On August 2nd, 1990 Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Whatever else I remember about living at Ft. Riley, this event overshadows them all.
We had moved to this small Army post in Kansas during the summer of 1989. I was not quite 12 years-old at the time. While Ft. Riley is known as the home of the famed 1st Infantry Division (the “Big Red One”), we had moved there because my Dad had been assigned command of the 937th Engineer Group (Combat). He had been promoted to Colonel after graduating from the National War College when we lived in Virginia, so Ft. Riley was our next move.
Our street was lined on one side with mid-19th century brick homes and on the other with stone homes of the same era. One of the generals (Gen. Carter) lived not too far from us in one of the stone houses (I used to dog-sit his dog). The post commander (General Rhame, commander of the 1st) lived a ways away in a stone house which looked like a castle (it even had a turret on top). Nearby was also the “Yellow House,” where George Custer has been based before he headed West to his ill-fated expedition with the 7th Cavalry.
On one wall inside our house there was a framed picture of the house, taken in the late 1800’s. Next to the picture was a list of all the families who had lived in it; at one point we even had a past family come to visit and ask to tour the house again. An interesting fact about our house was that the current “front” was actually the rear of the house back before the age of automobiles. The official front still had a horse hitch near the front door, but when roads were built in the neighborhood, they built them to the rear of the houses, transforming the less formal “back door” into the main entrance. The official front yard was huge, with grass closer to the house, followed by trees; one of the main roads was on the other side of the trees.
Down the street from our house was a small playground, then further on there was a walking trail (the trail, incidentally, passed by a sewage treatment pond – we used to hurry past that section of the trail due to the smell). Off-post was Junction City, Kansas. I don’t remember too much about the town, other than the fact that there was a good hobby store where I used to get pieces for my model train set which I had set up in the basement of our house. Nearby was the Republican River, which was known for its mud; each year there were a couple deaths of people who would get stuck in the mud and drown. We used to camp near the river when I was in Boy Scouts; the largest spiders and the first scorpion I’d ever seen were in Kansas.
At any rate, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, I imagine that the event was of passing curiosity to most of the country, but to me – and everyone else at Ft. Riley – it was of intense personal interest. We figured that if there were to be a U.S. response to the invasion that the units based at Ft. Riley would be deploying to the Middle East.
Sure enough, units progressively got orders to deploy. My Dad’s unit left in September or October 1990 to head to Saudi Arabia. All the families said goodbye at the airfield as the soldiers assembled and boarded planes. Some soldiers brought fishing poles, as they expected to be based near the sea. My Dad and some of his friends brought their sand wedges; since they were engineers they eventually built a small golf course in Saudi Arabia (made of sand) during the months of boredom before the war. In fact, over Thanksgiving we got a video of their base in Saudi Arabia and they had build wooden walkways and some soldiers raced scorpions in the sand for fun.
The deployment phase prior to the war was Operation Desert Shield. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops and equipment were sent to Saudi Arabia in preparation for the coming war to force Saddam’s forces to leave Kuwait. During these months, Saddam fired numerous Scud missiles at Israel in an attempt to provoke them into responding; his hope was that an Israeli response would split the anti-Iraqi Arab coalition and hinder the U.S. war effort. Israel never did respond, but the U.S. sent Patriot missile batteries to Israel to help shoot down the Scuds. The Patriots saw varying degrees of success. I remember watching Scud attacks and shoot-downs on the nightly news broadcasts.
The air war portion of the subsequent Operation Desert Storm began on January 17th, 1991. This was also broadcast on TV, particularly the after-mission briefings where video images of the newer precision-guided munitions were shown as bombs hit their targets. The air war’s objective was to soften the Iraqi defenses, remove their air and air defense capability, destroy their Scud missiles, and degrade their chemical weapons capability.
It has to be remembered that hanging over the heads of everyone was Saddam’s past use of chemical weapons against his own people, particularly the Iraqis living in the marshes in southern Iraq and the Kurds living in the North. U.S. troops deployed to the region brought their MOPP gear with them to protect against chemical weapons attacks. My Dad told me that after the war they burned their gear in the desert before coming back home, because the gear had become immensely dirty and degraded over the months in the desert.
The ground assault phase of Operation Desert Storm began in the early morning hours of February 24th. I stayed home from school that day and most of the following days. As units breached the Iraqi defenses on the Kuwaiti-Saudi border (barbed wire and minefields covered by artillery fire), coalition units feigned a marine landing on the coast while an assault force swung to the west – bypassing Kuwait – and headed north into Iraqi to prevent re-inforcements from getting to Kuwait. My Dad’s unit was part of this western flanking movement, supporting the French 6th Light Armor Battalion in its drive to capture the Iraqi town of As Salman. I would find out later when I was in college that my ROTC captain was in my Dad’s unit during the war as a 2nd Lieutenant (it’s a small world).
U.S. and coalition units managed to breach the Iraqi defenses and make most of their objectives on that first day. As units pushed into Iraq and Kuwait, many Iraqis surrendered; my Dad told me that they were moving so fast that they gave food to the surrendering Iraqis and had them wait for the Military Police to come mop them up. I used to have some of the leaflets that the U.S. dropped on the Iraqis to induce them to surrender; the main messages were that the U.S. treats enemy POWs better than Iraq treats their own soldiers and that the fight was with Saddam and not with the Iraqi people.
By the 28th, the war was over. The result was that Iraq’s military capability was severely degraded and it was forced to leave Kuwait. It’s easy to discount Iraq today, but at the time it had the fourth largest army in the world and had just come out of a nearly decade-long war with Iran. It also had chemical weapons which it had shown it was willing to use. Yet, the war was surprisingly swift and decisive. Total coalition deaths came to 292 people. Iraqi deaths have been estimated at between 25,000 and 50,000. Many more were wounded.
My Dad and his unit stayed in the region until April, I believe. We knew the date they were returning to Ft. Riley, but my Dad actually called our house during the transport flight back (I answered the phone) and told us that they were coming in earlier in the day than expected. He asked me to alert my Mom so that she could re-organize the welcoming ceremony.
Obviously, my Dad made it back ok from the war. When he deployed, though, we didn’t know what to expect. Would Saddam use chemical weapons? How long would the war last? Would it be “another Vietnam” (my Dad had fought there as well, but that was before my entrance into the world)? Would some of my friends, or myself, lose our dads or moms in the war? Before deployment, everyone going over there had to update their wills and powers of attorney. Thankfully, the casualties were low, although for those who lost loved ones that is no consolation.
One of my childhood heroes was – and still is – General Normal Schwarzkopf, commander of CENTCOM at the time and in charge of the war. There’s a great video of a press briefing he gave during the ground war portion of Desert Storm (linked to below). It’s called the “Mother of All Briefings” due to his open style, command of the press, personality, and the fact that he was careful to give credit to all the various countries in the allied coalition. Pay particular attention to when he’s asked about casualties around the 18 minute mark, about a potential cease-fire at the 52 minute mark, and about Iraqi casualties at the 54 minute mark.
Sadly, Schwarzkopf died in 2012.
We moved away from Ft. Riley to Georgia in 1991, shortly after my Dad’s return from the war. He served with the Corps of Engineers until his retirement in 1996, and then I went off to college.
Links for More Information about the War:
(Image: Our house looked like this – this was one of the houses on our row, it could be ours, but I’m not sure. By https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ks0116.photos.070054p, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34079944 )