Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 15, Number 4
Summer 1993

A Tale of Two Soldiers

Virginia Tech alumni officers wounded in Persian Gulf find amazing coincidences

by Maj. John A. Coulter II '76

It was just a chance conversation between recuperating Gulf War officers Maj. Mike Dunford '76 and Capt. Paul Wirt '85 at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but the exchange revealed an amazing set of coincidences in the two men's lives.

Both Army officers were paratroopers from Fort Bragg, N.C. Both grew up in Southwest Virginia (Grundy and Wytheville, respectively). And both were Virginia Tech graduates.

As seniors, both also had been the Virginia Tech Ranger Company commander. Both were formerly members of the 1st Battalion as cadets, Wirt in C Company as the battalion executive officer and Dunford in B Company as its cadet captain. If that were not enough, their homes outside Fort Bragg were a block and a half apart. But they had never met.

As a cadet, Wirt was described by the assistant commandant as "nothing less than outstanding," and was equally so as an engineer officer with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Dunford came to Virginia Tech from an orphanage in Grundy, Va, and had a cadet reputation as a "wildman." These same qualities served him well during his 16 years of active service as a special forces officer.

The two men crossed paths because of misfortunes in the Persian Gulf War.

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Wirt was within two weeks of being married when he was deployed with the first units to the Gulf. He landed in Saudi Arabia on Aug. 14 with the 82nd Airborne Division, drawing the president's "line in the sand."

Four month later his world was changed forever. The 82nd Airborne Division was doing exercises in preparation for the invasion of Iraq. These exercises involved firing live munitions, and produced a number of dud, or malfunctioning, shells. As an engineer with extensive demolition training, Wirt had to safely dispose of these live shells.

On Dec. 5, 1990, he became one of two 82nd Paratroopers seriously injured. It occurred when Wirt was disposing of an unexploded tank shell. He had received all appropriate clearances and had begun a 90-second fuse to a demolition charge placed to destroy the shell. From behind a sand dune, a truck appeared, headed toward the demolition area.

In 10 seconds, the charge would have likely exploded and severely injured or killed the occupants of the truck. Wirt, 100 yards from the blast area, left the safety of cover and tried to flag away the approaching vehicle. The truck (apparently lost in the desert and attempting to return to the main road) sped off in the opposite direction, but Wirt was caught in the open. In the explosion that followed, a piece of metal ripped through his right leg, severing the femoral artery and blowing away four inches of his right femur.

Two medics stopped the profuse bleeding while another officer called for a helicopter evacuation. Wirt was taken to a hospital where Navy doctors operated on him for 11 hours. They successfully grafted a vein from his groin to his leg. This action saved his right leg by restoring critical blood flow to that area.

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Maj. Dunford left his family for the Gulf in late January of 1991 as part of the Third Army. He participated in the capture of Kuwait, and then volunteered to stay to help rebuilt that nation. Amid 734 oil well fires set by withdrawing Iraqi forces, the convoy Dunford was leading accidentally crossed into a minefield on July 5.

Finding a barbed-wire fence crossing the desert track, Dunford surmised that the fence was a boundary of an Iraqi mine field and turned around. The vehicles had unknowingly crossed another barbed wire fence buried by shifting desert sands and were actually 80 yards inside a minefield. Dunford's vehicle hit a 22-pound, Iraqi anti-tank mine, throwing his vehicle 25 feet. Dunford's passenger received only minor cuts and bruises. The blast vaporized the front of the vehicle on Dunford's side and blew his left foot almost off, crushed his right foot, and produced many wounds to his legs, chest, head, and hand.

Quickly, Dunford's Special Forces comrades braved the minefield and pulled him from the wreckage. He was rushed to a nearby Egyptian Army camp, where he was transferred to an Egyptian ambulance.

A short distance down the elevated desert road, the ambulance swerved around a parked vehicle, rolled off the highway, and turned over at least four times. The officer riding with Dunford was seriously injured. Still conscious and in great pain, Dunford was taken by a passing Kuwaiti captain to medical assistance.

At a Kuwaiti hospital, Dunford's left foot was amputated. Aware of the debt of gratitude they owed the American, the Kuwaiti medical staff apologetically told Dunford about the operation. Dunford responded characteristically, telling the doctor he had seen his foot and had little use for it in its current condition.

Both Wirt and Dunford faced months of trauma and painful surgery. Wirt spent 10 months in the hospital, undergoing 26 operations. The doctors at first gave only a one in five chance of saving the leg of the 28-year-old paratrooper.

In January 1992, Wirt returned to an active life, but as a civilian. Faced with the prospect of remaining on active duty in a limited capacity because of his injury, he took medical retirement. He now works as a civilian engineer at Fort Bragg. His postponed wedding took place in March 1992. Since leaving the hospital, he has been back on the operating table three more times and hopes the last has corrected his lingering limp.

Dunford endured 10 more operations and the difficult task of learning to function with a prosthesis. In January 1992, he petitioned the army medical board to allow him back into active military service. Despite his prosthesis, he was making parachute jumps at Fort Bragg by the end of the month.

Both men are thankful for their survival and speak highly of the support they received from their wives and families. When praised for their own courage, they demur and speak of the two former Virginia Tech Cadets who did not return from the Gulf. Donaldson P. Tillar III and Michael N. Manns Jr., both former cadets of G Company, were among the 313 fatalities attributed to Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Tillar left Tech as a junior for West Point, where he graduated in 1988. Manns departed Tech to become a sailor. First Lt. Tillar was piloting his 1st Infantry Division helicopter while under intense enemy ground fire on the final day of the ground offensive when he was shot down. Manns died with nine other sailors aboard the USS Iwo Jima when the ship's 850-degree steam pipe erupted.

Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 15, Number 4 Summer 1993