By Ted Waddell
MONTICELLO February 28, 2003 As a veteran of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Sullivan County Court Judge and Surrogate Frank J. LaBuda knows what it means to go to war in search of peace.
Eleven years later, in quiet moments known only by a father with a son in uniform, he can reflect on seeing a young man created in his image poised to go off to war in the same distant region of a troubled world.
#He like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather volunteered to join the Army, said Judge LaBuda of his 22-year-old son Kurt, who joined the U.S. Army after two years of college at Connecticut University for real experience.
At press time, Kurt LaBuda is stationed at Ft. Hood in Texas, where the E4 is assigned to the 74th Engineering Battalion, a multiple-bridge building company.
They build bridges across ridges or rivers, said Frank LaBuda. They bridge land and water obstacles . . . and anybody in the military knows what that means.
Asked if he thinks his son will see overseas duty in the Middle East, the local judge replied, Two weeks ago, I would have said, Probably now I can say, Definitely.
According to LaBuda, the 74th Engineering Battalions equipment has already been shipped out for a destination in the Middle East that Im not at liberty to disclose.
I would love to go instead of my son, he said. He has a wife and a one-year-old daughter that hes going to have to say goodbye to, [and] I remember how heartbreaking it is to leave your family and children.
Hes a big boy, and he signed on the dotted line, said LaBuda. Hes committed and will do it. . . . Im very proud of him.
Im also excited for him, because the sheer dynamics of moving with tens of thousands of military [personnel] and their equipment is something you can never experience in civilian life, he added.
A Proud Tradition
Frank LaBuda comes from a long line of military men.
His grandfather fought Cossacks in the Czechoslovakian Army during the war to end all wars.
At the outbreak of WWII, his father was a 14-year-old boy with two older brothers serving in Europe and the Philippines. The elder Frank LaBuda joined the Merchant Marines when he turned 15, and at the age of 18 signed up with the Army at wars end.
His uncle Paul LaBuda served with tank units in WWII while with General Patton in North Africa, he had a tank shot out from under him, and went through a similar experience during a bloody tank battle in Belgium.
LaBudas youngest son Marc is studying engineering at SUNY Utica. Now in his second year of ROTC, he expects to travel to Ft. Bragg for military training this summer.
During his career with the U.S. army, Sullivan Countys fighting judge earned his jump wings with the 82nd Airborne Division.
In 1967, LaBuda graduated from high school in the Bronx. Three and a half years later, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from City University, and then received a law degree from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
After graduation, LaBuda volunteered for three years active stateside duty with the U.S. Army.
He served with the Judge Advocate Generals (JAG) Corps as a military prosecutor and legal advisor to a base commander.
In 1978, Capt. LaBuda went to work as an assistant district attorney for Sullivan County DA Joseph Jaffe, a position he held for about 11 years. While in the DAs office, LaBuda stayed active with the U.S. Army Reserves.
Assigned to the 13th Airborne out of Ft. Bragg, LaBuda traveled to Panama and Honduras during the mid-80s.
About two years before the Persian Gulf War, LaBuda was promoted to the rank of major.
As the winds of war started heating up in the Middle East, in August 1990, LaBudas reserve command was put on alert, and he volunteered to serve overseas.
In the wake of ever-increasing upward levels of mobilization, he was ordered to report, and he said goodbye to his wife Kathy and their three boys.
Following two weeks of training and medicals, and after a few false 4 a.m starts due to a cracked windshield in their C5-A air transport, his unit finally boarded the aircraft for a 16-hour flight to Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Enroute to the Middle East, they stopped for a couple hours to refuel and chow down in Spain.
LaBuda was assigned to the 22nd Support COSCOM, charged with providing logistical support to units in the field. His specialty was military prosecution and war crimes investigation.
Serving on the Iraqi Border
Day Two of Operation Desert Storm found LaBuda in Kuwait City looking into war crimes, but this investigation was suddenly taken out of our hands for political reasons.
There were dead civilians, and women who were raped and wrapped up in carpets and thrown into vacant lots, he recalled.
We talked to locals about citizens [of Kuwait] who were last seen with Iraqi soldiers and were never seen again, said LaBuda. Then we were told the U.N. was going to take care of it.
While bivouacked in a school surrounded by a perimeter fence like a little Foreign Legion post, the ash from burning oil fields torched by fleeing Iraqi troops rained down on his helmet for the next 44 days.
LaBudas camo helmet cover, now proudly on display in a bookcase in his judges chambers, still bears the scars of the burning debris falling from the skies over the Persian Gulf.
Yellowing photos of his two sons are still taped inside his battle-scarred helmet. A photo of his son Kurt is proudly displayed on his desk, next to a pair of goggles from Operation Desert Storm.
Kurt was eleven years old, and Marc was nine, recalled LaBuda. They were with me throughout the war.
On February 10, 1991, Major LaBuda wrote a letter to the folks back home. The letter was published in the Sullivan County Democrat.
We had another Scud [missile] attack last night, and so far our Patriot anti-missile crews are keeping the score in our favor, he said. We have grown quite accustomed to donning our chemical suits and gas masks when we hear the distinctive bang of a Patriot taking off.
Our Patriots streak a white flame trail, while the Scuds trail red flame, continued LaBuda. In the deep, dark Arabian sky, they quite ironically look like 4th of July fireworks.
While stationed in Riyadh, LaBuda helped set up the invasion routes, and on the night before the launch, was sent on a special mission with the 2nd Armored Division, part of the Seventh Army the lead invasion force crossing the border into Iraq.
He recalled listening in to communications from the rapidly advancing troops and heavy armor divisions.
There was no opposition on the way to Baghdad. . . . There was nothing stopping them, they were ready to roll right through, [but] then word came down from headquarters to stop the advance, he said.
He recalled the Persian Gulf region as a hellhole.
You had to contend with pestilence, vermin and Scud missiles going off above you, he said of the desert region near Thumamah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
When looking at a possible war against Iraq, LaBuda reflected on lessons learned during the Vietnam War.
I look back on the Vietnam experience, when you had the military hamstrung by the administration, he said.
The government should set the parameters of the job, and then let the military do it, he added. Otherwise, you end up with a fiasco like we had in Vietnam that cost the lives of tens of thousands of Americans, perhaps needlessly.
I would hate to see my son, and other sons and daughters, put themselves in harms way, yet have politicians interfere and jeopardize them, said LaBuda.
Thoughts on Peace, War
In 1992, LaBuda left the DAs office to become a Town of Mamakating justice. In 1996, LaBuda was elected to the county judgeship, but he took a few minutes off from the judicial bench to share his thoughts on the peace movement and what it means to go to war thousands of miles from home.
He said that, when looking at the complex issues of war and peace, its necessary to draw a clear-cut distinction between people who support the growing peace movement and those folks who are against President Bushs policies and administration.
I believe there are times when it is necessary to defend this country and the American way of life, said LaBuda. Obviously, terrorism and people like Saddam Hussein and his administration are a threat to the American way of life, and we must confront the problem.
According to LaBuda, he thinks war in the Persian Gulf is inevitable.
In taking media coverage to task, he said he thinks the press is to a certain extent fixated on terrorism chemical and biological threats and doesnt fully report the inhumanities committed against the Iraqi people by the regime of Saddam Hussein crimes that cry out for world intervention.
I have no regrets about responding to our countrys call to arms in its hour of need to restore peace in the Middle East, said LaBuda in his 1991 letter to the editor. I have no regrets about putting aside my lawbooks in Wurtsboro for my desert camouflage uniform, helmet and .45.
Support Our Troops
If our children go overseas and are involved in a war, they deserve the undying and untiring support of the American public, said LaBuda.
If it comes to war, he said that support of the military should also involve the administration paying more than lip service to the cause of support from the homefront once U.S. troops are engaged in battle.
The politicians should let them do their job, said LaBuda. I dont think our sons and daughters should be sold out for any short-range political objectives.
Having served overseas in time of war, he still remembers getting goodie boxes from folks and organizations in Sullivan County.
While in the sands of bug-infested Kuwait City watching fires from flaming oil fields obscure the Arabian sky, LaBuda recalled getting a shoebox full of things like some good brown soap, toothpaste and home-baked cookies from members of the Wurtsboro Community Church.
Some parishioners of that church served in North Africa during WWII and remember the sand ticks and fleas, so they know the value of a good bar of soap, he said.
While awaiting the 1991 invasion of Iraq from Kuwait, LaBuda said thousands of American soldiers looked forward to getting letters from home, and those without families or loved ones to write them still had their spirits brightened by receiving letters addressed to any soldier.
Distributed at mail call, these letters and goodie boxes made a big difference, as it showed them folks back home regardless of their political views about war versus peace still cared for their fellow citizens poised to face fields of fire a long way from American soil.
Its a democracy, and people can express themselves, but when it comes to supporting our soldiers, people should remember they are our soldiers, said LaBuda.
If war does break out, I think its important for the American public to mobilize like they did in Desert Storm to support our troops, he added. Kathy and I will be doing exactly that arranging goodie boxes to be sent overseas to An American Soldier.
As the interview drew to a close, Judge LaBuda paused for a moment by the door to his judges chambers, a door that proudly displays a Blue Star Flag, signifying a loved one on active duty.
I think its imperative for people to stand behind our soldiers, he said. Soldiers are not involved in politics, and people should understand and appreciate that difference.