Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ground War Day 1

As the time drew close for the start of the Ground War portion of Desert Storm we started to get some details about our part in the whole operation. Ahmad, our Kuwaiti augmentee, was assigned to my team at this point. As we started to get briefings on the expected happenings we were told we weren't allowed to tell Ahmad anything. I felt bad not telling him what was going on because I thought he might be more helpful if he was clued in. However, I did understand that from an operations security viewpoint that he was a foreigner about whom we knew very little.

Ahmad was great for giving us background information about the countries in the area. As we dialed around the radio dial he was able to tell us what languages we were listening to as well as what their country of origin was. For instance, the Persian Language programming by the BBC sounded very different to him than the Persian Language broadcast originating in Iran.

We weren't supposed to sleep on the ground and each one of us was assigned a cot to lie on. The regimental leadership had this as a policy dating back to when I had been a part of the 3rd ACR in the mid-80s. Ahmad preferred to sleep on a blanket rolled out on the sand. When we offered him a cot, he was almost insulted. "I used to sleep in the desert with my father like this as a child. I do not need a cot." He thought it silly.

As I mentioned in a previous installment, we were at the far western part of the operational area. General Schwartzkopf came up with what I describe as a variation of the Von Schlieffen Plan in order to drive the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. The idea was to drive an attack into Kuwait to overwhelm the Iraqi forces there while other coalition forces ran around from the west in order to cut them off from retreating back into Baghdad. Our part of this was to be part of the force to surround the retreating forces.

This plan was almost messed up. We understood that the Iraqis weren't supposed to know we were there. Colonel Starr, the 63rd Colonel (Commanders of the 3rd ACR are numbered in order of their command) engaged some Iraqi forces who had attacked a Saudi Army unit over the berm the Iraqis had piled up on the border. The Saudis called for help while the 63rd was out on a patrol with an armored platoon from I Troop, 3rd Squadron. According to the rumors we heard, General Schwartzkopf flew to the Regimental Headquarters to personally chew out the Colonel for possibly giving away our positions so far west. I don't know if that's true, but it was an interesting rumor.

Squadron Muster
Just before the ground was was to start, we had a Squadron Muster so the 63rd Colonel could come and give us a pep talk. Personally, I was just looking forward to getting the thing started. I wasn't so much looking forward to going into battle as I was to just getting started so we could get it over with. After sitting around for six months, I doubt I was the only one who felt that way.

Back at Fort Bliss, when we had a Squadron Muster, it was usually held at one of the theaters on post. We would sit and wait for the Squadron or Regimental Commander to arrive and he would give us a talk about one thing or another. When I was in the 66th MI Company, which was assigned to 3rd Squadron, the musters were usually somewhat interesting. In those days, in the mid-80s, it was rare to have women assigned to a combat unit. Because of that, the 66th MI was the only unit in 3rd Squadron to have women assigned to it. When the Squadron Commander would come into the theater, everyone would stand at attention until he reached the stage. He would always yell out, "Gentlemen," and then continue a little more quietly, "and ladies of the 66th Military Intelligence Company," and then yell again, "take your seats!" I always found that to be quite humorous.

This particular muster was a bit less formal. The 63rd stood in a big clearing in the middle of the Squadron's encampment, and we all gathered around. He delivered his speech:
Gentlemen, we are about to engage an enemy who has invaded a peaceful neighbor. We are going to oust him from that land according to the directives of the United Nations and the orders from our Commander and Chief.
I cannot tell you how this battle will go. I am sure that some of us will not be here when it's all over. However, keep this in mind: We have the best equipped and best trained army in the entire world. Our tanks can see and shoot at their tanks before they can even see us. So this is my battle plan, and it's simple:
We are going to get close enough and poke holes in their shit before they can get close enough to poke holes in our shit.
And, after we all shouted the Regimental Accolade, he left.

Now, I may not have remembered the whole thing exactly word for word - except for that last line. I will never forget that part.

And so the ground war began. Well, at least for the rest of the units. On the day everything kicked off we were stuck all day in a sand storm. We were grounded and left once again listening to the war on the radio.

It was heartening to listen to the stories of Iraqi soldiers lining up to surrender to anyone who wasn't on their site. One BBC crew was credited with capturing over 100 prisoners of war. We were quite happy things were going well. Night came and the sand storm abated. We knew the next day we would be in the thick of things.

This is part 13 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Leaning Forward In The Saddle

When we moved north, near the border, our camp was pretty much prepared for us. Before we arrived, engineers plowed up the soil and made some three-sided bunkers where we could park our aircraft. Each of the three walls was about 7 or 8 feet high. I recall seeing just the rotors poking out over the tops.

Since we knew we wouldn't be staying there very long, we didn't set up as sophisticated a camp as we did down south. We did set up our large tents (GP Large for those who know the Army lingo) and squeezed over twelve people in each of them. That wasn't terribly crowded, but certainly not as spacious as the setup we had before with some folks sleeping in hootches instead of the tents.

The (In)famous Saudi Flood
While we were there in the Middle East it rained a lot. I don't know if this was a verified fact, but we were told more rain fell during those months than in the previous several years combined. When it rained hard enough, areas which consisted of lose, powdery sand turned into quagmires something like quicksand. That muck hardened into a concrete-like state when the sun came out again and baked it dry. Vehicles stuck in that mess required extrication with heavy equipment.

The rain got us one fateful night.

Little did we realize, at this new camp we had put up one of our tents in a dry stream bed. Unfortunately, this happened to be the tent I was sleeping in. Something we should have known being stationed in the desert near El Paso and most of us having experience in the Mojave Desert near Barstow, California is what a dry steam bed looked like. Somehow we missed this one. We also didn't notice that the great bunkers set up by the engineers to protect our aircraft also acted as earthen dams blocking the dry steam bed in which we had set up our tent.

One night it started raining like crazy. Sometime around Midnight a flash flood hit our camp, and specifically our tent. We were asleep and didn't realize the water was rising, and pooling, until someone, probably whoever was on guard duty, came and woke us up.

While we in the one tent were rushing around in the dark trying to figure out what to do, the guys in the other tent were having a party. I distinctly remember hearing "Break On Through" by The Doors playing loudly on a boom box. At one point I stuck my head through the flaps of their tent and saw Flickster spraying glow stick juice all over the inside of the tent. He cut the top off the plastic stick, which allowed the glowing liquid to shoot out the end and stick to the inside of the tent. It looked like a psychedelic concert going on in there with glowing yellow, blue and red liquid lighting up the canvas ceiling.

After a while of us panicking at the rising water, Sergeant T figured out the problem of the sand bunker blocking the stream bed. We grabbed out our entrenching tools and shovels and broke out a hole in the berm to let the water out. Once that was accomplished, the water level quickly fell and all was well. All except for Sergeant T, that is; he lost some of his stuff which was washed away in the flood.

The Night Sky
Doing guard duty at night out there in the middle of the desert offered some of the best views of the sky I've ever seen. You can't imagine the number of stars you can see when there is no ambient light pollution from city lights. It made me wonder how our ancient ancestors were able to pick out constellations. It's easy to pick out Orion, Cassiopeia or the bears in a city, but the stars which make up those formations were almost lost in the endless myriad of stars visible out in the Saudi desert.

Another thing which really struck me was the brightness of the moon. During a full moon, not only did it cast a very visible shadow you could just about read by its light. The desert has a beauty all its own, and that particular desert has a unique beauty at night.

Carpet Bombing
Something else you could see quite well at night were the fighters and bombers headed over to Iraq on their missions.

The in-flight refuel aircraft were seen as bright, flashing lights flying back and forth to the south. Other flashing lights would come join them for a time. Then they would drop away and fly in our direction. When they were just about over our camp, the flashing lights would turn off and only the sound of the jet engines would indicate they were still there.

One night, I was lying in bed listening to the B-52s flying over the camp. As I lie there reflecting on things, I remember feeling the ground shake accompanied by a low rumbling sound. I lived in California for a time, so when I describe the sensation as a small tremor, folks who have experienced that will understand what I mean. Of course, the rumbling was not from natural means; it was the result of tons of explosives being dropped on some unsuspecting Iraqi soldiers.

I remember pausing in my thoughts. Part of me really felt sorry for those guys getting pummeled. Many of those people weren't really trained soldiers, but were regular guys grabbed off the streets, handed a rifle and stuck out in the desert somewhere. At least someone with proper military training might know what to do in an air raid to increase their chance of survival. On the other hand, perhaps a bit selfishly, I was VERY grateful to be on the side delivering those bombs instead of the receiving side.

Not Again?
Another one of "those flights" happened during this time. It wasn't a border trace mission like I described in an earlier installment. I don't remember why, but we were just flying around the desert.

All of a sudden we found ourselves enveloped by a sand storm. It seemed to come out of nowhere and we were flying just about completely blind. After about fifteen minutes, The Scrounger decided to slowly descend so we could land and wait for the storm to blow over. When we got on the ground we found ourselves on a road. So, thinking it safer to troll along the ground rather than try to fly blind, we headed down the road. We weren't going too fast, but we were at least making some progress.

Sandstorms like those in the Middle East desert are something like fog. When you're in a fog bank you go through parts which are thicker than others. There are parts where visibility is better than others. It's the same in a sandstorm, there are places where visibility is better than others.

We moved into one of those areas. It cleared up enough for us to see, coming from the opposite direction along the road, a convoy of four or five Hummers. I could see looking out the front window as we did one of those high-performance takeoffs, this was a Stinger team. As we pulled up we pitched nose down just enough and long enough that I could see the faces of the two guys in the front seat of the lead vehicle. Their eyes were as big as saucers and their jaws were hanging down in their laps. That must have been quite a site to see a helicopter looming in the fog/sand and just missing them. Ironic, too, because they were an anti-aircraft team.

The ground war was looming. We'll hit that next time.

This is part 12 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Gearing Up For the Ground War

The Air War Begins
On the morning the "Air War" phase of Desert Storm started, we were sitting in our tent listening to the audio feed from one of the major networks on Armed Forces Radio. We were all a bit frustrated listening to the announcer describe what was happening on the screen. It was something like, "... now watch the camera on the bomb as it leaves the plane and flies down. Look at the precision as it goes through the window and then explodes." Of course, we couldn't see it. I remember watching similar scenes years later and thinking to myself, "Oh, that's what we missed that morning."

Burning Down The Town
When we received the warning that we would be moving up to the Saudi/Iraqi border, we started to dismantle the town we built. We tore down the "hootches," the goody locker, the shower, the laundry, everything that could be burned was put into the large pit where our ill-fated bunker project had started.

Oh, I forgot about the bunker ...

The Bunker
At some point after we arrived, we were tasked to build fighting positions or bunker space where we could hide in case of an air raid or ground attack. Digging in the soft sand where we were situation was easier said than done. For every shovel full of sand you threw out of a hole, another would fall back in. We filled as many sandbags as we could get hold of and tried various methods of shoring up the walls while we dug. It was no use.

To make matters worse, a certain captain ("Lenoch" we called him) loved to drive around the encampment and look for troopers wearing "dew rags." Basically, anything wrapped around the head to keep the sweat out of your eyes was forbidden. It didn't help morale that we were working on a seemingly endless and doomed task, but to add the ban on "sweat in the eye protection" was too much.

To solve the problem, Scounger and a couple other of the more handy of us got together and drew up plans for a bunker.

He arranged for some engineers to come and excavate a large hole for us. Bulldozers and backhoes made the work easy and we had a hold about 100 feet long by 50 feet wide and about 10 feet deep in a matter of a couple hours.

Once the hole was done, we started building the bunker. Basically, it was a three-room building, much like a storage shed one might build in their back yard. There was room for twenty people to be inside without it being too cramped. There were 2 doorways and slots up towards where the walls met the roof so we could shoot out if needed. It was quite a nice little building. It took a week or so to get it all done. The plan was to "shingle" the roof with sandbags to protect the top from blast and shrapnel.

Once it was done, Scrounger called his engineer friends to come and backfill the hole so the bunker would be mostly underground. The bulldozer came and started pushing sand back into the hole. Everything was working just fine until at one point the the entire structure twisted and collapsed under the weight of the sand pushing on the walls. The building was very sturdy as far as free-standing structures went. Unfortunately, it was not designed to withstand the weight of tons of sand pushing in on two or three sides.

In our "After Action Review" of the collapse, we all agreed it was a good thing no one was standing inside the bunker when the backfilling was being done. We also agree that, perhaps, if we'd had the engineer push smaller amounts of sand at a time and made three or four trips around the hole as it was filled in, the structure might have stood up. Too much weight on one side or another was too much.

Back To The Burning
As we dismantled the "town" we threw everything we couldn't carry into the pit. That included (unfortunately) a lot of stuff people from home sent us as well as a lot of other stuff. I remember commenting that we should have at least left the lumber for the Bedouins in the area as they might have found it handy to use. No, I was told it all had to either go with us or be destroyed.

We packed up our stuff, loaded it up into trucks, made sure everyone had a ride (or a seat in an aircraft) and headed to the border.

We temporarily added an extra person to our group during this time. The guy who handled the squadron's mail was also a Blackhawk crew chief. He technically worked for the headquarters, directly for Lenoch. This knucklehead didn't have enough room for all his people. When the mail guy headed up to the headquarters to catch a ride north, he was told to hitch a ride because they didn't have room for him. As an NCO this incensed me. #1 Rule: Take care of your soldiers! We had room so we grabbed him up. It took a week or two before anyone in his group noticed he was missing. Terrible.

Moving North
Here's a nice map from Wikipedia showing the locations of the units before and after the ground war:

I'm not sure if this is completely accurate. As I understood we were the last U.S. unit to the west with only the French contingent being further west.

And there we sat for another month or so. We weren't totally idle, but we really weren't in any action either ...  yet.

This is part 11 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Scary Orientation Flight

Just before the start of Desert Storm itself, three additional team members were assigned to our platoon. One of the new guys was a Kuwaiti (I'll call him Ahmad) who was going to school at a university in The States when the Iraqi Army invaded his country. The other two were Arabic linguists from Fort Stewart, Georgia.

One of the two from Fort Stewart was called "Jed" because he was the oldest guy in his unit and "Jed" was similar to the Arabic word for "grandpa." He carried around a hollow body Gibson guitar, which he played rather well if memory serves. The other I'll call "Slim." he was a nice enough guy, but seemed a little skittish when he first came around.

One of the first things the three needed to do was take an orientation flight in the aircraft. First we gave them some instruction on the workings of the aircraft itself, then the equipment, safety procedures, routine flight procedures and other appropriate information. Once they were issued the flight equipment, we took them up for a ride.

The one my team was assigned to take up was Slim. We took him out to the flight line and showed him all the pre-flight procedures. We pulled a fuel sample (which was saved to burn in our Coleman stove), checked over the mission equipment inside the aircraft and helped the pilots check over the outside of the bird.

As we walked around the helicopter checking this and that, Slim kept mentioned a couple times that he was nervous about flying. I tried to reassure him that there wasn't anything to be nervous about and that he'd enjoy the experience. As I was showing him how to properly put on his survival vest, he flat out told me, "Sergeant, I'm really afraid of flying." I was looking away when he said this, and as I turned to try to again reassure him, I saw The Scrounger standing behind him with a big smile on his face. The only thing I could stammer out at that point was, "You really shouldn't have said that." I don't remember what Scrounger said, but I think it was something like, "Oh, don't worry, you'll love what we have in store for you."

After we ran up the aircraft and went through the check list, the first thing we did is what's called a "High Performance Takeoff." To to this, the pilot pulls the pitch lever and the aircraft goes straight up. It's not an acrobatic maneuver, but you're nervous about flying, it might take you aback. After we gained some altitude, we did some tail spins. Again, this isn't much of an acrobatic (or aerobatic) thing, but you're not used to it, the maneuver can be a little nerve wracking. After the tail spins, we did flying around, turning here and there and going up and down. I could hear Slim moan every once in a while and ask over the intercom, "Are we done yet?"

I could tell this wasn't going well. At best Slim was getting so scared he'd never want to fly again. At worst, I figured he might hurl, which would cause others to do likewise and make a huge mess. Neither scenario was good.

After a few more minutes of scaring Slim to death, The Scrounger came over the intercom. He said something like, "I know you're nervous about flying, but you really shouldn't be. All of the maneuvers we've done so far have been strictly by the book. Now, I want you to unbuckle your harness and come up here to the front and let us walk you though some of the controls and shown you what we're doing."

"Ah, good," I thought, "The Scrounger is showing he has a heart and is going to help calm Slim down."

But, I was wrong.

No sooner than Slim had unbuckled and crawled up to the cockpit, he started screaming so loud I could hear him over the engine noise, "They're not holding on to the controls! They're not holding on to the controls" He scrambled back to his seat and frantically tried to rebuckle his harness.

Now, the pilots weren't doing anything terribly dangerous. The aircraft we were in had a computer-assisted attitude control. This wasn't an autopilot, but rather an aid to help keep the aircraft straight and level. If no one was holding the controls, the computer would keep the helicopter in level flight going in whatever direction it happened to be pointed.

At this point, Scrounger finally picked up that Slim was really quite terrified. When Slim calmed down a little, Scrounger came back over the intercom and explained what was going on. He explained that he was trying to show Slim that the aircraft was built to be very safe. He explained the computer control assist and how it worked. He then explained that all the maneuvers done during the flight were all easy "peacetime" ones. He explained the limits to turns, climbing and diving. He then went and called out the maneuvers before he did them so Slim could see there was nothing to be afraid of. "Here's X degrees to the left. Now were going X degrees to the right. Now were going up X degrees. Now we're going down X degrees.

The interesting thing when you're looking out the window and the aircraft does a turn at, it does sometimes appear that you're looking straight down. Next time you're taking a plane ride somewhere, look out the window as the plane banks during takeoff or approach and you'll see what I mean.

Slim finally calmed down after a short time of calling out maneuvers. As the flight wrapped up, we headed over to the hot refuel point. A hot refuel is when the aircraft is fueled while running. Part of the crew responsibility is to stand outside near where the fuel hose is with a fire extinguisher. Slim and I manned the extinguisher while the fueler topped off the bird.

When the fueling was finished, Slim wanted to walk back to the camp. He didn't realize we were over a mile away. When I told him he didn't seem to care, either. I equated this situation with the old saying which tells us if you fall off the horse, you need to get right back on so you don't lose your nerve. It turned out to be a great idea to make Slim get back in the bird and fly back to the camp.

The happy ending to this story was that he got over his fear of flying at least enough that he was able to do missions while he was assigned to our unit.

This is part 10 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19