Tom Frascone, Desert Storm

Desert Storm veteran continues to save lives as Emmet County EMS paramedic

By Tamara Stevens
Special to Emmet County

Tom Frascone


Most Americans watched Desert Storm, the start of the Gulf War, unfold live on CNN television in 1990. Tom Frascone, 47, of Harbor Springs, former Lieutenant in the United States Army, saw the war in person, from the hard, sandy ground of the Persian Gulf desert. And he wasn’t supposed to be there.

“I was supposed to be at Fort Sill, Oklahoma,” Frascone said, chuckling about fate.

He had completed basic training at Fort Sill, and had returned to college at the University of Akron, Ohio, where he served in the National Guard. After graduation, he joined the “Regular Army,” he said. His artillery training took him back to Fort Sill for artillery officer training. He also trained at Fort Lewis in Seattle, Washington; Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and airborne school at Fort Benning, Georgia.

His buddy had recently got married at the time, and was supposed to ship out to serve in Germany. The two men switched places so that his buddy could stay near his new bride. Frascone went to Germany to be part of a NATO group to oversee and safeguard shipping ports. The Cold War with the Soviets was winding down, Frascone recalls. The Berlin Wall had just come down. NATO troops were being reorganized throughout Europe. He had no reason to think he’d be going to war.

“You can’t send NATO troops to a non-NATO country to fight,” Frascone said.

Frascone and his fellow servicemen were part of the 2nd Armored Division stationed in Garlstedt, a tiny town in northern Germany, west of Hamburg.  His original orders were to be in Germany for about three years. The world scene changed and Frascone’s unit was activated one month before the air war started in January 1991.

“So I went to the war and he (his buddy) didn’t,” said Frascone. “We didn’t know if we were going to the Gulf or not (when he was in Germany). Then we were activated and they started deploying troops.”

Some troops were transported from Germany to the Persian Gulf on ships. As someone who gets seasick, Frascone was glad he wasn’t sent on the rough seas. Instead, he and his brigade flew to Saudi Arabia on an aircraft on Jan. 7, 1991.

“We landed in the desert somewhere,” Frascone said, “somewhere in eastern Saudi Arabia.”

Much of the landscape was flat for as far as the eye could see, he said. Landmarks were nonexistent. Frascone arrived at a port a week before all the ships with their vehicles, tanks and equipment landed. He remembers how the Persian Gulf sparkled in the sunlight. While waiting for the equipment to arrive, Frascone had a little down time.

During that first week, he talked to another lieutenant who had been transported on one of the ships. He reported to Frascone that at night, while standing on the ship’s deck with night-vision goggles, he watched hundreds and hundreds of U.S. aircraft bombing targets on land.

“We were a little anxious,” he remembers. “We didn’t know how hard the enemy would fight. The U.S. was the third largest Army in the world. Saddam Hussein’s was the fourth largest Army.”

‘They were trying to kill us’

They didn’t have much time to think about it before they got busy getting ready to go to the front. After unloading tanks and trucks, Frascone and the other members of his division were assigned to paint the vehicles in desert colored camouflage. In his no nonsense style, Frascone said they “went to the front and waited for the ground war to start after the bombing attacks.”

His Division, the 2nd Armored, was attached to the 1st Infantry Division. His U.S. Army Veteran cap that he wears today bears the pins of: the 2nd Armored Division; 1st Infantry Division; Artillery; U.S. Army Airborne; his Lieutenant bar; the National Defense badge; his Army pin and a pin for Desert Storm.

Saddam had threatened to use chemical warfare. Frascone and other U.S. troops had to keep their chemical gear within arm’s reach, in case Saddam used chemical SCUD missiles.

“They woke us up in the middle of the night to put on our chemical gear,” Frascone said. Chemical gear included thick, charcoal suits that would absorb chemical toxins, but were stiflingly hot in the desert. Wearing the gas masks was even more uncomfortable.

Frascone said his first eye-opening experience that awakened him to the seriousness of the situation happened shortly after he arrived in the Persian Gulf.

“We could see Iraqi tracers shooting at our planes, and that’s when it hit me that they were trying to kill us,” Frascone said. “This is not a training exercise.”

The Ground War Begins

“When we invaded Kuwait, we (his Division) waited five-to-six hours before advancing so that Saddam’s army would think that was all that would happen,” Frascone said. “We wanted them to think that we were only coming for Kuwait.”

He describes the attack as his Division going around back with room to maneuver their tanks, then hitting the enemy from behind. Raids such as these lasted two weeks, before the start of the ground war, and following the bombing raids. The 2nd Armored Division was right behind the 7th Corps, and when forces would move, the 7th Corps would move in one direction, then the 2nd Division would move around to the other side – basically a mind-game of “where are they now?”

“They would see our units and think we were here,” Frascone points out a location, “and we were over in another area. We would then replace our unit with other units. We didn’t want to take over Iraq, but it wouldn’t have been smart to go in only through Kuwait. We were coming at them from all directions. We wanted to kick him out.”

The Gulf War was short, he said. The air war (air strikes and bombings) lasted about five or six weeks, followed by a ground war of about 100 hours of nonstop fighting. During the ground war, Frascone’s brigade destroyed a lot of Iraqi army equipment and ammunition.

“We blew up bunkers, a lot of bunkers,” Frascone said.

As a platoon leader of the powerful Howitzer artillery equipment, basically a modern-day canon, Frascone was responsible for making sure that the Howitzers were in the correct location to have their self-propelled shells hit their intended targets.

“Most people think it’s a tank,” Frascone said of a Howitzer. “It sort of looks like the bottom of a tank,” but with a large barrel on top of it.

A Howitzer’s tube is approximately six inches across; Frascone holds his hands up to demonstrate the size, about the size of a volleyball. Using coordinates that were sent via radio to him, Frascone would use geometry to make sure they were in the right place at the right time. Now the Army uses computers for determining location coordinates, he said. But 25 years ago, it was Frascone’s job.  He estimates that they shot more than 5,000 shells or rounds.

Depending on the type of rounds, they could pinpoint within a laser beam their target, lay minefields, or they could wipe out an area almost the size of a football field with one shell, Frascone said: “It depends on what you’re trying to do.”

During some of the most intense bombing raids, Frascone said B52 bombers would fly overhead and drop their weapons. The ground would shake three-to-five miles away.

The desert was so flat, he could see the reflection of the bombings behind them, while the bombings were happening in front of them.

The goal: Liberation from oppression

Frascone’s Division was in one of the largest tank battles of the ground war. Nicknamed “The Battle of Norfolk,” a name given to it that he still doesn’t know why, because there were no features or landmarks to find its location.

“It was in the middle of nowhere,” Frascone said.

The Battle of Norfolk involved four-to-six divisions of the Republican Guard of Saddam’s army. A division is typically 8,000 to 10,000 soldiers.

“They didn’t give up,” Frascone said. “The Republican Guard is loyal to Saddam. They wouldn’t surrender.”

The enemy’s regular soldiers were Iraqis who were forced to fight for Saddam, he explained. They often surrendered so they could get back to their home villages and their families. But the Republican Guard was determined to fight. The Battle of Norfolk lasted for hours throughout the night.

“Our job was to wipe out the Republican Guard,” Frascone said. “We did a good job, but we didn’t get all of them. The war was so fast.”

When the cease fire was ordered, U.S. forces had the remaining Republican Guard surrounded, and they had to let them go, Frascone said.

“The Iraqis rose up against Saddam in Basra,” he said. “We ended the war in Kuwait just south of Basra. The guards we let go massacred those people in Basra,” Frascone said, his tone changing to regret.

“We were there to liberate Kuwait from a purely evil man,” Frascone said.

He saw evidence of torture conducted by Hussein’s army, and learned of fiendish atrocities committed by the enemy.

After the cease fire, Frascone’s Division stayed in Iraq to make sure that Hussein’s forces “didn’t try anything. We were there to keep them honest,” he said.

Reflecting on Desert Storm

Frascone has a photo album full of scenes of his experience. Photos of the morning after the cease fire show a daylight sky that is purple and black instead of blue.

“We woke up in the morning and saw all the fires in the distance,” Frascone said.

The enemy forces were supposed to destroy their own tanks, but the fires were from the hundreds of oil wells they had set ablaze. Thick, black smoke blanketed the flat desert sky. If the wind was blowing, the smoke from the burning oil wells would blow toward the troops and smell awful. He has photographs of daytime scenes that look like nighttime, there is so much smoke.

Another sabotage tactic the enemy utilized was to block all the major highways with bombed out vehicles. It took four-to-five weeks to clear off the highways so allied troops could get through, Frascone said.

Some of his observations include the fact that Iraqis were terrified of Apache helicopters. When there was shelling, they called it “metal rain,” so much ammunition was used.

His photos show scenes of flat, tan sand with cloudless blue skies, for miles and miles. In some of the photographs he and other men in his division stand in front of tents with nothing behind the tents but flat sand. Not even a sand dune or a single tree breaks up the horizon.

“The sand is like talcum powder,” Frascone said. “Yet the ground is hard as concrete. The sand is so fine it gets into everything.”

Frascone had a Gameboy device with him that his mother had sent him (he was 23 at the time). To this day there is sand inside the Gameboy that he cannot get out.

Frascone is still amazed at how photographs he took in one location look the same as other locations taken hundreds of miles apart.

“It’s all the same,” he said. “It’s similar to being out in the middle of a big lake on a calm day. There’s nothing to differentiate one location from another. There are no markers.”

The desert was flat, but it did have scorpions and snakes. “Bad snakes,” Frascone said. At any given time, there was a helicopter less than 30 minutes away with snake anti-venom on board, he said.

And the flies were so thick they called it “Desert swarm.”  His mother would send him care packages every day, and she sent him countless fly swatters for his men. Mail delivery was unreliable and intermittent. He would go long periods without receiving any mail, then get inundated with letters and packages all at once.

And then there were the sand storms. Frascone was in the desert seven months, and during that time March and April are the worst time for sand storms. He describes it as being similar to a sudden snow blizzard, only it was 110-112 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The sand storms would rip your skin,” he said.

As hot as the desert got during the day, the mercury would plummet at night. Temperatures would be in the low 100s in the daytime, then fall to below 45 degrees and windy at night. The whole time he was in the desert it rained only once, he said.

The terrain was so flat, light would travel for miles. To prevent the sun from reflecting off their vehicles’ mirrors and giving their position away to the enemy, U.S. Army personnel would cover their side mirrors with burlap, he said.

Frascone’s said he didn’t photograph scenes that he didn’t want to remember, and there were plenty. Where there were bombed out vehicles, the bodies of the men who had been inside were nearby.

“Some people didn’t surrender,” Frascone said. “We did what we had to do.”

Leaving the desert

Three weeks before he was sent home, Frascone and others were sent to a camp in Saudi Arabia to try to adjust to society again. After being in the desert for seven months, Frascone said the military knew that servicemen needed time to adjust, rather than being abruptly reintroduced to civilization.

“They told us that at the end of the Vietnam War men went from being in the jungle one day to sitting on a couch in San Francisco the next, and they didn’t adjust well,” Frascone said. “They got us used to being in tents, watching movies, making phone calls home, playing volleyball.”

While in the battlefield, all communications were severed. Being able to call relatives in the States was a real treat.

They also had to be prepared for seeing colors again.

“All we saw for months was Army green or brown, and sand for as far as the eye could see,” Frascone said. “You woke up and stared at flat sand. You ate and then stared at flat sand. Day after day after day.”

He said at night the desert would get pitch black. Once his eyes adjusted though, the stars were incredible.

After three weeks of “Out-processing,” Frascone and others in his Division were flown to Germany, where the mix of bright colors of a nation that takes their gardens seriously assaulted the senses of Frascone and his buddies.

“They told us we would have anxiety from the vibrant colors, and it was true,” Frascone said.

He remembers his skin being rough because even clean clothes were stiff in the desert from the sand. Once in Germany, putting on clean clothes after leaving the desert was a difference he could feel. “It was like my skin went, ‘ahhhh,’” he said.

He was stationed in Germany for six more months before returning to the States.

Back home, becoming a Paramedic

Once he was back in the States, Frascone, who had planned to make the military a career, left the Army at the end of 1991 after serving six years. Having grown up in Canton, Ohio, where he graduated from high school in 1985, he was familiar with southern Michigan. After returning to the States, he moved to the Grand Rapids area.

He began working in Grand Rapids for a drugstore chain that had an opening in Petoskey. After a few years of managing a drug store and working in another drug store in Charlevoix and East Jordan while living near Burt Lake, Frascone wanted more time with his daughter (from his first marriage). He worked for a feed store for a while, then a carpet cleaning business, which he credits with helping him learn the roads and streets of the area.

Sixteen years ago Frascone found his passion and became a Paramedic. He works for the Emmet County EMS system now, after working for Allied EMS and Lifelink prior. He is a full-time paramedic and instructor, focusing on continuing education for the EMS staff, making sure they meet the continuing education credits.

Frascone believes that the military prepared him for his current work.

“I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff and I had to adjust to it,” he said. “People say I’m very calm. The military trained me for that.”

Being calm and level-headed are essential characteristics of a paramedic, he said. “You can’t let somebody see you be excited.”

Frascone likes helping people. He derives a lot of pleasure from knowing that what he does for a living is, in a sense, a community service. He realizes that most of the jobs he’s had throughout his life involved service to others; whether it was serving in the Army, serving as a paramedic helping injured people; serving in a drug store helping sick people – Frascone has been serving others for nearly 30 years.

“Somehow I’ve been helping people one way or another,” Frascone said.

He’s been married for 13 years to Becky and together they have a son who is 12 years old, Tommy, who is a bee keeper. He is stepfather to her two children, Kyle and Chrystal. His daughter, Megan, is 23 now and has a son, making Frascone a grandfather.  They are members of the First Baptist Church in Petoskey.

In 2014, Frascone earned a Master’s degree in seminary to be a pastor and provide crisis counseling after he’s “too old to keep being a paramedic,” he said.

“I deal with crisis a lot now, I should be able to help people through counseling one day,” Frascone said.

Tom Frascone2


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