A long time ago in the Gulf War, I took about a hundred million pictures (okay, slight exaggeration) of 1st Armored Division’s 501st MPs. Over the next several days, weeks, and months, I’m going to start scanning and posting them. I was officially the unofficial photographer of the unit and had tried hard to record who we were and how we lived.
So, stay tuned for that. I will also use the page as an excuse to start coming out from the shadow of Will Ablan. (Hmmm, good title for a book there). It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out Will Ablan is really a very thinly disguised Richard Muniz.
I also made a promise years ago that I’d get the pictures out there (we looked at photobooks, yearbooks, and so on, just too expensive). So members of 501st MPs, feel free to download them and consider it a promise fulfilled.
Here’s the first of the many pictures that will make it in here. It’s yours truly standing in in front of my Humvee.
Our adventure began December 14th, 1990. It had snowed in Ansbach, Germany. That was the only snow I’d see that year. We were up before the sun, getting our rooms closed out, drawing
weapons, and getting our bags downstairs for transport. Buses showed up, and good byes were made.
We were confined to barracks the night before. Most of us had ordered food in. My last meal in Germany was Spaghetti Carbonara ordered from a small gasthaus just down the block. I felt a little like a guy waiting for his own execution, and enjoying his last meal, but I’m sure most everyone felt that way.
Something that occurred to me was that morning, we were all issued bayonets. Now bayonets are made to go on the end of rifle, and supposedly, these would fit ours. problem was bayonet fighting training was something none of us had ever received. so actually fixing bayonets would have left us in a world of hurt. I also made the discovery that I couldn’t get mine out of the sheath. Either it, the sheath, or something were warped and hence we’d couldn’t get it out, or it had rusted in there. I had a buddy grab the hilt, and I grabbed the sheath, and with two, very in shape men pulling at it, the blade wouldn’t budge. I complained and was told not to worry. “You PROBABLY won’t need it.” Then why give it to me?
Needing a knife when we got down there, I eventually purchased a cheap hunting knife out of an Arab PX at KKMC (King Khalid Military community).
The next morning we had a light meal. Doughnuts and coffee if memory serves. The kitchen was already closed down and the next food we ate (after airline food) would be MREs (Meals Ready to Eat, or Meals Rejected by Ethiopia – take your choice).
I think our leaving was especially hard on the married guys and those with young children. The hardest part was that we were just a few weeks away from Christmas.
It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t pick what day we left, but that’s the way it goes for a soldier. Many of the families had celebrated Christmas weeks before.
That morning, the normally bustling kaserne (barracks) was quiet. The field artillery guys who shared the kaserne with us had shipped out a few days before.
By evening, except for a few folks left behind to keep an eye on things, it would be quiet there.
We boarded the buses and were driven to the airport in Nuremberg. A Pan-Am 747 was waiting to fly us to Saudi Arabia..
It would be several hours before we boarded, however. Cots had been set up and many of us took advantage of that and caught a quick nap, or just tried to relax.
Several hours later, we were en route to Saudi Arabia. It was a party at thirty thousand feet with unlimited sodas, in flight movies, and stewardesses that looked after us. I remember watching “She Devil” with Rosanne Barr. I’d have preferred a western, but hey, it was free, and not a half bad movie. Here’s a page I put together showing pictures from that flight.
Never in my life would I have dreamed of flying into combat with movies, stewardesses, and first class accommodations. My uncles who served in WW II got to their battlefields on crowded ships. I doubt there was even a hint of the luxury we had. I’ve seen the old movies with guys smoking and playing cards to pass the time. I’m sure most of them spent their time throwing up all the way over.
Now here I was, flying into combat. It was more like flying cross country for a business meeting. Sometime I wonder who goes to bed at night and dreams up this stuff.
The party atmosphere changed as we approached Saudi Arabia, however. As we turned to land, and the lights came down low, the plane quieted. I remember looking out the window and seeing the city of Dhahran spreading out in front of us. I don’t know what I expected. I guess I’d expected the city to be blacked out like the cities were in World War II. But not here. The place was lit up. I could see the runway and, as I watched, I saw several bright, star-like objects race down it and head up into the sky. They were fighters launching. A Combat Air Patrol (CAP) was already standing by.
A few minutes later, we landed. Reality slapped us in the face at that point. I remember as we rolled past a connecting runway, I had a glimpse of an F-15 sitting there with an Air Force crew around it. What caught my attention was the plane had missiles under its wings. White ones. It was loaded for combat.
We stopped a few minutes later and got out. We stood in the sand as our duffel bags were unloaded. We picked them up and waited for someone to tell us what to do next.
What to do next turned out to be get some sleep. Buses wouldn’t be here until after sunrise, and we were hours away from that. I put my duffel and ruck down in the sand next to a busy runway. Spread about me were the two hundred plus people who’d flown with me.
With jet fighters screaming down the runway, helicopters flying overhead, and engines whining, we lay down and slept.
The next morning was a blur. The buses arrived, and I have a vague recollection of getting my stuff and boarding the bus. I put my duffel in the overhead bin, sat down, and looked down at my feet. There was a hole rusted through the bottom of the bus. As we started off, I looked through the hole and could clearly see the ground passing under us. I found it remarkable that the bus was even running. I should have felt concerned. I didn’t. Instead I fell asleep again. I woke up once to see my side of the bus headed into another bus. I remember saying to myself, “Boy, go back to sleep. You’re about to be part of something you don’t want to know about.”
Remarkably, I did.
I felt like I slept forever. When I woke up, we were just a stone’s throw from a large oil refinery. Someone with a sense of humor had made a sign and hung it up like one would a city limits sign, or a sign for a fancy hotel. It was a tent city we’d arrived at, and they’d named it the Dew Drop Inn. We’d be there for a week or so until our vehicles caught up to us.
Here’s some stuff I put together that came straight from the old photo albums.
The Dew Drop Inn had a small PX in a tent. The first few days we were there, I went to take a shower, and the old Casio watch I’d worn for years got wet and gave up the ghost. I went to the small PX and bought a watch. I paid for it with a check (it was AFESS – did I spell that right? – so my check was good.)
The check never cleared. Even after we got back to Germany, it still hadn’t cleared. It wasn’t until over a year later that it finally hit the bank. It was my account in Germany, and by that time I’d moved on and that account was closed. Uncle Sam collected it from my taxes years after I was a civilian.
The tent we found ourselves in was sitting on a cement floor. I wondered when they’d poured those, and how much preplanning had gone into it. A few days later, I saw engineers pouring more tend floors. This wasn’t that preplanned, but an ongoing task.
Our meals were served at an open air mess, and Pakistanis cooked for us. Food seemed to be doled out with an eye dropper, and I always felt hungry.
A few days later, our Humvees caught up to us. We were relieved that they’d arrived safely. We’d stowed a lot of gear inside them, and it was all there. SPC Doty had traveled on the ship with them, kept an eye on things, and he said he had a good time on the voyage.
One of the orders we got, and one that sounded stupid at the beginning was that we needed to keep out boots shined. So, we shined our boots, stepped out of the tent, and instantly, the shine job was destroyed. Turns out there was some common sense here. The dryness, dust, and heat leached oils from our boots. without replenishing those oils they’d have fallen apart quickly. also, when it rained, the wax helps to keep moisture out which helps keep the feet a little dryer.
We’d been pretty much sitting on our butts despite some light training. Then we got a mission. I’d heard a bomb was found just outside the entrance to the Dew Drop Inn. I’m not sure how true that was, but that was the rumor floating around the Inn. But rumor or not, it prompted someone to start taking things a little more seriously.
With security suddenly an issue, someone realized there was a company of MPs doing nothing. Since we had our vehicles, we could patrol the camp and its area. After all, the job of an MP is to secure the rear area, or so our training manual tells us.
There was one small problem with the idea.
We had no bullets! I guess we could have thrown rocks.
Somehow we got one box of ammo per M-60 machine gun. That was a single belt of ammo of about hundred rounds each, and would have lasted about four seconds in a fire fight. But we patrolled the camp, put empty magazines into our rifles, and made a show of force that might keep any would be terrorists or the like away.
We had this mission for just a few days. Finally, word came that we’re moving out. We didn’t have a clue where we were headed. All we had was the LT with a list of directions, a map (no cracks about an officer with a map, please. He knew how to read one.), and orders to watch for a wrecked tanker truck on the side of the road.
Move out is exactly what we did.
It turns out we were moving inland. We left early in the morning, and convoyed out to TAA (Tactical Assembly Area) Thompson, a large, spread out area near a small town. I thought I’d seen the middle of nowhere before.
I was wrong.
On 22 December, we officially arrived at the aforementioned, middle of nowhere. I was surprised to find out we had a zip code.
We were about a mile or two from a small community called Al Qaysumah. Someone had gone ahead of us and erected a tent base. For the next month or so, that would be home.
A mission we picked up quickly was what we called Checkpoint Bravo (I don’t think it ever really had a name – we just called it that). All it was was the turn off from the main highway (right next to the aforementioned wrecked tanker trailer) and out to the the desert. Trucks and other units arriving were instructed to watch for us, and we’d point them off the road in the direction they should go. We spent most of our time there yelling at drivers to put on their helmets.
The engineers had dug out a pit where we could park our Humvee. But it rained and the pit turned into a swimming pool. Needless to say, we didn’t park in there.
One of the coolest things that happened occurred with SSG Hahr. He’d come to us from recruiter duty, and now he was standing alongside a dusty MSR (Main Supply Route) along with everyone else.
A truck pulls off the road to turn down towards the division assembly area, and the driver of course didn’t have his helmet on. SSG Hahr went to yell at the driver, and got a reaction he didn’t expect. The driver almost fell out of the truck laughing, looks up at the sky, and says, “Thank you, God. My recruiter is here with me.” It was a nice reunion for them.
Life at TAA Thompson was rather uneventful. Christmas day brought our first sandstorm, and it was a very gloomy day for us all. The stove was going full blast, but it
barely kept the cold at bay. I think that’s one thing that caught us by surprise was just how cold the desert can get. I guess in retrospect, that shouldn’t have been a surprise since there’s really nothing out there to hold the heat. I was thankful for cold weather gear and in the middle of what can be one of the hottest regions on Earth, we were wearing winter gear.
Some of the guys cut up an MRE box and drew a Christmas tree onto it. I guess they were trying to make it feel like Christmas.
It didn’t help.
Everyone wanted to be anywhere except there. I remember lying back on my bunk and thinking of the Kringle Market in Nuremberg, and buying a glass of warm Gluhwein. The Christmas before I’d done just that, and walked around looking at the different booths. I remember it was snowing, and the snowflakes fell into the drink like tiny meteors hissing to their death.
I also thought about my kids and how the toys I’d bought them before leaving Germany had probably arrived busted. It was a sad, lonesome day.
My Christmas dinner was a Chicken and Rice MRE. I gave myself a treat, tossed it on the stove, and heated it up. Dust from the sandstorm helped season it some.
Lt. Bielecki and SFC Gallizou disappeared for a while. We didn’t think anything of that. That evening they came in, told us to grab our gear and go down to the checkpoint.
So we got dressed, grabbed our rifles, and convoyed down to the checkpoint. We had a nice surprise waiting for us. They had gone into town and purchased soda pop and snack cakes. SSG Honor was a PK (Preacher’s Kid) and had a put together a small service for us. He preached from John 3:16, and talked about how Jesus had taken on flesh and died for our sins. Afterwards, we had one of the strangest communions I’ve ever been part of. A single slice of MRE bread had been torn apart, and we had a juice container like a kid would have in his lunch. We each got a piece of bread from a canteen cup, and a sip of juice. It was one communion that caught the very essence of what it’s supposed to be. In this case, a bunch of men from all walks of life, and on the farside of the world, united by one thing, and that was out faith in Christ. Afterwards, we hugged and talked, ate our cakes and drank our soda like the big happy family we were.
I guess when you’re thousands of miles from home, and away from your family, you enjoy the family you got.
We eventually got a Christmas dinner. . .Two days later! If my fading memory is correct, a few people got sick off it. I recall steering away from the turkey thinking that it smelled funny and couldn’t possibly still be good. So I dined on mashed potatoes, stuffing, and desert.
We were also united by a constant fear that Saddam would do a preemptive strike on us before we got up to strength. We still had very little ammo but we did dig in, just in case. We built a series of bunkers connected by trenches. It was back breaking work.
Digging into the Saudi Desert wasn’t exactly like trying to chop through cruiser armor plate, but it was pretty close. It took us several days to get it the way we wanted our bunkers done. The bunkers were large and, all things considered, comfortable.
We’d managed to scrounge wood and, in some cases, even steel to provide overhead cover for us. Days later we were ordered to remove the cover. Apparently someone had a bunker cave in on them (not our unit), and there were several injuries.
We did as ordered, and thought all along how vulnerable we now felt. I’m sure all of us had visions of an overhead burst, and steel raining down on us at supersonic speed.
All things considered, the explosions themselves might have caused the roof to collapse.
Later, you’ll see some bunkers the Iraqis dug. Ours were small by comparison. Of course we weren’t living in them either.
Our fortification were large and comfortable. Notice how that one beam is sagging down. Maybe taking the overhead cover wasn’t such a bad idea after all. In the picture from back to front: SSG Hahr, SSG Honor, Cpl McArtor.
I’ve gotten up on Google Earth and looked at the imagery of where I “think” we were. I think I found the perimeter of our camp (the engineers dug a ditch around it), but I’m not finding any trace of the fortifications we made. I suspect they were bulldozed over shortly after we left. After all, driving into a hole in the ground can hurt. Maybe some future archaeologist will find them, dig them up, and find the letter in an envelope that proclaimed “Kilroy was here.”
I’ve drawn the sketch here as best I could from memory. I can’t recall exactly which tents housed which platoon, and can only remember our piece of the perimeter really well. this probably shows more than anything else, how we lived. At the bottom of the camp was the burn pit. Everything was dumped in there, and set fire. In addition, anything generated in the waste stations was pulled out an burned. The burn pits have been blamed for a lot of the illnesses soldiers have contracted.
I’ll be putting the sketch in at a future date.
Burn pits were dirty disgusting work, and while we all did it at least once, it was not something we cared to do. One of the things a lot of people thought were cool were the so called “Piss tubes.” These were nothing more than PVC pipe, buried into the sand at roughly a 45 degree angle. As the name implies, we used it to urinate into.
Initially, it sounded like a good idea. But eventually they began to stink. I have to admit, there were times our tidy little camp smelled like a warm summers day at the county dump.
Eventually we got showers, but I was only able to use them once. It had been a weeks since we showered. Up to that point, we used a wash basin to heat up water on the stove and did the best we could. The showers got delivered, and the mechanics set up the water heaters. Trucks came in and filled them. The water heaters were started, and the lines formed for the showers.
Unlike the showers we had at battle central, these were fully enclosed. You went in a small room, stripped, stepped into the shower, and turned it on. We were doing the same kind of shower they do in the Navy. You step in, get wet, wash up, rinse. If you have the water on for more than thirty seconds, you’re wrong.
As it turned out, we couldn’t enjoy the shower much. It had two settings. Off and scalding hot. I love hot showers but standing for any more than a quarter second under that water could have caused severe burns. We were back to the basin rather quickly afterwards.
One person I haven’t spoken much about was our platoon daddy, SFC. Michael Gellizeau (hope I spelled that right). In a lot of the pictures I have, he can be seen wearing a jacket, maybe even a parka. SFC G suffered from some blood disorder and as result, he was always cold. Part of how he stayed warm was to work out like a machine. As a result, he was one seriously in shape individual.
Training was high on the list. Since Saddam had chemical warfare capability, we did a lot of NBC (Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical) training.
I’d picked up a secondary MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) of Chemical Warfare Defense specialist before leaving Germany, and I backed up our NBC NCO. I helped her deploy and keep up the monitors, train soldiers, and test their gear.
A very frightening incident after the air war started was we were doing some NBC training, and were reviewing how to detect nerve agent. This involves a test kit, and a small procedure. Basically you wipe an object, use some test chemicals, and it changes colors. So here we are training, and damned if the test didn’t come up for nerve agent. I reported that to the NBC NCO, and she runs it up the chain.
The explanation we got was they were hitting Saddam’s chemical weapons depots, the stuff was going up in the air, and some of it was coming down. They said it was in such low amounts, it wouldn’t be a problem.
We also trained for calling in fire or air support. What this involved is a map, binoculars, and trying to determine where a target was. We’d call grid coordinates off the map of
where we thought the target was, and if we were correct, they’d drop shells on target. The idea was to watch where the first shells fall, and adjust. If it took you more that thirty seconds to destroy the target, it was probably gone already.
I should point out this was best guess since we really weren’t calling anything in. Back in Germany, we’d have done that in a simulator. No such luck here. It was all classroom without the benefit of a lab experience.
Equipment maintenance was another never ending task. Our gear was ideally suited for European operations.
The desert was a whole another problem. One of our problems was keeping the dust out of the engines. Beating dust out of the air filters was a daily task. We’d put cloth (towels, t-shirts, even pantyhose) around them to help, but that met with mixed results.
One thing we hadn’t expected was how the sand would tear up the brakes on the Humvees.
Shortly after we got there, the
engineers began making roads across the desert. This was really handy for finding our way around, but when it rained, the roads became ditches full of water. The traffic going through it stirred up the sand, and kept it in suspension. This got up into the brakes and ate the brake pads alive.
The majority of the Humvee fleet was sidelined because of brake pads, and it took setting up a special shipment to get new ones in. When we got them, our mechanics had their hands full replacing them.
A few of us who knew how to work on a vehicle pitched in and helped, even if it was just jacking up a Humvee and yanking the tire off for them.
Calling home was an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones. I’d later see in movies how we had phone tents and so on. Later, we did. But initially, we were on whatever resources were local. The nearest phone was in Al Qaysumah, about three miles away. It was so close that in the morning while we were in the trenches, you could hear the call to prayer echo across the desert. I have to admit that the call has a beauty about it.
Al Qaysumah is a small community, smaller than the small village of Capulin (almost my home town) back home (Colorado). There was one phone outside a small store, and it wasn’t uncommon to see three or four hundred soldiers waiting to use it. We’d have made one heck of a target for some lucky terrorist.
The first time I was able to call home, I dragged my folks out of bed. They said the TV showed us living in air conditioned barracks, equipped with satellite TV and hot meals. My response was “I don’t know what army you’re
looking at, but I’m not in it.”
I explained I was living in a tent in the middle of nowhere, eating MREs three meals a day, and hadn’t seen a TV in months. For entertainment, we could get Armed Forces Radio or Baghdad Betty, depending on which way the wind was blowing.
A word on Betty. I’m not exactly sure what war she thought this was, but the music certainly wasn’t anything of the ’90s or even the ’80s. Truthfully, our boys from WWII would have enjoyed the tunes she shared. I guess what’s a war without the Andrews Sisters?
But she was a hoot. One day she advised us to go home because our wives and sweethearts were messing around with Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, and Bart Simpson.
I always suspected by ex dabbled in watercolors.
One night, the Air force was practicing bombing runs, and there was a loud explosion. In the distance, a fireball was seen to arch up into the sky and then disappear. Some our mobile units had seen one of the F-16s go down, and raced out there.
There was debris scattered everywhere, to include ordnance. I don’t recall who it was out there, but they were talking to the base and reported that his gunner had just picked up a missile. He was instructed to very carefully put the missile down.
The gunner is reported to have said it seemed to be the logical thing to do at the time.
I suppose things have changed with cellphones and email out in the field, but we lived for mail call. What was really interesting was how it ran. It wasn’t uncommon to get a letter mailed say January 15th before getting one mailed January 2nd. So sometimes you got a letter
and felt a little like you’d walked into the middle of a movie because something was referenced in an earlier letter that hadn’t arrived yet.
Still, mail is something we lived for. Mail arrived and was broken down by platoon. It was the platoon daddies job to get the mail, gather the troops around, and pass it out.
Mail was something looked forward to constantly.
It brought not only news from home, but pictures, magazines (reading material was at a premium), and often times, goodies.
Of course, the mail was gone through with a fine tooth comb. There were certain things that just didn’t make it out to us to include skin magazines, booze, etc. I think Cpl Eric McArtor summed it all up when he complained by saying, “No Booze. No dope. No babes. What the hell kind of war is this?”
One of my fondest memories of something that did make it through came from SPC
Arnold was descended from a long line of military types. His great grandfather was General ‘Hap’ Arnold, the Father of SAC. It’s safe to say that generals and colonels are a dime a dozen in his family.
He’d just gotten a small package from home. Inside were 10 wax bottles. They resembled the wax candies we got as kids that were filled with Kool-Aid. Only this wasn’t Kool-Aid. They were filled with different kinds of wine. He offered me one and when I drank from it, I discovered it was filled with peach brandy. It was one of the biggest surprises of the war. Somehow drinking something we weren’t allowed felt good! A little rebellion is a good thing now and again.
Enough can’t be said about the great folks who supported us over there. At least once or twice a week, each of us got a box with candy bars, notes, books, magazines and so on stuffed into them. Sometimes there were things we really needed (toothpaste for instance).
For some reason we had trouble getting essentials. We had a small PX that operated out
of a truck, but while it was well stocked on candy bars, and even film, it didn’t have things like shaving cream, soap, and so on. So what came out of a box was often times a Godsend.
Occasionally, our goodies boxes had some really interesting items. One guy received some girl’s underwear and a proposal of marriage. Another found a box of Trojans. They were useful to keep dirt out of the M-16s. By far the most interesting thing we received were several copies of the “Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Edition.” They were most definitely a moral booster.
I did my level best to respond to folks who included a return address. It was hard though, and I’m sure I missed some along the way. All I can say is God bless you for your generosity, support, and prayers. They sure weren’t wasted.
One fine beautiful morning, we received word that the preemptive strike feared from Saddam had sort of happened. A handful of tanks and troops were sent into Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t in our section at all, but sending troops down Wadi Al-Batin was a scenario we thought Saddam might try. If that happened, we could expect company. We were rousted early, and sent to the trenches. The war was officially on, even if we hadn’t done much more than show up.
I recall turning and looking at the sunset that evening. Like so many sunrises and sunsets in Saudi Arabia, it was spectacular.
On January 17th, 1991, I had the watch. Normally, it was nothing much more that sit in the command tent, drink coffee, and answer the radio if someone called. There were several of us in there. I recall one of the privates commented there seemed to be a lot more jets overhead.
I’d expected that. The date the UN Security Council gave Saddam had come and gone. As if to confirm that, a message came over the radio. In a nutshell it announced that we’d
begun a series of deep attacks into Iraq, and for local military commanders to assume a defensive posture. I wish I could recall the exact message, or find a copy of it. But the air war was on.
“Go wake up the captain,” I told a private. “Tell him the air war has started.”
Our immediate concern was a counterattack from Iraqi forces. We’d been slowly getting stronger and stronger. Each passing day brought more troops and equipment. We now had adequate ammo for our weapons. The entire back half of our Humvee was filled with ammo for the M-60s, M-16s, our pistols, and we had about a dozen grenades each, AT4s, and a couple of mines. I remembered telling one of my friends that any of us got hit, it would be a glorious ending.
So with our strength up, and loaded for bear, it reasoned Saddam might try to even the odds with a gas attack delivered by his missiles or aircraft. We went into the trenches wearing our protective masks.
As the sun was rising, I heard thunder in the skies. A strike was heading in, and I caught jet contrails up high.
We came out of the trenches about 8 AM, but stayed close. No one seemed to know what was going to happen next. Would Saddam fold? Would he come south?
No one knew. We got out of our MOPP gear, and went about our day. Everyone kept looking north as if they expected something terrible to materialize in the distance.
But nothing ever did.
One of the coolest things that happened was there was a series of stores about five miles down the road. We called it “The Mall” because it was one long adobe structure broken down in into dozens of small shops. We were down there one day, and I spotted an MP wearing the the 1st MP Brassard. I walked up next to him and asked, “How’s things at 1st MPs?”
The MP turned, looked at me, and his eyes went wide. It was a buddy of mine from my time at the 1st, SSG Richard Kelley. I was glad to see him. His was the first face I’d seen from home in over a year. The reunion deepened when three 1st MP vehicles pulled up. I knew all the guys, to include SPC Ed Fiegel, who had gone to them from 501st. I’ve always thought of Ed as my protegee and a very good friend, and I worked with him closely while he was the 501st. Kelly said he was “a damn fine soldier,” which is about as big a compliment as anyone can receive.
I missed those guys a lot.
We continued getting ready, then one day it came time for us to leave.
Our platoon’s immediate mission was to help the division cross a major highway. We broke camp and loaded up everything we owned, including the large tents we’d been staying in. We were already cramped for space and they didn’t help any. Fortunately, each Humvee had a trailer and most of the gear we’d never use was stashed in it. Taking down the tents was a huge effort. I don’t think any of us had ever seen that big a tent, but somehow we got them down, and loaded up. Also loaded up were the basins and shaving stations, and in some cases, even the johns.
The company was breaking up to go handle the many different jobs assigned to us. The Captain came out and gave us a little pep talk before we left. Captain Kroupa was a
great guy. He was one of the best Commanders I’d ever had.
We drove from the camp to a place some miles away. A single two lane highway was what we’d have to control. This was the area 1st Armored Division had to cross in order to arrive at the Saudi-Iraqi border.
Once the Division was across the road, we’d turn north and follow them. Our mission then became one of locating stragglers, breakdowns, or anyone who had just gotten lost along the way.
This move represented our getting into position to invade Iraq.
It took several hours to get Division across the road. From here, our mission would be to finally hook up with the Battle Central. The mission 6th Platoon historically had was the defense of the Battle Central. Interestingly, in exercises in Germany, we set up an access control tent, sent out a few patrols, and that was it.
Here, our mission was different. There would be no tent, and we’d protect part of the flank of the Battle Central.
But first, we had to get there. With Division across the road, we now followed them
north. The area reminded me of many of the areas in the San Luis Valley, a wide dry plain dotted with sagebrush, rocks, and small dunes.
The only breakdown we found was a single truck, and their outfit knew they were there. We just made sure the two soldiers were okay, had food and water, and moved on.
I think one of the most heartbreaking pieces of the war happened while we were conducting this sweep up patrol. We came across an area where some outfit had emptied out their refrigerators. Piles of food had been dumped and burnt. I remember rolls of hamburger, burnt and rotting in the sun. Bread now crawling with ants. There were eggs in the pile, their shells burnt and blackened, and I tried to remember the last time I’d eaten an egg.
We dug through the piles of food and salvaged a couple of bags of potatoes and some cooking oil. That evening when we stopped, we cut up the potatoes, broke out the cooking gear, and made a campfire. We made french fries and that was our dinner. We had very little salt, no ketchup, and the fries tasted like a slice of heaven. It was a perfect day to be a U.S. Army Soldier in the field.
As I mentioned, our mission had changed some by the time we hooked up with the Battle Central. Instead of an Access Control Tent, we were part of the muscle on the perimeter of Battle Central. As much as we liked being with our Company, the1st Armored Division, Battle Central was our home away from home. It meant hot meals, showers, and friends.
We worked closely with everyone there and had good working relationships.
For some, such as the Estrada’s pictured to the left, it was indeed a family reunion.
All things considered, it’s odd that I don’t have a lot of pictures of the Battle Central or the people around it. I think I was starting to run low on film and wanted to save what I had for Iraq.
It’s really too bad, I had some good friends there. One was a Sgt. Richard Mooney, Satellite Communications Expert. Another was a young lady who was a cook. She was a model and together, we’d made some money in Germany doing photographs for sale ads. I’ve no pictures of either one of them, or for that matter, much around the Battle Central. But here’s a few photos.
We did manage to get some baseball in. It was always an odd experience. This is one of the few times we’d take off most of our gear. To be sure, it was never far away, and we could have it back on in seconds. The umpires were dressed in full combat gear. Since arguing with a man carrying a loaded M-16 is a rather stupid thing to do, the umpires calls were final.
We also got caught up on much needed personal hygiene such as haircuts, showers, and the like. The only downside was that, once again, our mail had no idea where we were, and we waited patiently for that to catch up to us.
This is the Battle Central–several expandable vans. When stopped, they pulled out the sides, linked them together, and it formed a mobile/office area to coordinate the battle. Each vehicle was stuffed with desks, radios, phones, and computers.
They practiced setting this thing up so much, they could have the whole system up and going in under five minutes. I always thought it was good training if you wanted to join the circus.
Being such a key piece of real estate, our job was to protect it.
We had a lot of help. The perimeter around it was protected by us, the Boys and Girls of the Headquarters Company, a team of engineers, and the 1st Infantry Division Band. With the exception of the headquarters folks, we’d never really worked with the other elements, and it took some getting used to.
When we first learned that the band had a piece of the defense of the Battle Central, it caused us a little concern. Most of us didn’t think in terms of the band being combat soldiers. Yet they were.
Here’s a link to some video during the war. It was shot the same day we went in. Watch for a guy walking the perimeter at about 1:40. That’s me. Also, look around 4:30. That’s me in the shower. And then read my story here on my blog.
One of the issues was some of these outfits we’d never worked with. The Headquarters company and the Band were always there, but not the engineers. Before we’d made the jump up to the border, they were already assigned to the Battle Central. We were sending Humvees to go out and sit outside the perimeter in a static listening post.
What eventually happened was a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. Word never filtered down we were out there most nights, and that was a recipe for an almost disaster.
One night, they (the engineers) realized something was out there. When it didn’t respond, they fired on it. Thank God they were lousy shots. The something was an MP HUMVEE with Sam Pennington and his team. When the first burst went over them, Sam immediately ordered the lights to be turned on, and knowing what had happened yelled they were an MP patrol. A burst from a fifty caliber machine gun would have made junk out of the Humvee and probably killed everyone aboard. Sam and his crew got lucky.
For at least a little while, there was some bad blood between us and them, but eventually we got over the fact they’d almost blasted some of our platoon to kingdom come, and actually became friends with them.
Here’s a few more shots from around the Battle Central.
In addition to the Band (who incidentally had a couple of 50 caliber machine guns), and the Engineers who had M113s and 50s also, we had assigned to us a small Anti-Aircraft contingent.
Battle Central would be a target the enemy went after, and protecting it was a big deal. Losing it would basically decapitate the division, and hoepfully the brigade level commanders could take over and still run their piece of the battle.
Problem is that some of the higher level coordination would be gone, and that would increase the chances of friendly fire incidents and such.
MPs are extremely well armed to provide just this kind of support . The typical MP team is extremely mobile. The Humvees provided for some protection, and we were armed as follows:
Team Leader – M203: This is an M-16 with a grenade launcher attached. A serious weapon and a lot of fun to shoot.
Driver – M 16
Gunner – M-60 machine gun
In addition to these weapons, we each carried our sidearm. Aboard we had a dozen hand grenades, ammo for the 203, 4 AT-4 anti-tank weapons, and
Claymore mines. We were most definitely a force to be contended with.
My father had asked how well armed we were and told him that with what we had, my team and I would not only have held the Alamo, but wiped Santa Anna and his army off the battlefield. Modern warfare relies heavily on force multipliers, and it’s a sobering thought that three men could be so dangerous.
One thing we weren’t supposed to have were SAWs (Squad Automatic Weapons), basically a light machine gun. they fired the same round as the the M-16. We had a CONEX (shipping container) delivered to our company, and these were in it. We never did find out who they belonged to, so each squad leader ended up carrying one.
We did have one big surprise for the defense of the Battle Central. Two M1A1s had been assigned to us to help with its protection. In a worse case scenario, their firepower would have been a huge asset.
As it was, they mostly ended up babysitting. I wonder how the tankers assigned to us felt being left out of the last great tank battles of the 20th Century.
As they say, all good things must come to an end. The air war had been going on for over a month, and we were coming up on the end of February. While the weather hadn’t been too bad yet, it would be hot soon. The desert heat would be more dangerous to us than the Republican Guard ever could.
One day we were working and a wonderful smell washed across the compound. The cooks were getting lunch ready. Every cowboy knows the smell. It was like they were grilling steaks, but then everything they cooked smelled like grilled steak.
When we went to lunch, a big sirloin, cooked to perfection, was on my plate. Read all about that here. That meant we were going in. Before the sun went down, we were heading North into Iraq.
The Battle Central breaks up and heads north. There was a light sandstorm to hide our advance.
I always thought the light sandstorm was convenient for us to move out in. Later, I was to see an event in the sky that made me wonder if there wasn’t some weather warfare being conducted. Note that’s a wild guess, totally unconfirmed on my part, but it still made me wonder.
The sun went down while we still moving, and somewhere around 10 PM, and in the dark, we crossed the border into Iraq. There’s these large berms of sand bulldozed up on the border. Our engineers had made roads through them, and it seemed that every bit of traffic in the world was headed right for those openings. In the dark, all we could see were the small red blackout markers of other vehicles. We spotted one of the vehicles with the convoy we were with and stayed focused on its black out markers. I remember hoping it was doing the same.
That was hard, because if you blinked, it was sometimes difficult to reacquire the black out lights.
Somehow, Battle Central made it through the narrow gaps intact, and with no one following the wrong vehicles. I didn’t see any MPs directing the traffic and, unless we were staggered and I didn’t know it, I don’t know how we got through without getting tangled with another convoy.
We traveled for several more hours, and finally stopped for the night about two thirty in
the morning. I slept in my seat, my elbow on the window sill. We were moving early the next morning.
One thing I’ll never forget is the cooks showed up with boxes of breakfast sandwiches. I haven’t a clue when they set up the kitchen, or cooked them. For all I know, they cooked them before we left Saudi and just kept them on ice. They were just a friend egg, a slice of cheese and ham, and mayo between two pieces of bread. I hung the name of First AD sandwiches on them. They’ve been a favorite breakfast since in my family, even if my kids did call them “First Eggee Sandwiches” when they were younger.
We drove all day, stopping only to refuel, eat a hasty meal, and then get on our way. Only once did we see anything that even remotely look like combat. About noon, one of our MLRS systems located a few miles away fired a single missile. It arced away and I wondered what that was all about. I never did find out.
We stopped moving about sunset. Our first night in enemy territory and we hadn’t seen any evidence they were even around. I admit I was getting a little worried. I’d have
expected something by now. I half wondered if Saddam wasn’t trying to do to us what the Russians had done to the Germans in WW II. Get them in deep, then cut their supply lines.
We stopped moving, and set up the perimeter for the night.
Along about midnight, a storm moved in and it started raining. We’re not talking a small storm, but buckets of water from the sky.
Small rivers flowed about, and the heavy rain swallowed up what little light there was. I’ve seen dark. I’ve never seen this much dark. Later, one of us would comment that it had an almost supernatural quality to it.
Someplace out there, a tank battle was underway. We could hear it on the radio, and bright flashes of light would erupt through the darkness. It looked like
something out a Sci Fi movie. When the sun came up, the storm moved out. In the sky, I saw a meteorological phenomenon I can’t explain. The clouds were marching out in what looked like waves. I was reminded of one of those animated diagrams of wave propagation, which shows a radio wave moving away from a radio antenna. I’d never seen anything like it before or since. For all I know, it’s a weather event peculiar to that area. But I never shook the impression I was seeing weather warfare. The rain and darkness would have certainly given us another edge in what was already an uneven fight.
Sometime in the afternoon, we began to see evidence that the Iraqis had been around. We started coming across abandoned bunkers. Truthfully, the places looked like the
city dump. Abandoned gear, helmets, clothing, and the like were scattered everywhere.
Until a few hours before, soldiers had been living here. They’d left in one big hurry, and in a lot of cases left most everything behind.
I remember looking down into one of the bunkers. They’d been here long enough to have dug them out and made them somewhat comfortable. I didn’t dare go in, but instead crouched at the entrance and looked in.
The bunkers struck me as the perfect places to put a booby trap or two. I’d had a relative that had lost a body part by poking around in a German bunker back in WW II while souvenir hunting. I wasn’t eager to carry on the tradition.
I figured the only souvenir I wanted was me back home, intact and alive. I crouched down and took these pictures.
Braver souls than I went into the bunkers. One came out with a spiral notebook like the kind a kid would use in school. There was a picture of Saddam on the cover.
I settled for some stuff I found lying about topside, a spoon and a beret (some war souvenir). I still have the spoon, but the beret was taken by my son to show and tell. One of his classmates stole it. I was a little upset about that.
Years later, my boy made up for it by bringing me back a helmet from Afghanistan. It’s one of my most treasured items.
Things became a blur of sorts.
We drove up on where the battle had been fought the night before. It was a small valley, and scattered below us were the remains of tanks, trucks, and tracks. Most were still burning, and the smoke of battle still hung over the area. I could see the tracks of the tanks that had engaged them the night before. It looked like they’d gone straight through it, just shooting as they went, and leaving a junkyard behind.
It was like something from War of the Worlds, only we’d been the Martians.
Suddenly there was a shout that someone was down there. Sure enough, there was single human being walking through. He seemed to be the only survivor of the engagement. We went down to check him out. He was badly injured and noticed us only when we shouted at him. He turned, started walking to us, only to collapse from his wounds. I don’t think we was fully aware that we were Americans.
The medics came in, treated him, and a chopper was called in to get him to a MASH. What happened to him, I don’t know. I hope he made it.
What also made the scene unforgettable was a small song on the battlefield. I’d followed it and there was a small bird sitting on it’s nest. I wondered what it had thought of the night before when forces beyond its comprehension raged around it. I took a lesson from the bird that horrible things pass, and the sun always comes up. Here’s the story.
Again, things became a blur after that. We were surviving on less that an hour or two sleep a day during the ground war, and that taxes your physical and mental resources terribly. I knew a little of what to expect because they toss the same situation at you at the National Training Center.
Seeing what’s left of a modern day battle is something I’ve never been able to find words for. I could talk about the broken machines, or the smell of burnt flesh and diesel that hovers around the wrecked vehicles. Or the carnage of it all.
Somehow, even almost thirty years later, I still can’t find the words. and I’m a writer.
I don’t think the words even exist to begin to describe it.
Going through what’s left in the wake of modern day battle is overwhelming. Powerful machines are just so much junk now, their crews dead or injured. I don’t know how someone can describe it. Even a poet would be at a loss for words.
That night there were more battles. We stopped while one was being fought. We knew from reports that we’d inflicted serious damage to the Iraqi army, and that they were falling back.
About a mile from our location, the MLRS batteries started firing. These are multiple rocket launchers and it looked like something from Star Wars. With loud booms, the rockets ignited, then hurtled into the skies, a trail of fire behind them.
Every time one fired, it was like a flash of lightning. In that split second,I could see the launchers, and even make out faces of those around me. One after the other they fired, the rockets hurtling up and away over the horizon.
MLRS has often been referred to as the Division Commander’s personal shotgun. I don’t know what they were shooting at, but I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of that. I tried to get some pictures, but they were disappointing at best. If I’d had my Pentax 1000 instead of a small Kodak camera, I might have got some really good shots. As it was . . .
I don’t recall sleeping much that night.
The next day was more of the same. We rolled through and past more ruined positions. It’s a funny thing when you’re in the middle of a historic event, that you know nothing about what’s really going on. All we knew were now moving east. I’d expected us to keep
heading north till we got to Turkey, shake hands with the Turks, and call it good. That wasn’t happening.
Years later I was to learn that the battles I’d witnessed had names. To us, they were points on a map, nothing more.
I began to understand the the Republican Guard had at last begun to put up a fight. We heard that Iraqi forces were leaving Kuwait. That put us in a rather interesting position. First, we had to make sure they didn’t get out. We’d be talking several heavy divisions retreating North. They were almost directly in our way. There was nothing to say they might not turn and join forces in the area. There was no doubt we couldn’t handle them, they’d just have made our mission harder.
That afternoon, we ended up going through a minefield. Scattered across an area dozens of city blocks in size, the Air Force had dropped land mines. What we’d done is to push the Republican Guard through it. I don’t know how well this worked, or what, if any damage had been done to them, but now we had to go through it in pursuit of them.
The Engineers had opened paths through the minefield for us. Using M1 tanks with a rotating drum of chains they beat the ground and detonated anything they hit. The small mines were about the size of a frozen juice can were too small to present a danger to the the tanks.
But that couldn’t be said for the trucks and Humvees in the convoy. Once again we were funneled down to a few lanes of traffic. The idea was to go straight, don’t steer to the left or the right. If you were off even a little, it could mean disaster.
I recall noticing a mine less than three inches from our front tire at one time. They were scattered everywhere. I had to hope that the engineers had gotten them all. There was very little room for error.
As we started to clear the minefield, we heard a loud explosion from one of the other lanes. A Humvee belonging to the Division Chief of Staff had hit a mine.
The explosion shredded the back tire, and shrapnel punched a hole in the fuel tank.
Another piece of metal exploded up through the floor board. All of the Humvees had sandbags on the floor. We’d placed them there for a little extra protection. The sandbags helped save the driver’s life. The shrapnel ripped through the floorboard, sandbags, and through the back of the driver’s chair. The driver was wearing a flak vest. The vest stopped the shrapnel and saved her life. It still struck her with enough force to knock her face first into the steering wheel and break her nose.
I understand she got the Purple Heart for that, and she confessed she felt like a damn fool receiving it for something so minor.
Shortly after clearing that minefield, we stopped for the night. There were still mines in the area, and I remember soldiers marking them. We’d long since run out of yellow tape, and they were using the next best thing, toilet paper.
I recall hearing more battles on the radio, and we watched all night long. Then it was announced that a cease-fire would be in effect the following morning. We were hours
away from the cease-fire when the big guns opened up. Not far away, the 155s were firing. It was the final chance to get a few licks in on Iraqi positions, and they fired right up to the minute the cease-fire started.
I remember my father telling me of seeing artillery rounds arching across the sky when he was in the Army. Now I got to see what he’d seen and how they moved like stars up and then down on their
Then the guns went silent. The General called everyone together and explained the cease-fire was in effect, to get our maintenance done, get some food, and then go to sleep.
I recall walking back to the Humvee and thinking about how with a few simple words, it was over. But I had a deep feeling of dread, as if there was unfinished business.
I recall the LT asked me, “What do you think?” He knew my interest in history and was wondering what I was thinking in terms of a historical perspective.
I remember looking out into the desert as we walked. “Sir, I think our children will be back to figure out who won it the first time.”
God, I hate being right.
I got out of the MOPP gear I’d been wearing. The uniform I’d been in for days now had gone from Camo Green to black. The uniform never came clean and I threw if away. Greg got out his little gas powered stove, and I heated up a canteen cup of water, and bathed and shaved out of it. I tried to eat an MRE but was too tired to enjoy it. I laid down on the top of the Humvee and slept for sixteen hours.
We stayed in Iraq for several weeks, and life became routine again. We were just outside an abandoned Iraqi airfield. One of the immediate things that had to be taken care of were the huge numbers of POWs. Barb wire fences had been erected, and we used the Humvees as guard towers. The night winds were cold, and so
we gave the POWs shovels to dig pits they slept in. Everything was spread pretty thin for them. We were able to get them food and water courtesy of the Air Force. The airfield we were at had been bombed. The engineers filled in the craters, and C-130s started bringing in food and water.
One of the things we did was to transfer the POWs out of Iraq and to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi’s would handle returning them to Iraq. I heard that an offer was made to each of them if they wanted to stay, they could. I don’t know if any of them took the Saudis up on it.
One of the real issues we faced was that we were still being spread thin. We still needed to keep the area secure. The airfield we were sitting just outside of had bunkers full
of ammo. I never went to check them out, but I also heard that there were a couple of fighters in the hangers.
Our female MPs weren’t supposed to be watching the POWs, but we had few choices. One of our MPs was SP4 Hahn. A pretty girl, she tucked her hair up under her helmet, put on a flak jacket, and she looked more like Ron Howard’s little brother than a girl. She pitched in and helped when we needed help the most.
We started settling in to life in Iraq. Between running missions, and waiting for whatever
was going to happen next, we forged a home of sorts. Someone had found a damaged table in a bunker and we salvaged and repaired it. We called it the “Stamisch table” after the tables in Germany where the guests of the management were allowed to sit. We set it up in a tent, and that became our kitchen/rec room.
There was still some rather bizarre stuff going on. One day, our Platton Daddy asked me to go with him. We went out to this one unit where they’d detained two Arab men. The story I got was that they’d shown up in a little white and orange Toyota pickup and identified themselves as Saudi Intelligence officers. They wanted gasoline for the truck. Thinking this was slightly bizarre, that unit arrested them. SFC G and I took them to an actual Saudi outfit and turned them over to them. Haven’t a clue who or what they really were, but it was an odd incident and just one more incident to file under “What the heck.”
Things got pretty routine there for a while. Here’s a few pictures from our time in Iraq.
One night, Greg woke me up with one question, “Are you OK?”
Apparently, I was gasping for breath. It felt to me like I was running a fever, and when I tried to sit up, I felt weak, almost wrung out. The next morning I wasn’t any better.
SSG Hahr, my squad leader told me to go to the medics. I went, they checked me out, and then they told me to come back a half hour later, and leave my weapons with my platoon.
I should have expected trouble. Blackhawks were always coming in, and I either didn’t notice the MASH Blackhawk that arrived, or I was so sick I didn’t pay it any mind.
When I came back to the Medics half an hour later, myself and a few others were helicoptered out to a MASH in Saudi Arabia.
I don’t remember much about the flight. I remember flying over the desert, then falling asleep and waking to be landing at the MASH. A medic took me into this large structure and showed me a cot where I lay down. I was in a gym sized building full of beds. Most of them were empty. I thanked God for that.
A doctor examined me, then sent a medic in with an inhaler. Sometime after lunch, I was back on the helicopter and headed back for my unit. I was sick for several days, and it wasn’t until we were back in Germany that I began feeling better.
While there, one of the female medics told me an interesting story. They had a Saudi doctor assigned to them, and he liked grabbing himself a handful of boob, butt, or whatever. The girls didn’t like it one bit, and objected. He blew it off, so they went to their command who spoke to his command. It didn’t do any good.
In frustration, they complained again, and that’s when their command told them that the US Army had put a lot of time and effort into teaching them how to take care of themselves, and maybe they should use it.
There concern was getting in trouble. they were told he’d never say anything about getting the hell beat out of him by a bunch of girls.
Until Doomsday comes, the official story is he fell off a ladder while replacing a light bulb. The truth is that American women stood up for themselves and cleaned his clock. Too bad not all sexual harassment can be handled so easily.
But that was just the cherry on the sundae on a visit to a MASH for me.
A lot of things have been blamed for Gulf War Syndrome. Some of it is blamed on a small white pill we were issued that was supposed to help protect us against nerve gas. The first time I tried one, my heart rate went through the ceiling, I got light headed, and I never took one again. My feeling was if it was doing that to my body, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I heard a story (unconfirmed) that the pill wasn’t even tried on lab animals, and there was no sure knowledge of what it did or if it would even work.
Despite being under orders that we’d take one a day, I never did again.
What I do know is it wasn’t till I got out of there, and went back to my running and working out that I began to feel better. That said, I spent a week hacking up a lung, and I never seem to have gotten back all the strength I had before going down there.
What I lay the blame on for my getting sick is the oil well fires. I remember the first time we saw them was when we were pulling into the location we’d occupy for several months. It was towards evening, and on the horizon was what looked like city lights. I remember wondering what city it was, pulled out the map and couldn’t figure that one out. The only city even close to use would have been Basra and it was below the horizon.
We’d heard Saddam Hussein had blown the wells, and it was several minutes before the truth of what we were seeing closed in. Oil well fires. Lot’s of them. That’s what we were seeing.
By day, a thick cloud hovered over the area, and at night, we could see the fires. On occasion, the wind would shift, and we could smell the choking smoke. All we could do was endure it.
I vividly recall the first time we drove through the area. The smoke was so thick that it blotted out the daylight. I could look straight into the sun (when we could see it), and it didn’t bother my eyes at all. It was like viewing it through thick welding glass.
If a medieval man had been dropped into the desolate area, he’d have been convinced he’d stumbled into Hell. Columns of fire whooshed from the shattered well heads, shooting up dozens of feet. I was reminded of the static tests done on rocket engines.
And the sound. Some of the wells sounded like rockets taking off, the thundering burn audible through the windows and drowning out the noise of the engines. Others actually sounded like the damned burning in Hell. If you let your imagination run wild, you could hear voices.
And the heat. It was already getting warm, but the thick smoke cloud trapped the heat of the fires and made it worse.
We drove through it twice. Once when we were checking the route to bring the Division back, and the other when we left Iraq and Kuwait for the final time. When we drove through it, we always wore our masks. The gas masks did nothing to kill the stench, and we sweated as we drove through as fast as we could. I doubt they did much to protect our lungs.
Much has been written about the so called Highway of Death. Faced with taking on the
American, Saudi, and Kuwait forces coming in to liberate the country, and being cut off by our forces sweeping through Iraq, the Iraqis tried to get out and take us much combat power as they could with them.
Simply put, the Highway of Death was open season on several Iraqi heavy divisions. They were bombed and strafed till there was nothing left to bomb or strafe.
A lot of criticism has been waged that we did was something we never should have done. Critics have compared it to murder. That it was extremely one sided, well, I don’t disagree with that. But war isn’t about being fair or nice. It’s about getting your butt home alive.
So, I don’t condemn it simply because if all that armor and man power had gotten out, we’d have had to face them. That would have meant more casualties on our part. George Patton said it best, “You don’t win a war by dying for your country. You win a war by making the other poor bastard die for his.”
Even knowing that, I couldn’t help but feel pity for them Faced with a modern air force, and without air cover of their own, the Iraqi tanks and vehicles were turned into one large scrap yard.
As we rolled through, I always caught the sickly sage-honey smell of decaying flesh. Once you’ve smelt it a decomposing human body, you never forget it, and I know what one smells like. I was told that there were no bodies in the wreckage (I tend to believe that – I’m sure most had been collected), and that a number of the Iraqi soldiers simply ran away into the desert (maybe so). But I know what dead human flesh that’s decaying smells like. Maybe it was just pieces, maybe just blood, but I know something was still in those wrecks.
One of the more memorable pictures I took was of my platoon at the city limits sign of Kuwait City. I think in the back of our minds, we knew it wouldn’t be long before we went home, so we were letting our hair down a little bit more.
To say Kuwait City was a mess would be an understatement. The Iraqis had torn the city apart, and built fortifications almost everywhere. Some houses had been sandbagged rather heavily and turned into fortresses. Some places they burnt, like the Kuwait City Sheraton.
The Iraqis had also built fortifications along the beach. No doubt they expected the Marines to do a landing by sea just like they did in the Pacific in WW II or the Army did on the beaches of Normandy.
They made the beaches into a maze of fortifications, wire, and minefields. Somehow, they could never conceive that we’d just bulldoze through their land defenses, and come in through the back door.
Had it come down to a sea landing, I’m sure the battleships would have destroyed any and all resistance with their big guns. Gunnery during the Gulf War was pinpoint
accurate. Unlike WW II, the big guns could land shells almost anywhere a commander wanted them dropped, to include which window on a building they wanted to send them through.
We didn’t dare try to wander about too much and explore the area. When they left, the Iraqis left a fair number of mines behind.
As Lt. Bielecki put it, “You want a souvenir? Get home in one piece.”
The Iraqis destroyed a lot, but didn’t touch this work of art. I’m not sure what it is
(reminds me of a sail), but I thought it was beautiful. All things considered, I’d have thought it would have been torn down, but wasn’t.
I’m glad they left it alone.
One rather interesting thing occurred while we were looking about. A Mercedes convertible pulled up with two girls in it. These were the only Arab women I saw while in the Gulf not covered from head to toe in black robes.
To the contrary, both girls had their hair done, were wearing makeup and jewelry, and wore nice clothing that looked like it came from the finest boutiques in Europe. I haven’t a clue who they were, but they got out, hugged us all, and thanked us for giving them their country back.
Then they got back into their convertible and drove back the way they came. It was like something out of the Twilight Zone.
The trip back to Saudi Arabia was a long one, but rewarding. The highway connecting Kuwait City with Saudi Arabia had been cleared of mines, and some minor repairs made. The Iraqis had cut huge trenches through the desert and filled them with black crude oil. What I heard was the Iraqis planned on setting them ablaze if we tried to come in the back door. We did. I don’t know if they tried to set them on fire but the defense didn’t work.
We stopped in Hafar Al-Batin and had an excellent meal. In route, the Lieutenant’s vehicle developed a brake problem. We were miles from our mechanics with no one to fix it. We made it into Al Qaisumah, and spent the night in the town square.
When we woke up the next morning, a small farmers’ market had popped up around us.
I’ve written much about the hospitality I received while in the Middle East, and the farmers’ market was no exception.
One of the traders had a small gas powered stove, and he made coffee, broke open a tin of dates, and invited us to breakfast.
I was always making sure our people didn’t refuse hospitality. If an Arab offers you coffee or a meal, and you don’t sit down, it’s one of the biggest insults you can offer. Several of us sat, drank coffee, and ate. Some of the traders spoke English, some didn’t. Read here about the 2nd Best Meal I’ve ever Eaten.
When one of the traders found out I was from Colorado, he asked if there were still American Indians. Since I have
Native American blood, (not enough to brag much about, but the ancestry is there), I told him I was one, and that a lot of Americans have bloodlines in the different tribes. They found that fascinating.
They also found it interesting that my grandfather was from Lebanon. I think the idea of a man with bloodlines from dozens of nations and peoples was a little alien to them. They’d heard of the “Great Melting Pot” and here was a man who embodied that idea.
One of the big questions on our mind was how to get the brakes fixed on the Lieutenant’s Humvee. Sgt. Motti (he’d been a tank mechanic before coming over to the MPs) didn’t know much about wheeled vehicles and was unable to help.
After numerous false tries, we learned from a Syrian outfit that that there was an American National Guard outfit in the area calling themselves the Road Warriors. They were all about working on vehicles, and picking up break downs. They directed us to where they were located.
We found their compound easily, but the place looked deserted. There were no guards at the gate, and no one came out when we pulled up. A honk of the horn and this guy comes sauntering out of a tent. He had his hands in his pockets, his BDU top unbuttoned, and looked more like a Taos hippie that had wandered off the commune than an American soldier.
He looks at the Lieutenant and says, “What do you want?”
No, “Yes, Sir.” No, “Can I help you, Sir.” Just an insolent, “What do you want?”
My Lieutenant was a graduate of the Citadel, a school with a rather hard core military tradition.
He gets out and starts going off on the guy. The guy looks at him like someone would a barking dog.
He laughs and then tells the Lieutenant, “Sir, I’m Officer John Chalker of the New York City Police Department. And you’re under arrest because I think you’re an F……. Perv!” He held up his badge.
The Lieutenant realized he wasn’t going to intimidate a New York City cop and backed off in a hurry.
Sure enough, these guys could help us out. They got some tools together, we went back to town, and in short order they had us fixed up.
The problem turned out to be dust. Dust had gotten into the brake lines and all that had to be done to fix it was to bleed the brake lines. We were back on the road, and headed
north back into Iraq. But before we went to far, one more stop in Hafar Al-Batin. This time for another good meal that didn’t come out of an Army kitchen or an MRE bag.
It was the little meals like this that made it all worthwhile.
We arrived back at our base camp the following day. Our mission at this point was to get ready to go home.
But there was unfinished piece of business to conduct first. The large ammo dump adjacent to the airfield had to be destroyed. And so did the airfield. During the last few nights we’d be in Iraq, we had to make certain no one pilfered from the ammo dump. Greg Bradley and I went out and watched the dump one night, and so began the only ghost story I have to tell. You can read it here.
There were actually a couple of pieces of business still.
One was to get rid of our ammo. And they were going to let us do it in style. There were several dozen abandoned trucks and tanks. What better way than to fire them up. I mean really, how often does a soldier get to fire off a real live AT4 (for an MP, almost never).
But it wasn’t going to happen. The concern was that a stray from our fun could cause a lot of devastation for a camp in the area.
We simply turned in our ammo and that was the end of it.
There was a rather funny aside concerning the ammo. when we’d been issued out ammo, we’d be told, via a yell punctuated with threats of court martial that we would have to account for each and every round. Sure, I thought. “We used 56 rounds in the engagement, Sir. I know, I counted each and every one of them. And here’s the brass to back it up.” Right.
We’ll we’d made a sort of rack for ammo up on the turrets. The idea being that if the gunner needed to reload, the TC or driver wouldn’t have to hand him up another box since they’d probably be rather busy. Each rack would hold four boxes.
The rack for one team leaders (no name’s please) vehicle didn’t work very well, and every time the Humvee hit a bad bump, a box of ammo would be jolted loose, fall through the turret, and hit him. After this had happened about a million times, he grabbed the box that had just fallen down, opened the window, and tossed it into the desert.
He confessed he was worried about explaining where that box went.
As it went, not a single round was counted.
The other was that we weren’t exactly finished with fighting Saddam. More specifically, we supported–while not appearing to support–a grassroots revolt.
There were a number of so called “Freedom Fighters” in the area. A band of them showed up needing food, water, medical attention, and a place to rest for a bit.
The POW camp was empty and as long as they stacked their arms, they were welcome to stay the night. We fed them, gave them water, and the medics looked after their injured. In the morning we gave them food and water, turned their weapons back over to them, and sent them on their way.
I’ve often wondered what happened to these men. Are they still alive? Are they part of the new Iraq and fighting for a better tomorrow? Or did they turn and become enemies and my son ended up fighting them.
One thing I failed to mention was the daily airshows we received while parked at that airbase. Almost every day several A-10 Warthogs would show up and do simulated bombing and strafing runs on the airfield. As the attack planes roared and twisted
overhead, all we could do was watch, shake our heads, and say, “That looks like way too much fun to be work.”
I think most of us forgot that these same pilots, just a few weeks before had braved a sky full of machine gun fire, shoulder mounted SAMs, and larger weapons to knock out tanks and disrupt enemy operations to make things easier and safer for us.
To the Air Force guys, thanks!
Of course we wanted to go home, and finally that day arrived. We tore everything down and loaded up. Our last mission was to keep people out of the area as the engineers prepared to blow the ammo dump. We were told to set up the perimeter some mile or so from the base.
On cue, they blew the place. It was nothing short of remarkable to watch a mushroom shaped cloud tower up into the sky as the area ripped itself apart. Occasionally we could see puffs of smoke as rounds exploding upwards came down and impacted into the dirt. As we watched we heard a whistling overhead, then an explosion maybe a hundred meters away. That was way too close for us. We put another quarter mile between us and it real fast like.
Before they blew the place, we encountered an Iraqi family who had been dislodged by the fighting,
They were trying to get to the refugee camp at Safwan. We pointed them in the direction, then made sure they had a case of water and a case of MREs. I had left Germany well supplied with chewing gun, so I handed out several packs of Juicy Fruit. Like the freedom fighters, I’ve had occasion to wonder what happened to them.
After we blew the place to bits, we followed the route we’d scouted days before back to Saudi Arabia. We went back through the Highway of Death, and then towards Saudi Arabia.
We’d been driving, when we saw a bus ahead of us stop and pull over. There was a Union Jack flag in the back, meaning it was the Brits. Several men got out and milled about. I assume it was a bathroom break. Suddenly, there was an cloud of dust and the sound of an explosion. Several of the men fail over, and more staggered back.
We knew right away what had happened. One of the soldiers had stepped on a mine. We stopped to offer assistance, but whoever was in charge told us to get the hell out of there. They had medics and could take care of their own injured. In retrospect, had we rushed in to help like our first instincts said to do, some of us would probably have gotten injured or killed. The Iraqis had set up a minefield down along the road and our allies stepped right into it.
It makes me wonder how many of those minefields are still over there.
About a mile into Saudi Arabia we did what I call the “Ceremonial Dumping of the Sand.” We stopped and pulled the dozens of sandbags out of the floor of our vehicles. We
opened them and, there on the side of the road, dumped the sand back into the country we’d gotten it all from.
It meant we weren’t going back. For us, it was a watershed moment. Home was now weeks, maybe only days in the future. Unless we managed to get ourselves killed in a traffic accident, we’d made it through.
The road to Daman and home led us back to the vicinity of Hafar Al-Batin, and in this case KKMC (King Kahlid Military Community). At least we weren’t exactly in the middle of nowhere anymore. We were starting to get at some creature comforts.
One of the more interesting things that happened is we actually got our Desert Issue uniforms. Up to this point we’d worn our woodland BDUs, the same ones we’d worn in Europe.
I’ve heard that the Iraqis felt we were some kind of super unit since we were the same soldier that ran the Russians off. It was probably all talk, but I groan every time I see a movie about the Gulf War and see the soldiers in desert BDUs.
We got almost unlimited access to phone tents.
And we got American hamburgers. There was a large built up area about two miles from our camp where we went often to get free hamburgers and sodas. Somebody hung the name of McGunners on it, and all things considered, it didn’t turn out a bad cheeseburger.
We also had a TV. The only thing we had to watch was the Superbowl and it was already history. They put the tape in, and we pretended we didn’t know that and enjoyed the game (we actually had popcorn).
One of the funnier things that occurred while we were parked at KKMC was when A girl I knew came out to say hi. Greg and I were sharing a tent, and she comes in. She see’s our cots, the bar bulb hanging from the ceiling, and the Styrofoam cooler we got ice in twice a week (if we were lucky). I remember she sat on my cot, and said, “Wow, this is the field.”
Greg and I laughed and one of us responded with, “compared to where we’ve been, this is the Hilton!”
It was at one of the phone tents I would first talk to my future bride to be, Julie. I had to call my lawyer to set up a time. For me, it was the middle of the night. I remember
when I called, I heard the phone ring, she picks up, and says hello, and I started to speak. Then she said “Hello,” again, but by now she’d heard me. I re-identified myself, and told her I was calling from Saudi Arabia. There was latency in our conversation caused by the signal crawling up to a satellite in Geosync orbit, then back down to the ground. It was Astronomy 101 stuff, but was proof just how big space really was.
One of the more interesting things about KKMC was a small white house that sat on maybe a quarter acre of ground. The house was surrounded by a high white wall, there was a single gate with a wall behind it, and had two armed guards at the gate.
I was told that Idi Amin, the former dictator and strongman of Ethiopia resided there. As I understood the arrangement, when he was deposed, he went into exile in Saudi Arabia. He was put in the house, given food, and limited contact with the world. He could go out into the yard and tend his garden. He could watch TV, read, and eat his meals which he fixed himself. Step outside the walls surrounding the yard and he’d be shot! While it looked nice, it was a gilded cage and he was still a prisoner. I never tried to confirm the story.
The day came that we left KKMC for the drive to Daman. It was a long and uneventful drive, and we got there just in time for supper. The mess hall had been set up in a garage. We walked in, everyone of us in need of a bath and covered with dust from the road. We were still in full combat gear to include M-16s slung over our shoulders and .45s on our
hips. The soldiers eating their meals there looked at us like we were some flea ridden, tumbleweed battered, sheepherders that had wandered into a country club.
For the first time in a very long time, I got a tray and real silverware. I got a china plate and stood in line. There, a man wearing a white shirt with a red bow tie and a tall white chef’s hat served me my dinner from a tray that looked like it had come from a four star hotel.
It was totally unreal.
We were put up at some high rise apartment buildings along with the rest of the 1st Infantry and 1st Armored Division troops.
We had access to an elevator that worked, toilets that flushed, and ice cold showers. The water heater in our apartment didn’t work, so we were taking cold baths, and shaving in cold water.
I often suspect they put us there so we could remember what a flush toilet was.
The apartments were supposed have been built for the nomads, but since there was no place to keep the sheep, they never lived there.
We were also able to walk around and enjoy the sights. Not that there was a lot to see, but we did get to have the closest thing to a beer in Saudi Arabia we were going to get. It tasted perfect.
We also walked around, spent some money, and wondered how long we’d be there. I should point out that while we were walking around, we were without weapons, combat gear or the like. After all that bulk, it was like going to the beach. We felt, for the first time, airy and cool.
About the only issues we had were with fellow MPs. While we walked around, two MPs came up and told us we weren’t supposed to be wearing our brassards, the arm band that says MP on it. We had to take them off. It left us all feeling strangely naked.
A few days later, we got to take our vehicles down to be shipped home. What we didn’t realize was that what had arrived in Saudi Arabia in good shape wouldn’t be in such good shape when they got home.
Windows would be cracked, fenders broken, tires flat. In a lot of cases the batteries were dead, and one or two of the vehicles just didn’t run anymore.
Our proud fleet of Humvees that had served us so well and so faithfully looked like candidates for the junkyard. We weren’t happy, and many expressed deep disappointment. In some cases, items that had been shipped back were now missing.
I ended up taking several rolls of pictures of the damage for the Captain.
A few days later, we received word it was our turn to go home. We’d been issued Desert Uniforms at KKMC, and I find it interesting we got them just in time to go home. The buses showed up, took us to the airport, and Tower Airlines 747s were waiting for us.
The flight back to Germany seemed faster than when we flew down. Maybe we caught a tail wind, maybe it really was just faster. Or maybe it was one of those weird time dilation effects not predicted by Albert Einstein.
One thing I did notice, the flight back was quieter. We landed in Germany, where more buses took us to Ansbach.
Soldiers were reunited with their families. I don’t recall how I got back to my barracks. I want to say those who had cars ferried everyone back, but I can’t really be sure.
That evening, I stowed my gear and took a shower to end showers. An almost endless supply of warm water seemed to be an incredible concept. I shaved and put on civilian clothing. Somehow, it felt odd wearing regular clothes.
It was May 12th, if my notes were correct. We were two days shy of six months of being gone.
One of the young ladies in my outfit and I walked down to a Gasthaus and treated ourselves to a steak and beer. Everyone else hit the discos.
Considering how everyone else was throwing up the following morning, I figure her and I had the best time of all.
Iraq was now a thing of the past.