On February 2, 1991, during the first Iraq war, Capt. R. Dale Storr (’83 Mech. Engr.) was captured by Iraqi soldiers after his A-10 Thunderbolt was shot down near Kuwait. The 29-year-old Air Force pilot from Spokane was a prisoner of war for 33 days, spending a portion of that time in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, while his friends and family believed he had died in the plane crash. He was regularly beaten and interrogated by the secret police, but used techniques taught to him at the survival school at Fairchild Air Force Base to get through it.
Now a lieutenant colonel in the Washington Air National Guard, he visited with Hannelore Sudermann to talk about his time in Iraq and share details of his life today. He has worked as a commercial pilot for two major airlines and is currently flying several missions a month with the 116th Air Refueling Squadron out of Fairchild. The Spokane resident is also a co-owner of the Hi Neighbor tavern with WSU classmate Ken Lund ’85 and co-owner of a pharmacy housed in the SIRTI building.
We’re more like our parents than we think.
My dad was a B-52 pilot flying with the 325th Bomb Squadron at Fairchild before they took the bombers away. He never influenced me or my brothers much about our careers. But I have a brother, Dave [’84], who went into the Marine Corps. And I have a brother, Doug [’88], who went into the Air Force, and he’s still in active duty. Growing up, I didn’t know I wanted to be in the Air Force.
A whim can shape your life.
One of my friends at WSU was in ROTC. He knew I wanted to fly. Out of the blue one day he said, why don’t I come take this Air Force officer qualification test. I did really well on the pilot portion. A couple weeks later, they offered me a pilot shot. My junior year I got to go out to Moscow-Pullman International. That’s where I learned to fly in a Cessna 6161 Mike.
Strike out on your own.
I think some people get nervous flying with an instructor. I was just like, “Get out of here. I want to fly this thing by myself.” It was so much fun. I got to kick out the instructor and go buzz the wheat fields in Pullman. I just knew I was going to have a career in aviation.
Put in your time.
In 1984 I went to Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. That’s where I got my wings. I wanted to fly fighters right out of pilot training, but they didn’t select me for that. I stayed there as a T-38 instructor pilot for about three years. Then I competed again and got selected to fly a fighter. I went on to fly A-10s at England Air Force Base in Louisiana. The A-10 is a real ugly airplane. It’s called a Wart Hog. It has big straight fat wings for carrying lots of bombs and a butt-ugly engine sitting on the fuselage. It’s got this 30-millimeter cannon that was designed to kill tanks sticking out of the nose. It’s a slow airplane designed for ground support.
Big egos can be good things.
In August 1990, after Saddam had invaded Kuwait, our unit was deployed over to King Fahd, an airport under construction. It was a big tent city. Our squadron had about 24 planes and probably about 40 fighter pilots. Their egos are bigger than this building. But that’s what it takes. I’m not saying that’s good or bad. We can’t all be brain surgeons, and not everyone is made to be a fighter pilot. When you’re going low and fast, just a moment or two of indecision or negligence, you’re dead because you just hit the ground.
Know when to bail.
We had been scrambled to work with a marine F-18 on the coast of Kuwait. I called to get permission to go drop on somebody. I’d have run out of gas if I had to carry the artillery back. My wingman, Eric, and I went up there and dropped our bombs. We took a little anti-aircraft fire, but it wasn’t real bad. We still had a fully loaded gun. So we went after this truck park. . . . We were so high I missed on my first pass. I pulled off, climbed up, and re-attacked the target. As I was pulling off something hit my airplane. I never saw it. It felt like a 50,000 pound sledge hammer just hit the bottom of the jet. I knew I was in trouble. The airplane just did this big barrel roll. The wingman saw the airplane roll over again. Then the airplane rolled over one more time. He said, “Storrman eject, eject, eject!” I said, “No I’m not jumping out yet!” I was only three or four miles from the Saudi border. I knew if I could keep this airplane flying for just a few more seconds, I’d be in friendly territory.
I had my head buried in the cockpit. I was staring at the emergency flight control panel, and it had all these switches, and I was checking them. What have I done wrong? I think God just reached out and said “You’re stupid,” and moved my head out. With the dive angle the airplane was at and as close to the ground I was, I just instantly knew that I was going to hit the ground.
Hold your breath and hang on.
I got in what’s called a good seat position. Feet together and make sure you’ve got your head against the seat rest so you don’t screw up your back, put your arms on the hand rails, and up you go. Everything worked like a champ. The canopy blew off. I remember the white smoke coming up between my legs from the rocket firing.
I could hear my chute come up. I’m like, “Oh my God I can’t believe I lived through that!” The very next thing I hear is this huge explosion beneath me. The airplane had hit the ground, and now there’s this huge fireball coming up. I’m like, “Oh man, I’m going to die in the fireball!” This black smoke and fire came up, and I just closed my eyes. It got really, really hot for a few seconds. I felt this rush of cold air and looked down and saw the ground. My wingman never saw me get out. He never heard me on the radio. He went back and reported that he thought I died in the crash. The next thing I see is this truck coming from the truck park that I had just strafed coming after me. I landed and started to hide behind this sand dune. The Iraqis were there within a minute.
Use what you’ve learned.
I thought for sure they were just going to come up and kill me. They took my radio and my gun, and then there was just a lot of slapping around and punching. They had tied my hands. They had taken my survival vest off. Then they took me to a Quonset hut, where I got my first interrogation. I got kicked in the head. Beat up. I realized I better start getting smart. I better start remembering the stuff that they taught me at Fairchild. I can tell you that that training saved my life. I got another long interrogation in Basra from a guy who claimed to be a Mig-29 pilot. He actually treated me fairly well. I spent the rest of that night and full day driving to Baghdad. That’s where the real beatings began. I had three days of interrogations that were pretty intense. They dislocated my shoulder, broke my nose, my left ear drum, and busted up my left knee pretty good. These guys were trained. They knew what they were looking for. That’s where all that stuff I learned at Fairchild at survival school came into use. Unfortunately, the guy who did the interrogation knew those techniques, too.
Keep your secrets.
They wanted to know everything. There were just a few things I was going to die for. We were flying out of a place called Al Jouf, and it had no protection. The Iraqis could have taken one tank there and killed a lot of people. But I’m not going to tell them that. There were some pilots in my squadron who were Jewish. They could kill them on sight. I wasn’t going to tell them their names just in case they got shot down. I had three lists: things I told them, things I hadn’t told them, but will if it comes down to me dying, and things that I’ll never tell them, because people will die.
Sometimes it’s just about luck.
The first prison I was in was the regional intelligence headquarters for the Ba’ath party. My cell was near the center of a long building. No shower. No toilet. I had two blankets. I used a boot for a pillow. It got really, really cold in there.
On the night of the 23rd the Air Force targeted the building. The first bomb hit in the parking lot. A big chunk of tile fell down and hit me in the forehead. I curled up in a ball and said, “We’re dead.” The second bomb caused a section of the prison to pancake down. That sucked this big steel grate in from the window in my cell, and it landed and wedged over me. That was pretty lucky. The third bomb went through the cell next to me. It knocked all kinds of rubble and big chunks out of the ceiling. I was buried by all this rubble, but protected by the grate. The fourth bomb fell, and our part of the building stayed up.
You can live through a lot.
They eventually came for us and put us on this bus to Abu Ghraib. We called it Joliet, because it looked like the prison from The Blues Brothers. I was in the very end cell. [Navy pilot] Bob Wetzel ended up right next to me. We were able to communicate using tap code, it’s like Morse code for pilots. After a while we were able to figure out there was a boarded-up window between the two cells. We could whisper to each other without the guards hearing us. You got beat if the guards caught you talking. That’s where I got Giardia. I had to use my cell for a toilet. That was gross. I lived in that for a week. I weigh about 240 now, and back then I was down to about 175.
Let them know you’re alive.
The war ended, but we didn’t know it. They came in the middle of the night and grabbed us. They took us to a Republican Guard prison. There I had a mattress. I had a piece of pita bread, a tangerine, a hard-boiled egg. I could hardly eat it all. They let us go to the water closet and clean up. They shaved us. This guy comes by and says, “What’s your name?” “Richard Storr.” He says, “You’re a captain, U.S. Air Force. You’re an A-10 pilot. You were shot down the 2nd of February. You go home in 15 minutes.” I didn’t believe him. They marched all of us to a bus and sprayed us down with perfume. We got turned over to the Red Cross at the Novotel in Baghdad. Bob Simon [the CBS News reporter in the same prison] got released a few days before we did. He told the Air Force that he talked to a guy who said he was Dale Storr. Then the Air Force called my mom and said, “Watch CNN when the POWs get released, because your son might be one of them.” That’s how she found out. She saw me walk off the airplane in Riyadh. It may have been harder on my family than it was on me. I thought everybody knew I was alive.
It could be worse.
Everybody who joins the military takes the same chance. Some of us get to [face serious danger] and others don’t have to. The worst part was not knowing how long you were going to be there. I tried not to think about what I was going to do when I got out. Before being a POW, I was a lot more focused on my job. I didn’t spend nearly enough time with my friends and family. Now, there isn’t a day that goes by that something doesn’t remind me of being back in prison. Everyone has a bad day once in a while, but for me, it’s always: It could be worse. I could be back in prison.