Last updated on 17 January 2021
There are myriad things in life that a person will have burned into the very fiber of their being: the birth of their firstborn child, perhaps, or exactly what was going on when they heard about the Kennedy assassination or the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.
Among those kinds of events for me, as you might expect, is the announcement from George H. W. Bush that the deadline for Iraqi forces to withdraw from Kuwait had passed, and that initial airstrikes had begun.
I was a barely 21 year old E4 huddled on the back deck of my tank, listening to the announcement via the Walkman Sport radio that I’d brought with me when we first deployed to Saudi Arabia in early October. My guard shift was about to start, but I had a few moments before the on-duty guard would come verify I was awake and up. It was pitch black and freezing cold, being ridiculously early in the morning on January 17th, 1991, just a day or two after a bitter rain storm had pushed out any remnants of heat that remained in the desert sand around us.
I wasn’t ready.
Let me clarify … I wasn’t ready to get out of my fart sack (sleeping bag)—I mean, I technically was (being awake and all) but it was damned chilly outside and my legs were still toasty warm. I was fully awake, though, sitting up with my Nomex CVC balaclava around my neck, top pulled back so I could fit the headphones on.
“Just two hours ago, allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait….”
At that moment, this was actually not news to me or the rest of my tank, scout, and mortar comrades in Cyclone Troop, Tiger Squadron, Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. We had known for several days the general plan and roughly when it would execute (about 03:00 local time 17 JAN 1991) if there was no Iraqi withdrawal. Unless a miracle intervention had occurred in the few hours of sleep I’d gotten that night, something that seemed exceedingly unlikely, we knew going to bed that it would happen. Hearing the commander in chief actually speak the words, though, set a gnawing feeling in the pit of my abdomen. A feeling of dread, yes, but also of resolve.
After a few minutes of listening to President Bush explain to the American people what was going on, the off-going guard came back around to make sure I was up. I resigned myself to the brisk air, pulled myself out of the sleeping bag, and strapped on my protective mask, load bearing equipment, boots, and Kevlar helmet to take my post roving around our tank platoon. It’s never fun to post guard in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night, and it’s even less fun to do it with live ammo loaded into both your rifle and your pistol sidearm—especially wandering around protecting four tanks and your fourteen sleeping brothers (and one awake, on radio watch in the platoon sergeant’s tank) from a sneak attack in the middle of a brand-new shooting war.
Biting cold winds occasionally whipped up a cloud of dust, but the area of operations remained secure during my watch. Even after thirty years, my cheeks and nose remember that cold, my ears remember that speech, and my gut remembers that fear mixed with grim determination.