The middle of nowhere in northern Saudi Arabia and just a few miles from the Iraqi border.
I was with Sixth Platoon, 501st MPs, and we’d just gone to lunch. After months, we’d finally hooked up with the Battle Central and were doing the job we were supposed to be doing. Our platoon was one fourth of the combat muscle that would help defend this important piece of 1st Armored Division. From the Battle Central and it’s collection of expandable vans and trailers, the General would fight the coming battles. With the help of dozens of officers and enlisted personnel, he’d keep track of the various engagements, get resources where they were needed, and coordinate with other forces in the theater of operations.
We didn’t mind. One of the perks of defending the Battle Central was we got hot food every day. Before we were living on a steady diet of MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat or Meals Rejected by Ethiopia – take your pick). Now we had eggs and sausages in the morning, hamburgers or chicken for lunch, and suppers that tasted like something mom would have cooked. Granted, they came out of a can, but they were meals.
We also had hot showers, access to washing machines, and a small PX.
It was heaven on earth in one of the most inhospitable places on the globe.
I was walking to the mess tent with my platoon. The warm February sun beat on my back, and my rifle was slung over my shoulder. Whatever the cooks had put together for lunch smelled great, and I could see smoke boiling up from the stoves.
The 1st Armored Division Band was playing in what we called the town center, a bare patch about fifty yards by fifty yards that sat in the middle of all the trucks and tents. They were in full combat gear and the trumpets and trombones and drums looked wildly out of place as they played and danced. A cameraman from CNN was recording them, and they were doing a first class job of hamming it up and dancing for the camera. They looked more like a high school band that had dressed up and was playing soldier.
But soldiers they were. The band formed another quarter of the combat force that defended the battle central. In a worse case scenario, it would be us, the band, an engineer platoon, and the Headquarters Company soldiers consisting of cooks and the like that would defend this fragile collection of trucks. A few hundred yards beyond the perimeter, two M1 tanks waited. They were the heavy muscle if worse came to worse.
A rushing siren scream from the south split the air, then exploded overhead as two F-16s thundered into Iraq. Before I could even glance up, the fighters were there and gone, the thunder of their engines fading away.
The air war had been going on for about a month now, and it was just a matter of time before we flooded across the border and dealt with the Republican Guard and liberated Kuwait.
“It won’t be long now,” Greg said, looking in the direction the planes had gone. We’d been saying that for sometime now. We were tired of sitting in the desert. Get us in there, let us do our jobs, and then let us go home!
We walked into the mess tent, our eyes adjusting from the bright sunlight to dimmer interior. Soldiers sat at folding tables, their food on paper plates in front of them. It smelled wonderful. No hamburgers today, that was for sure.
We went to the serving line, got our plate and plastic utensils, and waited till we got up to the steam tables. I frowned as I saw what was being served.
Not small pieces of steak. These were serious steakhouse sized sirloin steaks, cooked to perfection with just the slightest hint of moisture leaking out. The cook placed it on my plate, warning me to hold it from the bottom. I did, and he piled on sauteed onions and mushrooms. The steak was joined by a baked potato with all the fixings, whole kernel corn, bread, and blueberry cobbler for desert.
We found an empty table and sat down, and looked at the steak. It was a meal fit for a king, but we all knew what this sumptuous meal meant. We had a lot of names for this meal. “The last supper.” “Death row chow.” Call it whatever you wanted, there was only one time 1st Armored would serve a meal like this and that was on the eve of combat.
“Boys,” I said, picking up my plastic silverware. “Make sure your stuff is packed up. We’ll be headed north by sundown.”
We ate, talked, laughed, did anything to keep from thinking that the moment was at hand. All of us knew the day we enlisted that there was a chance we’d see combat in our career. We trained for it, we talked about it, and now here it was.
Being the kind of person who reflects on history, I wondered how the people in my family felt when they were heading into combat. What my cousin Gary thought when he got off the plane in ‘Nam, or my Uncle Neff fighting through France and Germany in WW II. thought about. They were the men I used as a yard stick to measure myself against, and now I was about to join them by actually being up close and personal with a war.
I hope I measured up.
After we ate, we went back to our tent and started squaring our gear away. We broke everything down except the tent itself. If the word came, we could be packed and gone in under a half hour.
I was sitting on my ruck when I looked out and noticed that Headquarters Company wasn’t tearing anything down yet. Maybe we’d just jumped the gun by being ready. Maybe they hadn’t figured it out.
Either way, the showers hadn’t been taken down and were in business.
Screw it, I thought. If we left today, it would be several days before I saw a shower again. If I’m going into combat, I want to go in clean.
“I’m going to take a shower,” I said.
I pulled out clean underwear and socks, a clean uniform, and my shaving kit. Quickly I went over, got in the stall, and stripped down.
The shower stalls were right out there in the open, and was little more than a series of plywood boxes just high enough to give the illusion of privacy. I draped my uniform over the sides, and turned on the water. It was warm and that was a pleasant surprise. Most of the time the water was either freezing cold or scalding hot. Rarely did you get the water in the Goldilocks zone. I lathered up, and then scrubbed ears, face, and under arms.
Turning I saw one of the girls from the headquarters company a couple of stalls down. I nodded to her, she nodded back. Maybe she’d come to the same conclusion I had. I went back to washing up, and wondering what would happen in the next few hours.
Just a quick word about sexism in a combat zone. It doesn’t exist. Oh, we know there’s men and women serving together, and there’s ample opportunity for things to happen between them. I’m not saying that the difference cease to exist, or through some magic you stop noticing (though I have often wondered what’s put in the food). What I’m saying is combat makes everything and everyone equal. A lot of things you’d do in a combat environment, you’d never do back in the world.
A good friend of mine related a story where he was using the bathroom (we had outhouses, two holers to be exact). One of the girls came in, sat down and used the bathroom while he was in there. They talked, and when they finished, both got up and left. About five feet from the door it hit them that this was something they’d never have done back in the world. Here, it was no big deal.
So I shaved, washed my hair, and generally made myself look good. If I’m going into battle, by God I wanted to look good doing it.
Being clean wouldn’t last. We’d be going through dust, and whatever else was tossed at us. I also knew we’d be wearing MOPP gear (what we wore going into potential chemical warfare environments). They had charcoal in them, and that made a mess out of skin and uniforms.
But as I slipped on my uniform, I felt good, and ready to go in.
I walked back to my tent, and twenty minutes later word came to tear down and mount up.
One hour later, the entire Battle Central was heading north. Ninety minutes later, we were in Iraq.
My expectations proved to be correct. It wasn’t until the cease fire was in effect that I got to clean up again. And all I got was a quick bath using my canteen cup to warm water and wash off with.
Two weeks later I got to call home.
“We saw you on the news,” my dad said.
“On the news?” I didn’t remember a camera around.
“Yeah, you were taking a shower!”
Then I remembered CNN with us at the Battle Central. Apparently they’d noticed me, and used a zoom lens to close in.
Several months later I got home and saw the video. I’m rather tall, so a large part of me was up above the rim of the stall.
Fortunately, everything else remained hidden.
So that’s my five seconds of fame from the Gulf War.
Here’s a link to the video. I’m in there actually twice, once walking the perimeter, and the other in the shower.