It’s been 25 years since the end of the Persian Gulf War, and 25 years since Michael Chapman was promised help from the Kuwaiti government to raise money for a memorial to honor the 75,000 men and women stationed in North Carolina who fought in the conflict.
That promise is finally realized this weekend with the opening of “The First Gulf War: The War to Free Kuwait” exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History. The exhibit consists of seven panels, each describing a different aspect of the war to liberate Kuwait in 1991 following the invasion by Iraq.
U.S. forces suffered 148 combat casualties, and another 235 Americans died in accidents and other causes. Among those killed was Chapman’s brother, who died along with two medics from Fort Bragg on a mission to rescue a sniper who had been injured in Kuwait within the first week of the war.
After his brother was buried, Chapman was contacted by a grassroots organization, the N.C. Desert Storm Foundation, looking for help to raise money for a memorial. Chapman soon became chairman of the group and decided to call the Kuwaiti embassy himself to make the request.
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“I guess I was too stupid to know you’re not supposed to call embassies, but I did,” he said. “The Kuwaitis said, ‘We’ll look into it.’ ”
Then, on July 4, 1991, at an event in Charlotte held by the foundation to bring together families of those still serving overseas, Kuwait’s ambassador met with Chapman, along with then-Gov. James Martin, and gave a speech promising to help make the memorial a reality.
The Kuwaiti government pledged $100,000, and Martin set up a commission to manage the money, headed by Chapman. But the process was slow. After a while, Chapman called the state, which said it had not received the money, and Kuwait said they had no record of it, even though it had been announced at a press conference covered by local media.
“It was verbal, that’s all it was,” Chapman said. “Verbal, on video, in the newspaper. We had video footage of him committing to this, so we knew it was there.”
It took about six years after the initial promise for the money to be contributed by the Kuwaiti government, according to Chapman, but there were still government hoops to jump through. When Martin left office in 1993, the responsibility for the commission fell to Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner, until he lost the election for governor. The administrations of Mike Easley and Bev Perdue didn’t move forward on the project, but Chapman persisted. The ambassador who made the promise had also left office.
It wasn’t until Chapman reached out to Gov. Pat McCrory’s office last year that the money was finally put to use, and the memorial was announced in February.
“It was time. Twenty-five years, the money’s in there, it drew no interest,” Chapman said. “It was time to get it built.”
The exhibit will stay in the Museum of History until Jan. 15, when it will be moved to the N.C. National Guard Joint Forces Headquarters in Raleigh until April 15. Several other sites have requested to display the exhibit, including Fayetteville Technical Community College.
“It’s important that our young ones know the sacrifices of these folks here, not just those who died but those who came back alive,” Chapman said. “Because those sacrifices are what help keep this country strong and help keep us free.”
Patricia Harris, who was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas and later deployed with the 3rd Signal Brigade, said that she doesn’t want the Persian Gulf War and its veterans to be forgotten like other small-scale conflicts of the past, fearing a fate similar to Korean War veterans.
“I don’t see how anybody could forget our service,” Harris said. “It doesn’t matter where they were, if they served they served. If they were in a war they were in a war.”
Harris said that her grandson often asks about the “blood and gore” that she saw while she served, but he also takes notice of other things that linger from the war in her behavior. Not just the physical things, such as the skin and respiratory conditions she’s had since being exposed to the burning oil fields and other combat conditions, but more subtle things.
“He would ask me ‘Did you see any children?’ and ‘Why are you protective about children and it makes you cry when you see pictures on TV of kids in war?’ ” Harris recalled. “Because I saw some. I saw them dead, and I was thinking about mine.”
Gavin Stone: 919-829-8937