Pomfret Vet Marching in D.C. for Friends Lost in Gulf War

  • Doug Tuthill, of North Pomfret, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, will carry the Vermont Flag in a Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C. this weekend. Tuthill was a member of the New Hampshire National Guard's 744th Transportation Company during the war. He was photographed in West Hartford, Vt., with stone walls he built for his friend James Woods, Thursday, May 24, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A photograph of Doug Tuthill, of North Pomfret, shows him standing under a dark cloud of smoke from oil well fires during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Tuthill will carry the Vermont Flag in a Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C. this weekend. He was photographed in West Hartford, Vt., Thursday, May 24, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/25/2018 11:38:26 PM
Modified: 5/25/2018 11:38:41 PM

Pomfret — Doug Tuthill, the first person to ever enlist at the Navy Operational Support Center in White River Junction, says he’ll be thinking of his wartime experiences, including two Upper Valley friends who died during the Gulf War, while marching in the nation’s capital on Memorial Day.

Today, Tuthill, a 57-year-old Pomfret resident, is in the midst of a long career that spans both the military and a variety of civilian jobs. When he was 14, Pete Clifford taught him how to build stone walls, a skill he still employs today. Since leaving the military in the late 1990s, he’s also done construction and landscaping for local contractors, and spent 25 years working for a Pomfret bakery.

Tuthill said that the military service may well have saved his life, by instilling a sense of discipline when the excesses of youth threatened to overwhelm him.

“I would probably not be alive if I hadn’t been in the military,” he said. “I used to raise a lot of hell. I enjoyed life a bit. It probably saved my life.”

In 1981, a 21-year-old Tuthill, who was motivated by the Iran crisis to serve the country, showed up at the Navy Center in White River Junction on Halloween night and spoke with military recruiters before signing the paperwork; for most of the next decade, he served the Claremont-based 744th Transportation Company of the New Hampshire National Guard on domestic missions. He remembers traveling throughout the country for his training, and helping to deliver tractor trailers of hay to drought-stricken farmers in the South.

But Tuthill always was aware that the global tensions that made regular appearances in newspaper headlines had the capacity to dramatically affect his life, and on Nov. 17, 1990, his unit was activated by President George H.W. Bush to join coalition forces to respond to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The staging of Operation Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia soon would spill into an offensive campaign, Operation Desert Storm.

Now, 37 years after Tuthill enlisted, Congress has authorized the building of a National Desert Storm War Memorial on the National Mall in Washington in the next three years. To celebrate that milestone, thousands of Desert Storm veterans will mark Memorial Day with a coordinated series of events. Tuthill has volunteered to join the largest group, which plans to march down Constitution Avenue in Washington in the National Memorial Day Parade.

When Tuthill marches, foremost on his mind will be two friends — Wade Hector, of Newport, and Todd Ritch, of Charlestown — who served alongside him until they died in a vehicle accident.

Tuthill, who plans to spend Memorial Day marching in their honor in Washington, D.C., said Hector, then 21, was “pretty quiet,” and had joined just eight months before the deployment. Hector was following in the footsteps of his father, Eugene Hector, who also served in the 744th before taking a job as a welder at Sturm Ruger and Co. in Newport. The elder Hector went on to manage Norm’s Gun Shop in White River Junction.

Though Wade Hector was younger than his two friends, he was a steady personality, unlike the rambunctious Ritch, who often spoke about his desire to shoot a camel.

“Todd was kind of wild,” Tuthill recalled. “He got himself in enough trouble. He was a big, rugged kid.”

A trained member of his local rescue squad, Ritch was, like Tuthill, full of life and always chasing the next exciting experience.

When the three first were deployed, the shock of leaving the lush forest for the sandy desert was jarring for all of them. Though their transport unit was stationed as much as 100 miles from the fighting, the ground shook at night with the ferocity of the 42-day airstrike campaign against the Iraqi forces.

Though Bush would later face criticism for leaving Iraq President Saddam Hussein in power, the campaign was a military success. Before the Gulf War ended, there would be 148 U.S. military battle deaths, and another 235 non-battle deaths in the theater, just a fraction of the estimated 22,000 deaths of Iraqi military.

During the day, Tuthill’s unit would travel through the bombed terrain, soberly taking in the wreckage and bodies of the decimated Iraqi military.

“It’s one of the things you don’t think a lot about. You can only look and say, ‘Thank God it wasn’t us,’ ” he said.

The survivors posed little threat that he could see.

“After getting pounded from the air, all they wanted was food and water. That’s all they wanted,” Tuthill said. “They were just totally beat.”

By mid-February, the region had entered its rainy season. It was still hot, but the desert air was uncharacteristically humid, the dunes covered in quick-growing grass that would soon wither and die before the unrelenting sun.

While the unit was convoying across the desert, passing a construction work crew from India, Tuthill said one of the high-spirited New Hampshire National Guard members got too daring, and lost control of the truck he was driving. It rolled over, severely injuring one of the Indian workers.

Tuthill said the unit ground to a halt amid a chaotic scene, with confused servicemen spilling out of their vehicles and the injured man’s countrymen running around and shouting in a language the Americans couldn’t understand. The transportation unit’s leadership seemed unable to take charge of the situation.

Only Ritch seemed to know what to do.

“For about 40 minutes, he kept that guy alive,” Tuthill said, using a combination of CPR and other life-saving techniques he’d learned back home. “He didn’t even think about it.”

It was about a week later that, while stationed about six miles from the Iraq border, Ritch told Tuthill he planned to drive a Humvee out across the desert to the phone bank to call his family. Tuthill was busy working on a truck, so he asked Hector to go along, to keep Ritch out of trouble.

A few hours later, when the pair hadn’t returned, Tuthill notified his commander that they were missing. Not until the following day did a medevac helicopter find their bodies, just a bit outside of the camp’s perimeter, pinned beneath the Humvee Ritch was driving. The military classified their deaths as accidental.

Two weeks later, the Gulf War was over.

Tuthill, now 57, said he’ll never forget his friends.

“I think Memorial Day is a time to look back and reflect on the people you’ve lost and where things are at,” he said. “It’s a time to make sure their losses weren’t in vain.”

Though Ritch and Hector have died, their names are not forgotten. In 2015, when Canaan-based American Legion Weld-Webster Post 55 updated and re-dedicated a stone monument to those whose lives have been lost during wartime, Hector’s mother, Legionnaire Freda Washburn, paid for the concrete for the base of the monument in memory of her son.

This year, Tuthill has dedicated his march to Ritch and Hector.

Tuthill finds significance in the springtime date of Memorial Day.

“It’s the right time of the year,” he said. “The lilacs are out. The blossoms are out. It’s the right time to celebrate, and it kind of puts you at peace.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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