This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first Gulf War. The air campaigned kicked off on January 17th, 1991 and the land battle on the 23rd. I was there in Saudi Arabia for both these dates, and it feels strange that it has been 20 years already because I remember much of it like it was yesterday.
In December of 1990, I was a Sergeant in the US Air Force stationed at Eielson AFB outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. I was an airborne Russian linguist, flying aboard various RC-135 aircraft, including the Rivet Joint, Cobra Ball and Cobra Eye. Since I was also a computer geek at heart, my secondary job was as a Computer System Operation (CSO) where I ran the antiquated HP1000 mainframe used by our system on the ground.
We had been watching the build-up in the gulf for Desert Shield, but it didn’t mean much to us half-way around the world. That all changed when my boss, Spud Webster, said they were looking for a volunteer to be a CSO in Riyadh to support the RC-135’s deployed there. Being young and bullet-proof, I readily volunteered. I joined the Air Force to see new things, and this was a shot I wasn’t going to pass up.
My mother didn’t share my same enthusiasm when I gave her the news I volunteered to go to war. Now, many years later, I can appreciate the heart attack I almost gave her. My father sent me the medallion of Saint Christopher that he carried with him in Vietnam.
I flew out of Eielson bound for Riyadh on Christmas Day, 1990. Master Sergeant Tom Lamb also volunteered to go, and he was going to work on the operations staff. We hitched a ride on a rotation aircraft to Offutt AFB, then tagged along on an empty RC-135 headed for Athens.
In Athens, Tom and I had to change planes and complete the final leg of the journey in a KC-135 tanker. It was a packed flight. The plane was full to the gills with equipment and support personnel. We finally got in to Riyadh and the first stark change for me was the seriousness in the air. The Air Force in the 1990s was pretty much a giant boys club, especially for aircrew. TDY (temporary duty) entailed flying to fun places and drinking with the boys. Riyadh was not going to be that.
We got our first in-brief there on flightline. The big point was to ensure we kept our chem gear handy. At the time, Saddam had some nasty stuff and a willingness to use it. We continued on at our main compound in downtown Riyadh at the US Military Training Mission (USMTM) next to the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) headquarters.
Our tents and trailers were setup on a soccer field in the compound. They had put up razor wire and sandbags around the field. Our facilities for the RC-135s were only a small part of what was going on there. The entire soccer field was covered with tents and trailers like a scene out of MASH. Each tent had a page in a plastic document protector saying what level of security clearance was required to go into the tent. The Air Force had brought out all their best toys and was going to put them to the test.
Our squadron commander was Colonel Lewis. He was one of those crufty, no-bullshit, full-bird colonels the Air Force keeps in their back pocket in case of emergency. He wasn’t there to build leaders, mentor or make spouses happy – he was there to win a war.
My primary work facility was a small, heavily air-conditioned trailer with a stripped-down version of our ground system, along with four processing stations. The job consisted of preparing missions materials for the 24-hour-a-day RC-135 coverage of the theater. It was basically a lot of copying disks and erasing old data after the missions.
Tom and I were assigned to the same empty apartment in Eskan Village, outside of Riyadh. Eskan Village was essentially an empty city the Saudis had constructed, obstinately for the Bedouins. It was all empty five-bedroom houses and apartment towers. Given the toilets were western style, and included a bidet, we all doubted the official story. It was pretty clear the Saudis anticipated someone was going to need to come save their asses at some point and they were going to need a place to live.
Each of us had a room to ourselves in the apartment, furnished with a cot. There was no other furniture. The living room consisted of a Sony TV and VCR sitting on the floor, donated by the Japanese. We eventually picked up some more roommates, but I can’t even remember what they did.
Tom was a bit hardcore, and after we moved in to the apartment, he asked me if I had written my letter. I actually had no idea what he was talking about, so he explained the final letter soldiers traditionally carried in war zones which would be sent back to the family in case they were killed. The whole thought of that struck me pretty hard, and after stewing it over for an hour, I decided I wouldn’t write the letter because I had no intention of dying there, simple as that.
Life was pretty straight forward in the lead-up to the war. Work, eat, sleep. There were five CSOs on site, led by Scott Davis, which was more than enough for the mission, so I ended up doing a lot of odd jobs. Depending on the day, I was working in the trailer, shuttling mission loads out to the airstrip, driving the bus for the crews, or riding shotgun for other people.
The last task was the most laughable. We were in Riyadh, well away from any front, but there was a lot of paranoia in the air. When out in the bus or shuttling the mission loads, I would be given an M16 and ammo pouch, “just in case”. Mind you, I had never fired a real M16 before, and the security police had to show me how to clear it, but it was the thought that counts.
Taking mission loads to the planes was the most excitement. Jay, one of our admin guys, would usually drive. We’d toss a bunch of highly classified stuff in to the bed of a pickup truck and Jay would drive like a bat out of hell through downtown Riyadh heading for our planes at the airport, with me sitting in the passenger seat with the M16. All the smart Saudis left Riyadh prior to the war, so the streets were mostly empty.
Everything changed about three weeks later. I found out the air war was going to kick off the afternoon prior. We moved everyone to a tent city by the airport to be closer to the planes. It absolutely sucked. It was winter in Saudi Arabia, and the rainy season to boot. It was mud city with 20 cots to a tent. I spent the evening of the start of the war cleaning .38 caliber revolvers for the RC-135 aircrew to take with them. We locked the revolvers and ammo up in mission boxes with a padlock and would transfer the key to each Airborne Mission Supervisor (AMS) prior to the mission.
One big consequence of Desert Storm actually starting was they closed down the cafeteria and we had to eat MREs. I could have anything I wanted, as long as it came in a green plastic bag. Since a lot of the combinations weren’t too tasty, we had a huge box of MRE parts inside our main tent at USMTM. The crackers and peanut butter alone were enough calories for a meal.
The Iraqi’s didn’t appreciate the air war too much, and returned the favor by shooting their Scuds at us. The very next evening after the start of the campaign, I was working the night shift at USMTM and we had just gotten the evening crews launched when I decided to catch some sleep. There was a cot behind the map boards at the end of our tent we used for briefing the crews. I had just lain down to sleep when the air raid sirens went off.
Total panic erupted. I grabbed my gas mask, flak jacket and Kevlar helmet, and dived under one of the old-fashioned steel army desks we had in the tent. I put the flak jacket on my knees to close up the opening under the desk, and tried to keep from hyperventilating while I put on my gas mask and helmet. Time started standing still. I heard some enormous explosions, and the ground even shook. I thought for sure we were hit. Then, time started up again, and someone came running in to the tent. He was yelling “the patriots got the Scuds!” A dozen of us came crawling out from under our improvised hiding places. Everyone started cheering and high-fiving.
The Scuds turned out to be more a weapon of terror than war. We had a few close calls in Riyadh. Newsweek had picture of an American GI in chemical gear standing in front of a Scud on a street. That picture was taken just down the road from our compound. And one of our planes took some shrapnel damage from a Scud that hit out at the airport, but no one was injured.
Ironically, the only injury I heard of from our squadron was a tired maintenance guy who fell down the front chute of our plane.
Scubs became pretty common place after that. The Iraqis liked shooting them at night, hoping to increase the survivability of the launchers. What this meant was having air raid sirens going off in the middle of about every night at Eskan Village. The first few times, all of us would get up, put on the chem gear, plop down on the floor in front of the donated TV and watch the news to see who was getting hit. After about a week of that, we didn’t even get up anymore.
Desert Storm was really our first Nintendo war. It was the equivalent of fishing in a barrel with a hand grenade. President Bush rightly stopped the war after the Highway of Death. I remember guys out in Eskan who were selling picture albums from the Highway of Death. Lots of photos of charred corpses and guys cut in half by tank treads. It really was a slaughter of the retreating Iraqi army trying to get their asses out of Kuwait.
The most haunting memory of the first Gulf War was hearing an American pilot get captured. The crews had brought back a recording of an A10 pilot talking on his survival radio after getting shot down. He was trying to make contact with an inbound rescue helicopter but a truck full of Iraqi soldiers got to him first. His last comments were “game over, man” before they took away his radio. The pilot ended up a POW and I found out he was released after the war.
I ended up spending six months in Riyadh – all of Desert Storm and the first part of Southern Watch. I worked with a lot of very good people that I’m proud to know. The war was a major life-changing event for me. It made me appreciate that winning means coming home alive – the rest is just details.