounded, transporting and assisting anywhere possible, from using doors as stretchers to helping someone who lost a limb.
“Whether you were injured or not, if you could walk and help, you were doing it,” she said. “They kept bringing more and more people in, and we had no clue what was going on. We were very confused, it’s dark out and there’s bodies all over the place.”
Gillette received the Purple Heart for injuries she sustained that day, and counts it as one of the most formative experiences in her life, which has greatly impacted her career and outlook.
The Purple Heart is also worn by the current USAFE-AFAFRICA commander, Gen. Jeff Harrigian, who was also deployed to Khobar at the time of the bombing.
Then-Capt. Harrigian was deployed from the 58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Wing, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and was in the towers when the attack occurred.
“In our squadron, we lost 12 guys,” Harrigian said. “That was a very emotional event, and something that will always be a part of who I am. Because of this horrific act of terrorism at Khobar Tower, 19 bright and talented individuals can never be replaced.”
“These memories forever remind me that stakes are high and the sacrifice is real when we step up to the plate to serve our country,” he added.
Gillette echoed this sentiment, explaining one of her most cherished possessions is a photo of the 19 fallen Airmen in their flag-draped caskets in the back of an aircraft before returning home to be laid to rest.
“Twenty-five years later, [the photo is] in pristine condition, and I can still tell you exactly how many [Airmen], how they’re lined up and who was where,” Gillette said. “It still stays really fresh in your mind. It isn’t a, ‘this happened to me’ thing. It’s them, all 19 of them.”
Gillette further explained she prefers not to wear her service dress because of complicated emotions surrounding the Purple Heart decoration itself and what it means to her. At times, she said, she feels unworthy of receiving the same medal as the 19 Airmen who lost their lives. She still gets emotional when discussing the attack and the aftermath.
“It’s been 25 years since that night, and we cannot forget,” Gillette said. “We cannot forget those we lost that night. Nineteen men from an [airman 1st class] to a captain are among those we lost that night. We cannot forget them!”
On this day, the 25th anniversary of the Khobar Towers Bombing, we remember our 19 lost brothers in arms: Capt. Christopher Adams, Capt. Leland Haun, Master Sgt. Michael Heiser, Master Sgt. Kendall Kitson, Tech. Sgt. Daniel Cafourek, Tech. Sgt. Patrick Fennig, Tech. Sgt. Thanh Nguyen, Staff Sgt. Ronald King, Staff Sgt. Kevin Johnson, Sergeant Millard Campbell, Senior Airman Earl Cartrette Jr., Senior Airman Jeremy Taylor, Airman 1st Class Christopher Lester, Airman 1st Class Brent Marthaler, Airman 1st Class Brian McVeigh, Airman 1st Class Peter Morgera, Airman 1st Class Joseph Rimkus, Airman 1st Class Justin Wood and Airman 1st Class Joshua Woody.
The Purple Heart is awarded to military members who are injured or killed in the service of their country.