On Christmas Day 1990, 22-year-old Mark Anderson, a weapons loader for F-16 fighter jets of the South Carolina Air National Guard, got the word that he was to ship out to Saudi Arabia to help throw Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army out of Kuwait.
There was only one problem. He and his wife were expecting twins. So his supervisor said he could take the last flight out, which was scheduled for the evening of Jan. 9.
His wife underwent a C-section that day, and the children – Justin and Jessica – were born at 7:56 a.m. and 7:57 a.m, respectively. Anderson was on a plane for the Middle East 12 hours later after a few precious hours with his newborns.
“Even at that tender age, being in the military, I knew what I was doing would ultimately keep them safe,” said Anderson, now 46 and a master sergeant in the Air Guard. “I knew it had to be done and I was good with it.”
As America prepares to observe Veterans Day on Wednesday, the troops who served in Operation Desert Storm are marking the 25th anniversary of their deployments and of the conflict dubbed the First Gulf War. In the fall of 1990, America’s armed forces were preparing to remove Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
In many ways, the First Gulf War has become a forgotten war, like Korea before it.
Korea was overshadowed by World War II – fought less than a decade before – and Vietnam, which began shortly after. Desert Storm, and its preceding defensive buildup, Desert Shield, have been largely overshadowed by post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But unlike Korea – which was a bloody slog to no decisive end that still has not been resolved – the Gulf War was perhaps the neatest and cleanest victory in American history.
It lasted only 42 days, ending on Feb. 28. 1991, with minimal casualties among the coalition troops arrayed against the Iraqis. Unlike in the present wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, a definitive goal was stated by then-President George H.W. Bush – the liberation of Kuwait – and the troops were brought home when that goal was achieved, participants in the war said.
“When we came home we felt like, ‘Man, we did a good job,’” said Col. Raymond Strawbridge, who was a private and a stretcher bearer in the Gulf War and one of eight Gulf War veterans from the South Carolina Army and Air National Guard interviewed by The State newspaper last week. “Now, it’s so much more complex.”
Col. James Robinson, who like the other veterans has also been deployed subsequently to either Iraq or Afghanistan, added that there was a clear end game with Desert Storm, but that end is not so clear today.
“When you go forward you have to think about ‘then what?’” he said. “We’re still trying to get to the ‘then what.’”
But all of the Desert Storm veterans expressed admiration for today’s troops, who face asymmetrical warfare, insurgencies, terrorism and multiple deployments.
“They are going out every day seeing bad guys,” Strawbridge said. “They are jumping on a gun truck every day. You have to respect that.”
S.C. Guard called to action
The S.C. National Guard provided more than 2,400 troops to one of the largest American invasion forces in history. It numbered 543,000 troops, twice the number used in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The S.C. force included 11 Army Guard units and eight Air Guard units, including rear echelon support troops, an Army M.A.S.H. (mobile medical) unit, a signal unit and the 169th Fighter Wing, the “Swamp Foxes.” The 169th was one of only two National Guard F-16 wings stationed in Saudi Arabia to participate in the airstrikes that preceded the land invasion. It was the first “shock and awe” campaign.
For most of the veterans interviewed, their deployment was a time of nerves and worry mixed with the enthusiasm of youth and a sense of adventure.
Robinson was an active-duty Army finance officer with 7th Corps who was shipped in from Germany and sent to a remote Saudi outpost.
“I turned 360 degrees and there was nothing but desert,” he said. “I was a finance officer, making sure people got paid. Things like that. And I thought, ‘What are people going to use money for here? We’re out in the middle of nowhere.’”
Col. Marguerite Knox was a trauma nurse with the S.C. Army Guard. She had a 3-year-old daughter and a newborn at home. She was informed on Thanksgiving she would be shipping out, and she deployed on Dec. 3.
“My daughter was 10 weeks old when I got in-country,” or in Saudi Arabia, Knox said. “I came back on May 8 and she didn’t recognize me. It was difficult.”
Col. Todd Shealy of the S.C. Guard had a similar experience. His son was born on Nov. 29, 1990, and he also deployed on Dec. 3. When Shealy was picked up by his wife when he got home after the war, his infant son began crying. “He didn’t like having a stranger in the car.”
Limited communications back home
It was a war fought before the Internet age. There were no personal cellphones, no email, no Skype. So troops in in Saudi Arabia sometimes had to wait for days to have access to a phone to make a quick call to their loved ones back home.
“What’s amazing today is the modernization of the technology,” said the Army Guard’s Col. Ronnie Taylor
For Airman 1st Class Anderson, who deployed on the day his twins were born, there were no opportunities for phone calls on base.
“The service was sporadic at best,” he said. “Work schedules dictated when you made calls, and that was during the height of the campaign, so there wasn’t a chance.”
But with the help of a chaplain who knew Anderson’s situation, he and another airman were able to sneak off base to make a call.
“That’s the last phone call I could make for a month,” he said.
Often, the veterans said, they thought of the legacy of the Vietnam War, which ended only 15 years earlier. Vietnam had been the last major war to be fought by U.S. troops and is considered a loss by many.
In that war, no National Guard troops were used in combat. Strawbridge said the Guard’s performance in the Gulf War changed that mindset, and the Guard has been heavily used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It was the first time that we could show that we were an operational force,” he said. “And we won decisively. You can’t say that with many wars. But there’s no question.”
Anderson said he thought about the hostile reception many Vietnam veterans received when they returned home. He didn’t know what to expect.
“But that terminal was packed,” he said. “They treated you like rock stars.”
Freeing people from vicious dictator
All of the veterans interviewed said they believe they were part of something special, something that improved the nation’s stature in the eyes of the world and freed a people from a vicious dictator.
“It showed the world that in the face of tyranny, we would have their backs,” said Sgt. Major James P. York. “If I never do anything else, I was part of a force that freed a people.”
For Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Smith, who went into battle as support staff with the famed 101st Airborne Division, the experience was one of personal growth and satisfaction.
She had become a single parent before she deployed, and left her 2- and 3-year-old children with her mother to care for them. She says experiencing the war – working as a team, seeing the deplorable condition of the oppressed Iraqi soldiers and the general horrors of war – changed her.
“I began to value life,” she said. Now, that experience “helps you get through the hard times.”
After last week’s interview, while the eight veterans waited to pose for a portrait in front of the S.C. Military Museum’s Gulf War display, Strawbridge saw himself in a video filmed in Saudi Arabia 25 years before.
“That was surreal,” he said. “The guy looked so young.”
148 U.S. battle deaths
145 non-battle deaths, including 15 women
467 wounded in action
U.S. deaths by branch
Army: 98 battle; 105 non-battle
Navy: six battle; eight non-battle
Marines: 24 battle; 26 non-battle
Air Force: 20 battle; six non-battle
100,000 estimated killed
300,000 estimated wounded