The Storm – Part IV ‘Line of Departure’

Sitting in the pitch black Saudi Arabian night in a reinforced fighting hole, I pulled a set of night vision goggles from their hard plastic case and strapped them on.

Shivering in the surprisingly cold desert air, I looked starward and watched what seemed like an endless cloud of US and British bombers stream like angry hornets north towards occupied Kuwait and on to Baghdad. I couldn’t help but silently ask ‘Am I really here, living this?’ It was just one of many surreal moments to come. As we listened to Armed Forces Radio and the BBC give the play by play to the start of Desert Storm, we glimpsed a cacophony of dancing flashes on the horizon, felt the ground rumble ominously as if mighty dinosaurs once again walked the Earth, and wondered what the experience felt like from our enemies vantage point. War was no longer an if, or a when. It was real, and we were now in it, a few miles down the road from whatever was to come. Of the possible emotions one could feel at such a moment, I remember the strange mix that rose up in me that night. Happiness. Relief. Resignation. Fear. We’d been living a purgatory of watchful waiting, worrying, and preparing for months, far from our country, our homes, our loved ones. The furious barrage we were watching unfold meant only one thing – resolution. We didn’t know what form it might take, but it was clear, this would be over soon. And that felt overwhelmingly good.

The daily drudgery of months past shifted into something approaching urgency after that January night. There was going to be no governor’s reprieve on the eve of execution. Shield had become Storm. And there’s no stopping a storm – it comes and does what it’s going to do. I saw a changing expression in the eyes of my Marines. We trained on, as we had for months, but now with a serious intensity that was palpable. There were no more internal debates to be held – right or wrong, war for oil or justice, peace vs. violence – it didn’t matter anymore. We were going, and there were only 2 possibilities. There was little horseplay now. Jokes and sarcastic mockery, the daily bread of the Marine infantryman, dried up. In their place came determination – that we would impose our will on our friends to the North, and that it would be us that would be going home in the coming weeks and months.

Our first months in the desert had been filled with isolation, quiet, and dread. That calm was now shattered. We were no longer alone in the sand. Instead, every day brought more activity, like a swarming ant hill before an invasion. Trucks, helicopters, endless supply trains brought hordes of reservist troops, ammo, and the essentials of war. There are no warehouses in the desert. So as Marines always do, we helped create them out of thin air. Engineers used massive bulldozers and earthmovers to pile up sand walls 20 feet high. Sand berms thousands of feet long formed square ASPs (ammo supply points), fortified with razor wire, machine guns, and fields of claymore mines should the unfriendlies decide they wanted to come after our supplies. It was an exhausting time. We were tasked not only with training for an assault on Kuwait, but with defending our desert turf should the maniac in Baghdad launch a preemptive attack. We conducted helicopter and ground-borne assaults on mock Iraqi positions complete with tunnels and mock aggressors. We were issued new gear – high tech gear we’d never seen before – an ominous sign since the only time the Marine Corps ever issues new equipment is when they intend to sacrifice you to the Gods. Laser sights and night vision devices for our M-16A2 rifles, AT4 anti-tank missiles (real ones, not the empty training tubes we usually carried), bunker-busting SMAW launchers, digitally-designed camouflage that helped make you invisible from the air, powerful targeting lasers to help guide new laser-guided air munitions to their destinations, even Patriot anti-missile systems became part of landscape.

If the hurried influx and dispersal of new equipment and arms didn’t convince us war was upon us, the launch of SCUD missiles in our direction and frequent chemical alarms sounded now on a daily basis surely did. Nothing was dreaded by my Marines more than the prospect of fighting in MOPP gear. Saddam had huge amounts of biological and chemical agents to throw at us via missile, artillery, or tank shell, should he decide to make that suicidal move. He’d used them before, on his own countrymen no less, and there was no doubt he might choose to use them again as a desperate final act. In 1991, Saddam’s chemical and biologic weapons weren’t a GWB fairy tale – they were a fact. With every poorly-aimed SCUD launch, or British FOX vehicle chemical alarm, we donned the hot, bulky carbon-filled chemical suits, big clunky rubber shoe covers, rubber gloves, and gas masks. Fighting in such gear was almost incomprehensible. Not to worry though – if our cumbersome chemical suits failed us – we each carried atropine auto-injectors with 6 inch needles to plunge into our thighs to help counter the effects of nerve agents should it become necessary.

And preparation for Hell was not limited to gear. Our bodies themselves were prepped. We received nearly weekly injections of various kinds, many designed to protect us (in laughable theory) against innumerable biological agents. We passed out untested medications, called ‘NAP tablets’, reportedly approved for veterinary use, but never given to humans previously. The tablets supposedly competed with the same receptors nerve and blood agents bound with, thus limiting (again, in theory) the potential effects of a chemical attack. Given that our previous training informed us as little as a drop of nerve agent on the skin was enough to kill an adult male several times over, we were skeptical. But we took them – because that’s what Marines do. Two years later, when I lost the use of one of my arms for a year due to a strange demyelinization process my doctors could never explain, I would wonder how much my exposure to untested drugs played a role. A whole generation of Marines out there have experienced similar problems, whether one calls it ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ or not, and whether or not it was caused by medications, exposure to nerve agent (I personally believe we were exposed) – this was the price we paid for being where we were when we were. In the grand scheme of things, I consider myself beyond lucky all I ever had to contend with was some physical ills.

On January 29th, Saddam finally made the kind of foolish move we’d anticipated him making. He sent a 3 pronged mechanized force southward towards our position, near the town of Khafji. My battalion was positioned about 10 miles west of the coastal road leading into Khafji when Saddam’s forces arrived. While some of our unit went forward to support the recon units defending that town, the rest of us were sent to protect the massive ASP just south of us. Arriving at the massive earthen structure, loaded with untold tons of ammunition and explosives, we were told to defend the position at all costs. Loss of the ammo supplies held there would have been devastating. We had only a single company of Marines – about 200 total, to defend a 4-walled square covering a square mile. We spent the night frantically placing machine guns, claymore anti-personnel mines (Vietnam era booby traps that use C-4 explosives to throw thousands of ball bearings in the general direction of the enemy with devastating effect – a truly brutal weapon), and doing our best to dig in for what was anticipated to be a morning assault on our position. We worked through the night, listening to the explosions from nearby Khafji as we did. It was a nerve-wracking 8 hours. As the first faint rays of sunrise dawned, we searched the horizon for the troops we were sure were bearing down upon us. We were not disappointed. There, coming from the north, were thousands of Iraqi troops coming at us in a brazen frontal assault. We couldn’t believe even Saddam was so brazen as to send his forces into what was certain to be a bloodbath. Captain Carretti passed the word to us, we were to open up with all weapons when he fired a green ‘pop-up’, a hand held flare used as a signaling device. The seconds ticked by as the silhouettes of the attacking Iraqis came closer and closer. Suddenly and inexplicably, the invading troops turned away from us enmasse. What were they doing? And then it came, mumbled words at first, then a chorus of excited shouts.

‘Camels!!!’.

We had spent 14 hours preparing for the slaughter of over 1,000 camels. They’d been an ever-present fixture from the moment we’d headed out into the desert. We should have recognized what we were looking for. But coming straight at us, it had been clear beyond doubt, they were Iraqis – their humps the head, their torso human shoulders piled with gear, and their 2 visible legs those of soldiers. Many times since then I’ve given thanks that we didn’t open up hellfire upon those poor camels. I’d like to say it was because I’d mourn the unfortunate loss of those beasts. But the truth is, I simply didn’t want to be forever linked to the Marine Rifle Company that would’ve forever been nicknamed, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, the ‘Camel Killers’. Thankfully, the great Camel Tragedy of 1992 was averted. The ASP was secure, and we returned to preparing for a more substantive enemy.

By mid-February, we had our marching orders. Our battalion had a mission, in fact, perhaps one of the most daring of all missions. On day 1 of the ground war, we were to conduct a helicopter-borne raid on an Iraqi Division Headquarters. We spent a week rehearsing the attack, over and over again. The more we heard about Iraqi forces in the area, the less we liked the idea. According to recon intelligence, the Iraqi’s had more artillery in the vicinity of the headquarters than the US had in the entire region. Recon reported that the entire area was surrounded by 50 foot wide trenches filled with diesel fuel which the Iraqi’s planned to ignite when attacked, then rain down artillery (perhaps with chemical agents) upon the trapped attacking forces. The only solution we had was to land right on top of the headquarters, putting the helicopters we were transported in right in the range of small arms fire – small arms fire more than capable of taking out our thin-skinned helicopters. We might not even survive the landing attempt.

Fortunately, only days before the ground war was launched, someone decided this was not such a great plan after all, and plans for the helicopter raid were scrapped. By that time, there was little time for the powers to be to devise a plan on how to best utilize 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, on D-Day. Our battalion, known as ‘Task Force Taro’ (after the purple root Hawaiians pound into their treasured native food – Poi) was to be split up, with each company being sent out as a support force. After all this time together, we were to fight, not as a battalion, but assigned to strangers. It was a bittersweet moment. Still, it sounded like a better deal than being served up as sacrificial lambs in some ill-advised helicopter assault debacle. And, we were getting lucky, my Marines, and the rest of Bravo Company, 1/3, were being attached to Task Force Ripper. We didn’t know it then, but we would be the tip of the spear that sliced first through the Iraqi lines and sent them scurrying like cockroaches out of Kuwait.

We said goodbye to our sister Companies. We were all heading West, part of the ‘left-hook’ maneuver that had an incredible mass of American forces picking up and moving 50 miles west to attack from a direction the Iraqi’s never saw coming. One company would go with Engineers to assist in blowing lanes in the 2 enormous Iraqi minefields that stretched for 20 miles and blocked our entrance into Kuwait. Another company would be assigned to guard Artillery units that would be supporting the attack. But my company, Bravo Company, would participate in the frontal assault – punching through the minefields, to the Al Burqan Oil Fields, and onto the Kuwaiti National Airport.

The night before the dawn assault, we were on the move. We loaded up with live ammo – more than we’d ever carried. Live grenades, M 203 rounds, AT4’s, sling after sling of M-16, M-60 machine gun, Bangalore torpedoes, C4 explosive, and every kind of ammo under the sun. Although we Lieutenants were supposed to carry only our service pistols, 9mm’s that would hardly serve as much of a defense in full battle, we issued ourselves M-16’s as well. Our training told us we were there to control our Marines, make battlefield decisions in a split-second, and use our radios as our greatest weapon – it felt more secure to have a substantial weapon slung over our shoulder. As we took on our new load, we shed anything on our persons that wasn’t necessary. Among other things, I buried a walkman, and two paperbacks – a copy of James Michener’s ‘Hawaii’ and ironically given how Custer fared, Evan S. Connell’s ‘Son of the Morning Star’. Somewhere out there in the Saudi Arabian sand, a couple of great novels await to be found again.

Somewhere around midnight, we loaded up into 5 ton trucks and began moving forward. Dressed in our carbon-filled chemical suits, we crossed the Line of Departure (the imaginary line of no return in Marine Assault language, the crossing of which constitutes the start of the attack). We followed the light of tiny green chemlights, left like a string of fireflies by the recon forces leading the way. We arrived at the minefields. There were no fiery trenches, there was no barrage of incoming artillery. Instead, for as far as the eye could see, there were anti-tank and anti-personnel mines lying right on top of the sand. The hapless (or perhaps disinterested) Iraqi forces hadn’t even bothered burying them. We could’ve tiptoed right through them with nothing more than a flashlight. Instead, engineers had blown great swathes through two great minefields, and marked the lanes with tape. We were through the defenses in seconds. Now the first early shades of grey and purple and red glowed with dawn’s approach. The day was here. We were on Kuwaiti soil and we were moving on the enemy. The trucks rejoined us on the opposite side of the minefields, and we mounted up again. We headed north, passing dead Iraqis, some on the ground, some burned to a crisp, frozen in a desperate but futile effort to get out of the armored vehicle they’d been caught in. It was grisly reality. We pressed on. Chemical alarms sounded, once, twice, then a third time. Each time, we would dive from the trucks, throw our gasmasks on, and wait for the alarms to subside. The thud of missiles came for the first time ever from our rear. We were getting close.

If I’d thought my trip to Southeast Asia had had it’s surreal moments before, I hadn’t seen anything yet. Things were about to get ‘Apocalypse Now’ weird. There, in the distance, was a sight fit for the depths of Hell. The Iraqis, with no other reasonable course of action presenting itself, had set afire the Al Burqan Oil Fields. For as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but a blazing inferno and thick, choking black smoke. It looked like the end of the world. And I suppose, for many of our unfortunate opponents, it was. If the burning landscape wasn’t surreal enough, many of the Iraqi tank forces had sought refuge from our onslaught by hiding in the burning oil fields. That would be no salvation however, as our Cobra helicopter gunships were picking them off one by one with sidewinder missile strikes. We disembarked the trucks, and watched in utter fascination as the helicopter-tank battle raged right in front of us. To add to the bizarre sense of surrealism, I turned to find nearly out entire company of Marines urinating while they watched. Here we were, battle raging 1000 yards in front of us, fire and explosions keeping us company, and my Marines were taking the opportunity to relieve themselves. I don’t know why, but it was at that moment that I knew we would be okay. As the last few Marines completed doing ‘their business’, a Humvee approached. ‘Who the hell are you guys???’ shouted an unknown Major who was clearly perturbed by our presence. ‘We’re Bravo Company, 1st Bn, 3rd Marines!’ I replied with a smile. ‘Well – right now you’re the lead element of Desert Storm Lt., so I’d suggest you hold up here until the rest of us catch up!’. And so, we held up. And they did catch up with us – Marines from regular and reserve units from all over the United States, British troops as well, by the thousands. Soon were but one wave in a sea of allied forces heading North. And we were soon joined by another force – thousands upon thousands of surrendering Iraqis.

They came over the horizon like wayward children looking for shelter. They had abandoned their weapons, and approached waving white rags and shirts over their head. Many of them were smiling. Some approached us speaking English. ‘What took you so long?’ asked one of them, a kid who looked more like a college student than an Iraqi soldier. He shared that he had been living in the US for several years, in school, but had returned home for a visit when he was ordered into a truck on the street, forced onto it at gunpoint, and given a uniform and a weapon. He’d endured months of air raids to embrace our arrival. Before the day was over, my platoon of 35 Marines had gathered over 1000 Iraqi POWs. Almost all of them carried propaganda leaflets we’d been dropping on Kuwait for months – promising them food, water, and safety if they gave themselves up, death if they didn’t. Trouble was – we didn’t have food or water. We corralled them into tight groups sitting in the sand, and surrounded them with the handful of Marines we could spare. It was a scary thing – because anyone could see, had they wanted to overtake us, they could have done it in seconds.

These Iraqi’s though, wanted nothing of the kind. They knew they were beaten before the ground war even began. Like Sun Tzu’s ideal battle plan, we had defeated them before a shot was fired. Those that didn’t see that were either dead already, or soon would be.

We turned our Iraqi POWs over to reserve Marines who came up to relieve us, and pressed on through the burning oil fields towards our ultimate destination, the Kuwaiti International Airport. It was hard to know what to do. We had no real command, our Battalion leadership far behind us, and we weren’t even sure where the rest of ‘Task Force Ripper’ was.Von Clauswitz’ ‘fog of war’ was more real than I’d ever imagined. So we just kept pushing forward. I was awakened after a few precious hours of sleep on day 2 of the ground war by my radio operator, a Lance Corporal. ‘Sir!’ he excitedly shouted, ‘Sir!!! The sun never came up – what are we going to do???’. I wiped the sleep out of my eyes, trying to solve the incongruence of the black of night I was observing, and the 10am time my watch was showing. ‘You’re right’ I said, ‘the sun didn’t come up. Now just exactly what do you want me to do about that son?” I asked. The burning oil fields of Al Burqan had belched so much black smoke, it was actually obscuring the light of a normal Kuwaiti morning. The sun never did come out that day. And by the end of it, we were covered in soot, oil, and ash.

The rest of the ground war is a blur to me. Wave after wave of surrendering Iraqis appeared. It was beyond comprehension as mass upon mass of them came over the horizon. It was a roiling sea of surrender almost impossible to comprehend. Before we knew it – it was all over. President George Herbert Walker Bush had, to everyone’s dismay, kept his word to the UN. We were not going to invade Baghdad. We were not going to exceed the authority given us by the UN resolutions. We had said we were going to liberate Kuwait, and nothing more, and that’s exactly what we had done.

Desert Storm, and 6 tumultuous months of my life, had drawn to a close.

‘You mean we’re not going to get to wade in our own blood sir?’ asked the most cynical of my squad leaders, Cpl. Mooney. ‘No Mooney. It looks like we might just get to go home one of these days.’

Soon.

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