NEWS | June 25, 2021

OKARNG sergeant major looks back on Khobar Towers bombing, talks mental health

By Anthony Jones Oklahoma National Guard

For many Oklahomans, June 25 is just another day on the calendar to get through before Independence Day parties can begin. However, for one Oklahoma Army National Guard sergeant major, it is a solemn date of remembrance.

This June 25 marks the 25th anniversary of the Khobar Towers bombing - an attack carried out by the Hezbollah terrorist organization that killed 19 United States Air Force Airmen and wounded hundreds, including Senior Airman Clifton Fulkerson, a 23-year-old aircraft mechanic who now serves as the Oklahoma National Guard’s Directorate of Military Support sergeant major.

Fulkerson, who left the Air Force in 2008 and joined the Army National Guard in 2009, was preparing to return to the United States from his second combat deployment to Saudia Arabia.

That night, Hezbollah terrorist positioned a truck filled with explosives alongside the perimeter wall outside Khobar Towers, a compound that was home to thousands of US Service members supporting the enforcement of a no-fly zone in southern Iraq following the Gulf War, and detonated it.

“The bombing happened on a Tuesday night. The 'freedom bird,’ which was the plane home, came in on a Tuesday and left on a Thursday. If your replacement was on that plane on Tuesday you were going home on Thursday,” Fulkerson said. “I had been informed that my replacement was on the freedom bird and that I was to pack my bags and get ready to go back stateside.” 

“I was in my rack reading a book, listening to my walkman - and that’s when it happened,” Fulkerson said, recalling the moments before the truck filled with the equivalent of 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of TNT detonated outside of Khobar Towers’ Building 131.

According to a report prepared by the House National Security Committee, the blast was so powerful that it could be felt 20 miles away in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain. The report states, “The force of the explosion was so great it heavily damaged or destroyed six high-rise apartment buildings and shattered windows in virtually every other structure in the compound, leaving a crater in the ground 85 feet wide and 35 feet deep.”

Fulkerson was on the opposite side of the building from the blast, something he believes saved his life as well as many others.

“The buildings were shaped like a ’T’ and they hit the front side of it,” Fulkerson said. “Any of those who were on the back side of the ’T’ were shielded from the direct blast.”

Fulkerson said the death toll would have been much higher if security forces had not turned the truck away at the main gate forcing the terrorists to find an alternate location to attack the base.

“Thank God, because it would have been much worse,” Fulkerson said, adding many more lives were saved thanks to the actions of then-Staff Sgt. Alfredo Guerrero, the acting flight sergeant for the military police unit.

Guerrero, who shared his experiences in an article released by the Air Force marking the bombing’s 20 anniversary, was on the roof of Building 131 visiting with security forces airmen on sentry duty when he spotted a suspicious truck being positioned next to their building with the drivers quickly fleeing.

“I got on the radio and called the control center to tell them what was going on, and, before I finished my first transmission, I thought about the people in the building and realized, ‘Well, if this is what I think it is, this building is going down,’” Guerrero said in the 2016 article. “And so, before I finished my first transmission, I told them I was beginning to evacuate the building.”

The Airmen with Guerrero overheard his radio transmissions and rushed into the building to begin evacuating. Guerrero got the attention of another Airman on the other side of the building and the two of them also began evacuating service members from the eight-story building.

Unfortunately, Guerrero and his Airmen were unable to fully evacuate the building before the truck bomb detonated.

Fulkerson said most of the horrible memories from that night are not of the explosion itself but from the aftermath. The memories of rendering aid to the wounded Airmen, including himself. 

“Our first aid training was called self-aid, buddy care, and that night it was real,” Fulkerson said. “I saw things that no one should have to see in their life but was somewhat prepared to handle it at the time. It’s just the things that get bottled up afterward that tend to erode a person.”

And for more than two decades, Fulkerson did bottle up his experiences. 

"The climate at the time, even in the Air Force, was 'be careful what you tell medical because if they find enough reasons, you'll be discharged,'" Fulkerson said. "I was walking through the airport in Las Vegas [after being evacuated] and I had a supervisor on my right and left to welcome me home and help me get back to my wife and they were briefing me to be careful what I tell mental health because if I tell them too much they’ll kick me out of the Air Force."

The stigma that service members who seek help with mental health issues are weak is one that the military still struggles to overcome in 2021 and was firmly on Fulkerson's mind in 1996.

"I felt that way because I was taught that way. You don’t whine about your feelings, you put on your big boy pants and you drive forward," Fulkerson said. "I let it affect my life and how I interacted with people for two decades before a chance incident happened on another deployment, this time with the Army, where I was injured and required prolonged medical assistance... I was able to meet with mental health and discuss things from two decades ago and finally start on a path of recovery."

While being treated for his injury, Fulkerson met with mental health professionals who were able to help him begin to deal with the lasting effects of the bombing.

He said he learned how to hunt the good stuff, a way of finding good things in bad situations, and took part in prolonged exposure therapy where he exposed himself to things he had avoided since the bombing such as large crowds, and even visited the graves two of the Khobar Towers victims at Arlington National Cemetery.

"My life is certainly better now," Fulkerson said. "I am better equipped to handle any adversity or hardship that comes my way rather than dwelling on them or treating certain situations as the enemy, I know how to be more resilient in the situation."

That experience is something Fulkerson considers critical in his role as the senior enlisted adviser of the Oklahoma National Guard's Joint Task Force, a joint Army and Air National Guard assignment where Fulkerson mentors both Soldiers and Airmen - drawing on his time in both services to offer guidance and advice.

"I don’t feel anyone is weak for seeking help. I think where you are at your weakest is when you don’t fix yourself. Not only do you affect the mission, you affect the whole team and that has a domino effect," Fulkerson said. "The military needs us to operate at 100 percent and if your head isn’t clear - whether it be an actual mission or just training - there could be anything from injuries to a failed mission because every Soldier is needed. To go home at the end of the day and believe you’re affecting the mission in a negative way is what ultimately leads to depression and suicidal ideations. So, it’s good for people to talk about the traumas that they have experienced."

Fulkerson said there is not a day that goes by where he does not close his eyes and see the horrors of the bombing, but after working with mental health professionals, he can work through it and wants others to know they are not weak for getting the help they need to be at their best.

"I thought I could forget about it, but it won’t go away. From movies to smells, there is always something that’s going to make me remember this tragedy," Fulkerson said. "But if you seek help and have the encouragement to move forward, you can learn to process challenging situations so you’re not reacting negatively, and you can hunt the good stuff to be more resilient in tough times.”