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Veterans remember Gulf War 25 years later

By By Megan Locke Simpson, Fort Campbell Courier

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Sept. 1, 2015 — FORT CAMPBELL, Ky., Sept. 1, 2015 -- Twenty-five years ago Iraq invaded Kuwait. Shortly thereafter, the 101st Airborne Division deployed to the Middle East as part of the U.S. response to the action in what became known as the Gulf War.

As a part of Operation Desert Shield, the 101st Airborne Division deployed to Saudi Arabia to keep Saddam Hussein's forces from spilling into other Middle Eastern countries.

"The Iraqi army was [invading] Kuwait, and the purpose of Desert Shield was to shield Saudi Arabia," said Fort Campbell Historian John O'Brien. "The 101st, during those first few months in Desert Shield, patrolled the border between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to provide early warning for the other two divisions who were over there."

Operation Desert Shield continued from August 1990 into early 1991 before Operation Desert Storm commenced on Jan. 17. The 101st Airborne Division fired the first shots of the war to destroy Iraqi radar sites. Then-Lt. Col. Richard "Dick" Cody led a force of six Apache helicopters from 1st Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, that took out the air defense around Baghdad.

Then units from Fort Campbell moved some 300 miles from the border between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to the west, where the division established Tactical Assembly Area Campbell. While the air war began in January, the ground war commenced Feb. 24 as the 101st Airborne's three brigades went on to conduct the longest and largest air assault to date.

"In 96 hours, the 101st Airborne Division moved three brigades over 350 miles," O'Brien said. "It was really a huge accomplishment back then. The division was at the height of its air assault capability at the time. The division earned an Arrowhead on the campaign streamer for the air assault into Iraq that established [Forward Operating Base] Cobra - 1st Brigade. Then the next day, 3rd Brigade assaulted deeper into Iraq to cut Highway 8 - there's a highway that goes from Baghdad to Basra, so we cut that to cut off the Republican Guard. The Republican Guard were five divisions of Saddam's best soldiers, who were cut off and isolated and then destroyed by the U.S. VII Corps and the attack helicopters from the 101st on the Highway of Death."

The ground war was won in 100 hours as the 101st Airborne Division helped cut off communications, delved deep into Iraq within striking distance of Baghdad and blocked escape routes for Hussein's forces. O'Brien said the quick victory was possible because the U.S. military's strategy was "very, very right."

"[The] Army that had been training for 15 years for how to defeat the Soviet Union, the Iraqi army was built on Soviet equipment, Soviet doctrine," O'Brien said. "There was a huge fear that they were the fourth-best army in the world ... it's probably one of the few times, as a matter of fact I know it's the only time in the Army's history where we trained and equipped to defeat the enemy that we faced."

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Robert G. Nichols served for 32 years and now works as the Fort Campbell Historical Foundation's executive director. In 1990, he was 1st Brigade's sergeant major and played a vital role in securing Forward Operating Base, or FOB, Cobra. The 101st Airborne's official command report of the Gulf War, compiled by 2nd Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery 1st Lt. Clifford Lippard, said "the establishment of FOB Cobra was the largest air assault ever conducted in a single day." Securing FOB Cobra, along with 3rd Brigade's air assault to the Euphrates River, allowed the division to halt the Iraqis from escaping along Highway 8.

"We were leading the division into the attack, in the assault," Nichols recalled. "The helicopter ride, I'm told now, I didn't know then, was about the same length of time that the 101st rode from England into the parachute drop in Normandy, the length of ride was about the same."

Nichols said one of the most significant things to remember about the Gulf War is that it "had a start, a middle and an end." The engagement was much more cut and dried than the U.S. Armed Forces' continued presence in Iraq and Afghanistan today as a result of the Global War on Terror.

"We didn't know when we were going to come home, but we knew that we would come home when it was over," he said. "Soldiers deploying today do multiple deployments and they have a rotation on the calendar of a window of time - not necessarily a day - but a window of time they would come home. In the Gulf War ... we had no clue because it was until the mission was done."

Soldiers deployed without much logistical support at first, and Nichols said they lived out of their rucksacks for more than a month. They also started making postcards from meals ready to eat, or MREs, boxes when letter-writing supplies became short. In the days before cell phones, Skype and accessible email, Nichols talked to his wife just three times during his seven-month deployment.

"We lived with what we deployed with," he said of the division's arrival in Saudi Arabia. "My soldiers didn't get their first hot meal until after about 30 to 32 days in country. We were living straight on MREs. When you don't have infrastructure and systems in place and you do a forward deployment, you don't have anything."

Some 500,000 soldiers deployed in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm - half of the Army at the time. While it had been only 15 years since U.S. troops left Vietnam, Nichols said the country's mood toward the war itself and its treatment of returning service members was completely different. Yellow ribbons were displayed throughout communities nationwide, and returning soldiers came home to happy welcome home ceremonies, much like Screaming Eagles experience today.

"When I was a young lad, I deployed to Vietnam. I deployed at 18, came home at 19 as a buck sergeant. My country was mad at me," Nichols said. "Our country, I think, learned from their mistakes, because the soldiers had nothing to do with the decision to go ... What was really special [after Desert Storm] was going to the parades in Washington D.C., and going to the parades in Nashville in support of our soldiers. Today we have special events every time a plane arrives."

Despite modernization of the Army since Vietnam, Nichols remembers how many changes still needed to be made to shift to the specific needs of combat in the Middle East. Pens and markers stopped working after about three months because of the heat, while Army drivers carried around a can of mud to camouflage the green military vehicles in the desert.

"We might have had what is commonly called the chocolate chip uniform that consisted of a cover for the helmet, pants and a shirt and a cover for your pack and a few other incidentals," he said. "We didn't have covering for the flack vest. We didn't have the body armor they have today. We had the old flack vest, which would not stop a bullet but would stop shrapnel, supposedly. That's the difference in the investment in our Armed Forces from then and today. The body armor and equipment was not that much different than Vietnam."

The soldiers still wore the Vietnam-era green jungle boots as well. Retired Master Sgt. Randal Underhill, 101st Airborne Division Association executive secretary and treasurer, deployed for the first time as private with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, in October 1990. The soldiers had to get creative to make the boots functional in the desert environment.

"We'd take tape and put tape on the inside of the drain holes, because the sand in Saudi Arabia was so fine that it would literally go through those little drain holes in the side of the jungle boot and fill your boots full of sand," Underhill said.

Underhill, a machine gunner at the time, also carried the same M60 Screaming Eagles used in Vietnam. The equipment was not the only thing similar to Vietnam, Underhill said.

"Desert Storm, I look back at it now, and it was the last war that was dominated by Vietnam leadership," he said. "All the first sergeants had been in Vietnam. A lot of the senior NCOs [noncommissioned officers]. A lot of the senior officers ... to a large degree, I would say that we did things much like they probably did during Vietnam. Where they had been trained to do in Vietnam, we just adapted it to the desert."

Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm ushered in the height of the 101st Airborne's air assault capability. Underhill remembers few vehicles or Humvees, because for the most part troops moved by foot or helicopter.

"[Improvised explosive devices] weren't a big deal because I don't think we drove anywhere. We pretty much flew," he said. "The convoys were used to just kind of bring in support stuff forward to where the infantry were."

Supplies were often delivered by air, allowing 101st Airborne Division units to showcase their slingload capabilities.

"We lived by hook," Underhill said. "Food came by hook. Ammo came on hook. Water came on hook. They would fly in, drop it. Supply sergeant and a couple people would go out and break those down and bring it around."

For the most part, Underhill's deployment consisted of filling sandbags, as well as overwatch and other similar typical infantry soldier duties, as well as a lot of training in the months leading up to the launch of the ground war in February. Underhill remembers just how hot it was during the day and the surprisingly cold spring nights, as well as the fact that Saudi Arabia looked much like walking on the moon.

"There was always a purpose for what we were doing, we were postured for defending Saudi Arabia," he said.

Some of his more memorable deployment stories include participating in a mission to help apprehend an Iraqi battalion on one of the vehicle routes just days prior to the start of the ground war.

"As we were coming into the objective, you could see the smoke, see rockets," Underhill said. "They were dropping rockets and still firing some TOWs [tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided). As we came into the [landing zone], we got a glimpse of this large group of people that had basically all came out and surrendered."

Underhill conducted overwatch of the hundreds of prisoners of war while Charlie Company came in on Chinooks to help manage the withdrawal of the large number of Iraqis.

Underhill also made it out of an aircraft crash unscathed as his unit prepared to leave for the Euphrates River Valley.

"We probably gained about maybe 100 to 150 feet of altitude at best, and then we barely cleared the dust cloud and I felt the helicopter kind of shift over to one side," Underhill said. "Basically we had picked up and we'd kind of done an arch ... once we cleared the dust I couldn't see anything but air and the next thing you hear is 'Thud, thud, thud,' and you hear the rotors, because as we came into the ground, the rotors are still turning ... smacking the ground and the aircraft came in on its right side."

Luckily, those on the aircraft sustained only minor injuries and Underhill boarded a Chinook the next day for the Euphrates River Valley. It was there were his battalion took a pumping station as part of the ground war.

As a whole, Underhill said the deployment still seems like much longer than 25 years ago. It is an experience that helped him and others like him when U.S. Armed Forces deployed to Afghanistan in 2001 and then later again to Iraq in 2003. The Screaming Eagles returned home victors from Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm without mass casualties, with the last 101st Airborne Division Soldier returning home in May. After the return home, the Army worked to become more rapidly deployable and applied other lessons learned when the Global War on Terror began.

"If you take a retreaded Humvee tire and put it in 120 degrees sand, it will melt the glue and the tread will fall off," O'Brien said. "So we knew that before we went [back to the Middle East]. In the United States, most of the spare tires we had were retreads, which would have been a disaster. But because of the lessons learned the first time, the second time going we were able to correct all of those things."

Underhill deployed twice to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and then three more times to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"I learned a lot of good lessons in Iraq," he said. "How to keep your water cold without refrigeration. How to keep your weapon clean ... It was pretty formative."