By Vaughn R. Larson
Department of Military Affairs
FORT McCOY — Thirty years ago, the first Wisconsin National Guard units deployed to a combat zone in decades waited with anticipation as the coming conflict with Iraq inched closer.
Nearly four months after the Aug. 2 invasion, the United Nations Security Council authorized force if Iraq did not withdraw from Kuwait by midnight on Jan. 15. Three days before that deadline, Congress authorized U.S. troops to engage in offensive operations in Iraq.
Seven of the nine Wisconsin National Guard units mobilized for Desert Shield were in the theater of operations by the time combat began on Jan. 16, 1991 — 2:38 a.m. Jan. 17 in Saudi Arabia. Those units included the four-person 1122nd Transportation Detachment, which had been in Saudi since early October; the 215-person 107th Maintenance Company, in Saudi since early November; the three-person 132nd Military History Detachment, in Saudi since Dec. 27; approximately 200-300 people from the 128th Air Refueling Wing, which deployed to Cairo, Egypt in late December; the 60-person 1158th Transportation Company, the 124-person 1157th Transportation Company and the 350-person 13th Evacuation Hospital, which all arrived in Saudi in the first two weeks of January 1991.
The 216-person 229th Engineer Company arrived in Saudi Arabia in the latter half of January, and the 32nd Military Police Company arrived in early February — after the air campaign began, but before ground combat commenced.
Wisconsin National Guard troops came to terms with their environment.
“In the briefings at [Fort] McCoy, all we heard was how arid the country was,” said Col. Judy Rose, chief nurse with the 13th Evac. “But it rained at least 20 times while we were there.”
The weather was hardly the only uncertainty Wisconsin Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen faced overseas.
“You hear so many different rumors,” said Spc. Doris Coyle of the 107th Maintenance Company. “One minute you feel everything is cool and you’re going to get out of here. The next minute, you’re scared.”
In the days before cell phones, texting and social media, current information was not at everyone’s fingertips. Most troops relied on news reports aired on Armed Forces radio broadcasts if they were in range, or copies of Stars and Stripes if they were available. Media reports at the time described the Iraqi military as battle-hardened after an eight-year war with Iran, and willing to use chemical weapons. A large trench in the VII Corps Rear area of operations — approximately 90 kilometers from Iraq — was rumored to be where the bodies of contaminated troops would be buried, as contaminated remains would not be transferred home.
The 132nd Military History Detachment, located at VII Corps Rear since Jan. 8, was busy helping carve a bunker from the hardened, chalky desert terrain that it would share with two other history detachments from Ohio and Idaho and getting acclimated to Army life in the field. Spc. Craig Luther, the administrative specialist for the 132nd, recalled a field sanitation detail that required incinerating human waste from the field latrines, because the high water table in Saudi Arabia prohibited traditional pit latrines.
“I remember a momma scorpion and several baby scorpions crawling out of the pit where we had just dumped the cinders and ash,” Luther said. He also recalled a morning stand-to — a regular practice where all personnel assigned to VII Corps Rear stood at the camp perimeter with their weapons, scanning the horizon for suspicious activity.
“The [Military Police] came in with some Egyptian king cobras that they had just killed in our position,” Luther said. “If we had gone out in the middle of the night and jumped in our bunker, it would not have been good.”
The breakfast menu in the mess tent at the VII Corps Rear area the morning of Jan. 15 read “D-Day Special.” However, combat would not on be the menu that cold and cloudy day in Saudi Arabia. In fact, Iraq’s deadline to pull out of Kuwait was midnight Eastern Standard Time — or 8 a.m. Jan. 16 in Saudi Arabia.
Given that the Iraqi Parliament voted to defend “Province 19” — or Kuwait — on Jan. 14, war was certain.
Troops at the VII Corps Rear encampment were rousted from their bunks at around 2:30 a.m. Jan. 17. Scrambling into protective suits and masks, they quickly moved in the darkness into their recently completed bunkers. Nine military historians felt the timber and sandbags, which formed the roof of their bunker, rattle as a fighter jet roared close overhead. After a few moments of uncertainty, they determined that it was a coalition jet heading toward Iraq.
Members of the 13th Evacuation Hospital were still housed at the Khobar Towers in the coastal city of Khobar, Saudi Arabia when the air campaign began. The Khobar Towers were a huge apartment complex built for Bedouin nomads, and the large hospital unit was housed in different buildings — sometimes as many as 35 Soldiers in a single multi-room apartment. The tap water was not safe to drink — the Saudi government provided bottled water — and the plumbing was not large enough to flush toilet paper.
When the war began, Iraq fired scuds — Soviet-built Cold War era ballistic missiles capable of carrying chemical payloads — at Saudi Arabia first, and later Israel, which was not among the 40-nation coalition involved in liberating Kuwait. Patriot missiles, designed to take down enemy aircraft, were pressed into service during Desert Storm to intercept incoming scud missiles.
“I called home — we had access to phones there — and I had asked my husband if he saw the Patriot [missiles] take out the scud on CNN,” Suzanne Mousel, a 13th Evac member, told news station WEAU in a 2011 interview. “And he said yes, he did. And I said, ‘So do I — right outside my window.’”
Iraq launched as many as 53 scud missiles in January 1991, largely at Israel — which was not a participant in Desert Storm — but also at the Saudi capital city Riyadh and other targets. According to unit history, the 13th Evac experienced only one close call with a scud, though it responded to multiple scud alerts while at Khobar Towers.
“Since the Army didn’t know if the scuds were being fired at Israel or at our troops, every time one was fired we got an alert,” said Col. Jane Intress, a psychology nurse with the 13th Evac. “When the scud attacks started, there was no real standard operating procedures on where to go in the complex for protection — this added to the fear.
Lt. Col. Angela Joseph, at the time a specialist with the 13th Evac, recalled those days.
“The most frequently worn uniform at this time was our nuclear-biological-chemical (NBC) protective gear and mask,” Joseph said. “We would wear this uniform for up to 6-8 hours at a time. Some nights we just slept in them.”
Wearing all or part of the protective equipment became the norm in the opening days of the air campaign. Troops were ordered to take pyridostigmine bromide tablets, an anti-nerve agent pill, as a preventive measure in the event they were contaminated with the nerve agent soman. Luther recalled being told to sleep in his protective mask. Chemical alarms, which were already sensitive to dust and diesel fumes, would sound off frequently, sending those within sound into a full protective uniform posture — charcoal-laden trousers and jacket, boots, gloves and mask. Troops also donned their protective masks, at a minimum, for scud alerts.
“The bad news is, we are at war,” Maj. Gen. Jerald Slack, Wisconsin’s adjutant general in 1991, told members of the state legislature during a Jan. 24 briefing. “But the good news is our [Wisconsin National Guard] units have not been harmed in any way.
Luther celebrated his golden birthday Jan. 21 in full protective gear, in a bunker, with eight other military history detachment Soldiers singing “Happy birthday” while also wearing full protective gear — to include masks.
Four days after the air campaign began, the 13th Evac sent a 100-person advance party on a 14-hour convoy to northern Saudi Arabia — roughly half an hour north of Hafar al-Batin and 25 miles from the Iraq border — to prepare a site for their deployable medical system field hospital. They named their new location Camp Badger, and with the assistance of Army engineers constructed a perimeter berm, and trenches for water points, bunkers and latrines.
“We were the only unit there between [Saddam] Hussein and King Khalid Military City,” said Col. Lewis Harned, commander of the 13th Evacuation Hospital, in a 2001 oral history interview with the Wisconsin Veterans Museum research center. “We were right out there in the desert.”
The remainder of the hospital unit did not enjoy smooth travels to their new location. They were given 20 minutes at Khobar to board six Chinook helicopters, and told not to bring their duffel bags aboard. After several hours in the air, the pilots determined that they had the wrong grid coordinates and decided to return to Khobar. One of the Chinooks developed mechanical issues and had to land, and another Chinook remained with it to provide security. That night, 13th Evac Soldiers in the two Chinooks huddled together for warmth at a refueling station in the desert because their sleeping bag were in the baggage they were not allowed to bring on the flight.
Col. Helen Gurkow, a doctor with the 13th Evac, said the tent she and other 13th Evac members were sent to had a tunnel in the dirt floor that led to a narrow trench.
“Now, you don’t have to worry, we’ve never been scudded out here,” Gurkow recalled being told, in a 1995 oral history interview with the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. “And I thought, ‘Oh, okay. Don’t have to worry, nothing’s happening.’”
As the troops were trying to sleep in the cold, alarms began to sound, and they rushed into the slit trench just outside the tent.
“Well, that was not nice,” Gurkow said. “That was not nice at all.”
“That night lasted forever, it seemed,” Joseph said.
Eventually the entire hospital unit was together again at Camp Badger, and the Wisconsin National Guardsmen went to work setting up the hospital to prepare for casualties.
“We had over 600 beds for casualties,” Harned recalled. “And we were told prior to the ground war they had no idea what was going to happen, but we could expect 5,000 casualties a day.”
The ground war would begin Feb. 24, 1991.