Monday, April 11, 2011

Desert Storm - Wrapping Up The Ground War

Very early on the first morning after the cease fire, we were ordered to occupy an air field within the Regiment's area of operation. Now, my memory is a little fuzzy on the exact location, but I believe it is the Iraqi Airbase located near Jalibah, which is about 60 miles or so west of Al Basrah. We set up our camp on the far western end of the taxiway.

Rush Limbaugh used to say that the purpose of was was to "kill people and break things." Regardless of your opinion of the man, you have to admit to the truth of that statement. Truer words were never spoken and I was able to see a small part of this first hand.

Immediately evident was the destruction potential of U.S. cratering ordinance. Our aircraft were parked right next to a hole blasted into the taxiway. The hole was about 10 feet across and about 10 feet deep. Surrounding the hole were thousands of tiny scraps of metal, probably schrapnel left over from the cluster bombs which were dropped into the area. Asphalt had been thrown into the air and was scattered over a very wide area. There were dozens of these large holes all over the place, rendering the airfield pretty much unusable (except for rotary-wing aircraft). Considering most of Saddam's air force retreated to Iran and other nearby countries in the first days of the war, the airfield probably wasn't of much use anyway.

There were a few Iraqi aircraft left on the airfield. They were in an area which hadn't been cleared for unexploded ordenance, so we were forbidden from getting too close. From what I could see, they were trashed anyway. I imagine they were inoperative and stuck there when the air war started.

There were a number of tanks buried around the perimieter of the airfield; some quite close to where we parked our aircraft. Since spare parts for the older T-54/55 tanks were in short supply, it was common practice in the days before the war to dig a hole and park a tank in the hole. Once the tank was in place, they would pull the motor out and strip it of all parts not required to actually shoot the main gun. This turned the tank into an effective, expedient pillbox-type emplacement.

Other vehicles we saw were captured Iraqi ones. It was interesting to see tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks and other such weapons I'd been reading about for years up close and personal. There were vehicles ranging from towed four-barreled anti-aircraft guns to T-62 tanks, to BMPs and numerous trucks from the various Warsaw Pact armies. Most of them were full of holes from various calibre of U.S. weapons.

We had some time to walk around and check out a few portable buildings which had been lined up along the taxiway in a grassy area between the taxiway and would would have been the active runway. The portable buildings were mostly toilet and bath facilities. In one building I went into, there was a small hole opposite where people would be standing in front of some urinals. There was a blast pattern on the floor and a huge hole from about shoulder high to the roof of the building and about 12 feet wide. It looked like if had someone been standing there taking a leak their head would have been taken off and blown out the building. Again, I was very happy to have not been on the receiving end of the barrage which was launched against these folks.

It was during this time that we experienced the only casualty our squadron was to have. Two of our guys in the maintenance troop were goofing off near the roped off areas which hadn't been cleared of possible unexploded ordinance. One of them picked up an unexploded part of a cluster bomb and tossed it to his friend. It was innocent horseplay until the bomblet exploded and killed one of the men. It was a sad and totally avoidable accident.

Soldiers are taught almost from day one of basic training not to mess around with unexploded ammunition found during training. No matter how old it is, it might be unstable enough to explode by just moving it. We were all taught to leave it be, mark the location and report it so someone who knew what they were doing could come and disposed of it properly (often by blowing it up where it was).

I remember once when I was in Third Squadron back in the 80s when the Squadron Sergeant Major came and gave us a talk after one of the troopers killed himself trying to knock the primer out of a .50 caliber round. The soldier was attempting to make a necklace for his girlfriend. The Sergeant Major told us he had to write one of those terribly difficult letters telling his mother was a great solider this man was when he really wanted to tell the truth and write that the man was a fool for not following instructions. Sad, but true.

Sometime in the late morning we received word that Ahmad should pack up his stuff because a truck was coming to take him to Kuwait. He was very excited to get going and see what happened to his family. He hadn't heard any news from any of his loved ones since the invasion the previous August. Just before he left, we took this picture of all the members of our platoon, with Ahmad sitting right up front and center. Many of us exchanged addresses with Ahmad, but I don't remember anyone mentioning they'd heard back from him after we returned to the U.S.

The Platoon in front of one of our aircraft. For privacy, I blurred out all the faces except mine and Richard "Flickster" Flick who was killed in an auto accident in 2006. The person who took this picture was standing with his heels right on the edge of one of the deep holes I describe above.
During the time we were sitting on the airfield, representatives from the Iraqi government and the coalition forces signed the formal cease fire agreement. Once that was completed, it was pretty much all over but the shouting.

Not long after, we were told to head back to Saudi Arabia and on to the port to go back to the States. This would be, perhaps, the most dangerous part of the whole war for me and two others.

This post is dedicated to SGT Christian A. Garcia a member of Maintentance Troop, Support Squadron (Muleskinners), 3rd ACR. SGT Garcia was killed by mortar fire in Babil Province, Iraq on April 2, 2011. I pray comfort and peace to his family and friends and to his fellow troopers in the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen.

This is part 16 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