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Humble hero: Newark airman survived terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia 25 years ago

The Advocate (Newark) logo The Advocate (Newark) 6/25/2021 Dave Weidig, Newark Advocate
a man holding a book: Air Force veteran Mike Dunn of Newark, who grew up in Zanesville, is featured in a book about the terrorist bombing of a military complex in Saudia Arabia, 25 years ago. Nineteen soldiers died and nearly 500 more were injured. © Dave Weidig/The Advocate Air Force veteran Mike Dunn of Newark, who grew up in Zanesville, is featured in a book about the terrorist bombing of a military complex in Saudia Arabia, 25 years ago. Nineteen soldiers died and nearly 500 more were injured.

NEWARK - "We Shall Never Forget," the first words in the book say.

Then, 19 names are listed from 14 states across the country, Air Force airmen killed in a devastating terrorist attack at Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia 25 years ago, June 25, 1996.

Senior Airman (E-4) Mike Dunn, a Zanesville native who now lives in Newark, is not among them. He is, however, a prominent part of "Through The Perilous Night," a book released Friday chronicling people and events leading up to, during and in the aftermath of the horrific tragedy.

Over 500 military personnel, mostly from the Air Force, survived the attack, including Dunn. He and 14 others agreed to be interviewed for the book, written by Paul Sherbo, who served 30 years in the Navy and retired as a captain.

Their lives were forever changed, but as Sherbo said in his foreword, "the most common trait among the people interviewed was their lack of self-pity." In spite of everything that happened, "they have moved ahead and looked back at the trauma as something that has forged them into who they are today."

Dunn's wife of 24 years, the former Tracy Schmitt, is a John Glenn graduate, and says the attack occurred during a time in history when a lot was going on in the world, and it has often been overlooked. It, and people like her husband, should be remembered, she says.

"He is very modest and humble about the sacrifices he has made for our country and the things he has been through," Tracy Dunn said. "He doesn’t consider himself a hero at all. He doesn’t talk about it a lot, but I see things that really make him anxious and upset due to his trauma. He has healing to do, and we are working on it."

Zanesville High alumnus was eager to serve

Dunn joined the Air Force right out of his Zanesville High School graduation in 1991 (his dad Terry served in the Army), and spent most of his six-year career stateside as a ground radio communications specialist, or "ground rat." However, near the end of his duty in Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas, he deployed to Saudi Arabia in April of 1996. He was part of the 440th Communication Squadron assigned to King Abdul-Aziz Air Force Base in Dhahran.

"The dad of one of my best friends, Mike Kilgore, was the Air Force recruiter in Zanesville," Dunn said. "I became a ground radio specialist before I was out of high school. They were understaffed (in Saudi Arabia), and I took additional training and did a lot of stuff on my own."

a man wearing a hat: Air Force Senior Airman Mike Dunn of Newark, who grew up in Zanesville, is shown during his service days. © Courtesy of Mike Dunn Air Force Senior Airman Mike Dunn of Newark, who grew up in Zanesville, is shown during his service days.

The evening of the attack, Dunn was going to take a run around the outside of the Khobar Towers complex, which included 70 buildings and served as a Coalition Forces housing base. Coalition Forces were assigned to establish and monitor Iraqi no-fly zones, in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolutions.

"Every night I would go out for a run, but for some reason, I decided not to," he said. "If I would have, I likely would not be here today. So, I went instead and got a quick workout in. Instead of taking the elevator up to my fourth floor, I went up the steps, and when I was in the stairwell, I was talking with a woman about the phone in her suite. She was part of the Communication Squadron.

"The light bulb flickered, then came back on. Then, boom! The wave hit. At the moment, I didn't know what it was. My first thought was, it was an accident. We ended up inside her suite. When it was over, we and a couple of others evacuated to the Desert Rose dining facility. As we were going down the stairs, we were stepping on glass everywhere. There was no safety glass, so it shattered, and that's what hurt and killed most of the people. We lost all of our windows."

No sitting still after Khobar Towers bombing

While in evacuation, Dunn could not sit still

"You just want to do something in a situation like that, rather than just sitting there," he said. "You're angry, you're resilient. Someone just tried to kill us. I approached our captain. I was regional Point of Control for military walkie talkies, and I told him that we needed charging stations out there. Me and a team of communications people went out to the base and put them together."

Dunn later received the Air Force Achievement Medal, for not only his work prior to the attack, but after it, allowing the operation to restore its infrastructure following the devastation. He set up a PA system to have the caskets transported back home.

To this day, he realizes how lucky he and many others were to still be alive. "They originally tried to come through the front gate, and were stopped," Dunn said. "A lot of buildings nearby took the brunt of it, and it could have been ours. I don't feel like a hero. I feel like there's a lot more I could have done."

The explosion came from a rigged tanker truck that was backed against a fence. Later, 13 members of a Pro-Iran Hizballah group, and one member of a Lebanese Hizballah, were indicted for the crime. At the time, it was the worst terrorist attack against the American military since the bombing of a Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983.

Dunn returned to the United States in July of 1996, not only dealing with the after affects, but divorce from the mother of his 6-month-old daughter.

"If certain things happen, like flickering lights or if lightning flashes, I get goosebumps and get cold chills," he said. "The other night, I scurried off the back porch when a thunderstorm flashed through. I just recently started going to the VA to help with tremors. I have ADD, and am seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist."

Dunn has led productive life since return to U.S.

Despite all of that, Dunn has led a productive life. Upon his return, he worked in Cleveland, then went back to Zanesville to visit his daughter. While there, he ran into Tracy, whom he had dated in his younger years, and they married in 1997. He has worked for Sprint, AT&T and Verizon, where he is currently an engineer installing 5G and maintaining 4G.

He and Tracy moved to Indiana for a year, then lived 17 years on Linnville Road, and also in Pataskala and Georgia before eventually settling in Newark. They have a daughter Delaney, who lives in Delaware (Ohio), and a son Braxton, who is taking accounting at COTC. Oldest daughter Markie, 24, graduated from Maysville and Muskingum University, and recently got engaged.

"I've had a lot of blessings lately, more than I can count," Dunn said.

Survivors of the bombing continue to lean on each other.

"A Facebook group of survivors has really helped," Dunn said. "There are people on there with a lot worse experiences than mine. The majority of the people were from an Air Force base in Florida, and they put up a big memorial. On the 20th anniversary, Tracy and I went down there."

Dunn admits that he hasn't read the entire book. In fact, not much of it. It just brings back too many harrowing memories.

"A girl cuts her eyeball out, stuffs it full of gauze, and continues to treat patients," he said. "I don't need to do a lot (of the reading) already. I'm picking at it. Eventually, I'll get through it."

Tracy says that through it all, her husband remains the person he's always been.

"Mike is the best person I know," she said. "He always puts his family above all else. He would give the shirt off his back if it meant making somebody else happy. I feel blessed that he is my husband.

"Mike is not only a hero for our country. He is my hero, every day!"

'Through The Perilous Night' available on Amazon

"Through The Perilous Night" can be purchased through Amazon, or directly from the publisher at www.patriotmediainc.com. Visit the author's website at www.paulsherbo.com.

dweidig@gannett.com

740-973-4503

Twitter: @noz75

Instagram: @dfweidig

This article originally appeared on Newark Advocate: Humble hero: Newark airman survived terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia 25 years ago

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