Tales of Valor: Desert Storm veteran makes it through combat

Teresa Wilkes stands at a construction site where she works as a project management intern at Berkeley's Habitat for Humanity.

Desert Storm veteran makes it through combat

By Rickey Ciapha Dennis Jr.

rdennis@berkeleyind.comWhen Teresa Wilkes joined the United States Army, personnel told her that women did not see combat.

Initially, Wilkes enlisted to afford a better life for herself. She grew up in the low-income parts of Roanoke, Virginia. Her family was poor and didn’t have the money to send her to college. So she entered the Army to pay her way.

“We couldn’t afford much of anything,” Wilkes said.

Molded by a dangerous crime and drug-riddled environment that plagued her neighborhood growing up, Wilkes said the thought of the armed forces didn’t scare her when she enrolled in 1988.

But her courage was tested when she was called to combat.

In the Gulf War, also known as Desert Storm, Wilkes was part of the United States’ efforts in the early ‘90s to fight Iraq after the country invaded Kuwait.

In one instance, Wilkes and U.S. troops were inside the base’s tent getting ready for bed. Sirens rang out. Ten enemy Scud missiles headed for the camp. A defensive jammer countered and blew nine of the attacking missiles. But a tenth projectile hit right outside the U.S. camp.

It blew scrap metal everywhere that could have taken arms and limbs from bodies.

Another time, Wilkes, a young helicopter mechanic, was being transported by aircraft. Suddenly, shots were fired. A helicopter accompanying Wilkes’ group was blown to pieces. None of the occupants survived.

Bullets rained upon Wilkes’ aircraft. But U.S. missiles provided backup and fended off the enemy.

Wilkes described the war zone as “scary as hell.” She’s used masks to survive chemical attacks and she was on the constant lookout for ground grenades. Several times she said she had to fire her weapon at enemy forces.

Wilkes is driven to tears when she remembers her friends who died.

“I’m just glad it’s over,” she said.

“We went through a lot of things people don’t realize we go through. Some of the assignments are very tough…when you’re over there in the war zone, we basically stuck together and looked out for one another…it was a dangerous place.”

For six months, Wilkes relied on her military training and faith to see her through. She reflected on those days growing up singing in the choir at her Virginia-based church. She also thought about her young son back home.

“You’re scared when you over there…one day you’re here and one day you’re not,” she said. “They were telling you women don’t see combat. We saw enemy fire…you could reach out and touch them.”

“As long as you know you have the Lord on your side, it makes it a lot easier for you. Those were the hard times. He watched over us all…it made it a lot easier knowing that I was religious and I could pray about my situation. I’m not going to say it kept me from being scared or fearful…it still eased some of the tension.”

After the war, Wilkes served a stint in Korea before she returned home in 1995 to her 4-year-old son. She completed her years of service and used funds from the Army to go to college.

Currently, Wilkes is weeks away from graduating with her master’s degree in project management. She settled in Goose Creek where she spends her days interning with Habitat for Humanity and watching her two grandchildren.

She’s lived the life she always wanted — spending time with family and having enough money to support herself. She said she is grateful for what the military has done for her.

“I grew up in poverty, that didn’t mean I have to stay there,” she said. “It was my opportunity to do something for myself and better myself.”