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home : news : news
November 14, 2018

11/7/2018 1:32:00 PM
Teacher, veteran spent Gulf War deep inside amphibious assault ship

By Karen M. Jorgensen

Tony Bendickson did not see much of the Gulf War.

The Triton Elementary School special education teacher was in the U.S. Navy in 1991 and was in the Gulf. But he spent most of his time during that conflict in the boiler room of the USS Tarawa "making steam," he said recently.

His official title was boiler technician, adding he was "voluntold" for the job.

His first tour on the Tarawa was in June 1989 when they deployed for a six-month WESTPAC tour as the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The Tarawa was the flagship of a 13-ship amphibious task force in support of Operation Desert Shield in December 1990. She participated in the Sea Soldier IV landing exercise in January, which was a deception maneuver suggesting an amphibious assault in Kuwait and then on Feb. 24 landed Marines in Saudi Arabia just south of the Kuwait border.

In May of 1991 the Tarawa went to Bangladesh in support of Operation Sea Angel, providing humanitarian assistance to victims of a cyclone, delivering rice and water purification equipment.

In June of 1992 he was back in the gulf, this time as a crew member of the USS Gridley which was operating in support of the aircraft carrier USS Independence.

Gridley rescued the disabled merchant vessel Adel 11 in the North Arabian Sea in June and in August she was the first ship on station off the coast of Kuwait for Operation Southern Watch, the enforcement of a "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq.

Working in the boiler room, Bendickson said, meant that any time the ship was at sea or hooked up for power when in port they worked 12 hours a day. Six hours on and six hours off. His workplace, he said, was 20 feet below the water line and the temperature was never lower than 100 degrees.

In seven months, he said, he had 72 hours off the ship.

Life can be a bit surreal living in the lower level of a ship in a combat zone.

Day and night kind of loses its meaning, Bendickson said. He recalled one time they looked at the clock and saw it was 3 o'clock but had no idea if it was 3 a.m. or 3 p.m. Someone went up on deck to check and it turned out to be 3 a.m.

There were some comforts, he said.

The ship had refrigeration for food and hot showers and movies were played around the clock.

They knew they were in mine infested waters, Bendickson said, and they always carried their gas masks in case of a chemical attack.

The ship was right outside the gulf when the air attacks began, he said, but for the men on the ship there was no real knowledge of when the war began.

"Then it became real when guys were outside (on the deck) listening to the BBC," he said.

Mail took a month or so to get to the sailors and they had no clue if the U.S. was winning or losing the war.

On Feb. 15-16, 1991 the Tarawa was tied up at an ammunition pier at Al Jubayl. A scud missile was fired, Bendickson said, but it missed the ship and landed in the bay. Any closer, he said, and he would not be talking about his experiences now.

"It was the only true time I felt scared for my life," he said.

Those experiences, he said, are what "makes me so calm today." When you live in a war zone, he said, you know you could die at any time. "Here, you know you probably won't."

Bendickson said he grew up in Douglas, which is between Oronoco and Byron. He went into the Navy right after graduation from John Marshall High School in Rochester in 1988 and celebrated his 18th birthday in boot camp.

In September 1988 he went to school to become a boiler technician and in January 1989 met up with the USS Tarawa in the Philippines.

He joined the crew of the USS Gridley in February 1992 and was discharged in April of 1994, the same month the Gridley was decommissioned.

On his discharge, he returned to the area and spent five years working at Land O'Lakes in Pine Island and then 15 years in the construction business.

Eight years ago he began a new career as a special education para in the Kasson-Mantorville School District where he lives with his wife and children.

After returning to the area from the military he had earned an associates degree and at 48, he said, he got his bachelor's degree in general education. He expects to start work next year on a master's degree.

He currently is in his first year as a special education elementary teacher in Triton where he is also assistant coach of the Triton soccer teams.

Claremont Service

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