My memories of Desert Shield and Desert Storm are a surreal patchwork of alternately intense, funny, and bizarre moments.
If war is hell, pre-war must certainly be purgatory. Waiting for George Herbert Walker Bush, the UN, and Saddam Hussein to figure out if they were going to kiss and make up, or have a little Mid-East throw down, felt like it could last forever. After a few months of ‘the wait’, the consensus of my Marines was that anything was better than sitting out in the middle of the Saudi desert, training day after day, and waiting for the next sunrise to come. Excitement, even of the bloody, dangerous, violent kind began to look awfully attractive. Marines have become so accustomed to weathering the drudgery of agonizing delays over the past 200 years, they’ve developed an entire way of life around it, the ‘hurry up and wait’ philosophy.
Hold up a Marine unit for more than 15 minutes in one place, and you’ll bear witness to the prime imperative of ‘hurry up and wait-ing’: when going nowhere fast, regardless of the time of day, weather, or location, it’s always a good idea to stop where you are, lay down on the ground, and sleep. When this approach wears thin, starting an argument, usually over whose girlfriend is most likely sleeping with some college kid back home, is good old-fashioned fun and a great time-killer. A closely related activity involves elaborate schemes to entice the ‘newbie’ (or ‘boot’ as Marines fondly call the poor bastard) into humiliating himself for the entertainment of the group. After 2 months in the deserts south of Kuwait, even these time-honored recreational activities began to lose their luster. My Marines needed entertainment, and they needed it badly.
Marines are gym rats by nature. Whether it’s simply a subconscious urge to be in the best shape possible should they find themselves in combat, or just a survival instinct to burn off as much nervous energy as possible, Marines work out. A lot. And it doesn’t matter where they are. Marines have invented some of the most brutally exotic exercises known to man, most of which require nothing more than the ground, a Marine, and a fondness for self-inflicted pain. The side-straddle-hop, flutter kicks, ‘Marine Corp pushups’, bend and thrusts, mountain climbers, the ‘daily seven’, these are their tools of self-torture. But in a sandy wasteland, with no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no internet (Al Gore hadn’t invented it yet), my Marines were looking for something more substantial to do.
The Flintstone Family Fitness Center was born.
When we weren’t training or cleaning our weapons, my Marines were filling sandbags. Our positions were glorified holes in the ground, reinforced with thousands of them. Our positions were camouflaged with poles and desert netting to protect us from aerial detection. Given the state of the Iraqi Air Force (their pilots were grounded because they kept flying into Saudi airspace and surrendering), we felt we could put these materials to better use creating an airy, inviting recreational space. My Marines got into it, and the next thing we knew a gym had sprung out of the desert sand. Dip and pull-up bars made from ammo pallets, weight benches forged out of MRE boxes, and free weight bars made by strapping sandbags filled with various amounts of sand to cammie poles, it was a fully functional gym complete with Flintstone-themed signage. A month later, we were still bored, but we were in the best shape of our lives.
You had to seize the opportunity for entertainment wherever you could find it. My Marines were losing focus during this protracted stretch waiting for a war that might, or might not come. I thought then, and still believe, sometimes, it’s good to shake things up a little, break a few rules, do something unexpected. One night while doing practice night assaults in our AAVs, I arranged for the driver to head the vehicles not at a fictitious enemy occupying some dune, but at a local gas station. Exiled to the desert since our arrival, even on the rare occasions we were trucked back to civilization, we were strictly forbidden to leave the compound or interact with locals. With a thunderous roar (nothing sounds as ominous as tracked vehicles driving on pavement), we pulled up behind the store.
‘Five minutes’ I said. ‘Get what you want, pay for it, and be on the tracks in five minutes’. My Marines stared at me in disbelief, a ‘you’ve got to be ****ing with me’ look on every face. I was a by-the-book officer. With a joyous whooping and hollering I hadn’t heard in months, they were off. I have no idea what the store owner thought when 20 armed Marines stormed into his little store, but they came out with a king’s ransom in unidentifiable Saudi snacks and drinks. Only an Arabic coca-cola can was readily identifiable. Although they were sworn to secrecy, forced to gorge on their spoils before returning to camp, this small adventure boosted my Marine’s morale for a month.
A fateful January approached. We’d trained, and sweated, and waited, and secretly, worried for almost 4 months. Still there was no war. There was only training, and planning, and more waiting while we prepared for the worst – the task of throwing a brutal dictator’s thugs out of a country they’d occupied like unwelcome squatters in the nicest neighborhood in town. Still, even in that foreboding atmosphere, you didn’t have to look far to find humor. One day just before Christmas, trucks appeared at our defensive position. From the back were thrown 4 months of care packages from names, addresses, towns, and cities we didn’t recognize. ‘Any Marine’ they were addressed. And there was good news. WE were ‘Any Marine’.
The officers stepped aside, enjoying the sudden and absolute loss of control as Bravo Company ripped into package after package. Shaving gear, stationary, aftershave, soap, lifesavers, there were plenty of bland necessities in those packages. But there were 3 huge packages that contained items grander than the rest, items talked about for months afterwards. One of them, from some tiny town in Minnesota, contained 500 lbs of venison jerky. The second held, inexplicably, an equal number of kites – yes, kites. What possessed some well-intentioned patriot to send a crate of kites halfway around the world to a group of combat Marines, I’ll never know. And yet, there they were. The last box contained 100 disposable cameras from the 7-11 company.
In the space of a single hour, all semblance of unit discipline was gone. Bravo company, stranded in the desert miles from anything even remotely civilized was gorged on venison jerky, with no less than 100 kites in the air. Those that didn’t have a kite were taking pictures of those flying kites. It was a jerky-eating, kite-flying, photo-snapping orgy of epic proportion. I smile as I sit here thinking about it. Unbelievably, I do not have a photo of this event. Rest assured though, lots of other people do. The kites flew long into that cold Saudi night, likely striking mortal fear into the hearts of those invaders to the North. What kind of beast be these Marines, who fly kites to mock us before the fight? No doubt.
The next morning, Christmas Eve, our Battalion Commander had scheduled a 30 mile force march. Nothing says ‘Peace on Earth, Good Will to Man’ like a force march. We started out at 5 a.m. in the dark. As the sun came up the entire battalion formation crested the hill looking over our defensive area. As far as the eye could see, strewn about the ground in an impenetrable tangle of string and plastic, were the kites. No one said a word, except Captain Carretti our company commander, who uttered the immortal words ‘For God’s sake, collect up those damn kites!’. It’s the special moments that etch themselves forever in our memory.
Christmas morning, we Lieutenants awoke early and gathered round a small plastic tree a loving Marine wife had carefully decorated with tiny Saddam voodoo dolls to share a cocoa toast. I said private thanks that I was with some of the finest Marines I’d ever known. Lt’s Kris Stillings, Greg Branigan, Tim Oliver, Leonard Difrancesi, great guys and outstanding Marine officers all. We knew ‘the wait’ couldn’t last much longer. UN blather and ‘negotiations’ were becoming increasingly futile. Things were happening. We were no longer alone in the desert. It was getting downright crowded. Hell, even the reservists were showing up, a sure sign that Armageddon could not be far behind. One way or another, we’d spent more time in the desert than we had still to endure.
After our force march, we’d been instructed to pull back and take our place digging into a Battalion defensive circle, spread out over roughly a mile with the Battalion CP in the center. Late Christmas afternoon, we decided to hold a formal Company formation. We had some Marines to promote, and some awards to give. As we got our Marines into formation, the Battalion was still making final defensive preparations, just in case Saddam decided a Christmas surprise would be good idea and headed south. Our company mortars were preparing to ‘seat baseplates’. A necessary step in preparing to fire real explosive rounds, the mortars ‘seated baseplates’ by firing off magnesium illumination rounds designed to explode in mid-air and float harmlessly to the ground via parachute.
Our formation ready, our Marines stepped front and center to take the oath of promotion to their next rank. As Captain Carretti prepared to address the Marines, we were serenaded by the unmistakable ‘thump, thump, thump’ of mortar rounds leaving their tubes at high velocity. The entire formation paused to stare off in the distance, waiting for the illumination rounds to open and deploy in the distance. ‘Pop, pop, pop, pop’ came the sound of the flares opening and igniting, but oddly, the brightly burning magnesium rounds were no where to be seen in the distance.
In unison, like some badly choreographed dance troupe, the entire company turned to locate the brilliantly burning illum rounds drifting slowly down to the ground. Someone at Battalion HQ had countermanded the direction of fire calculated by one of our Lt’s, and the mortars had been fired directly over the Battalion position. We watched with a mixture of horror and secret guilty glee as the rounds landed directly on the Battalion Headquarters tents, as a stream of frantic clerks and aides led by a bellowing Sgt. Major rushed to put out the flames.
‘Whose mortars are those?’ Captain Carretti asked infamously.
Sometimes you just couldn’t make this stuff up.
By early January we were on the move again, inching our way nearly to the Kuwait border. Things were heating up now with rumors of an air campaign that would break the will of the Iraqi’s and bring surrender without the need for a ground campaign. We knew better. The one constant in every battle ever fought is that, ultimately, it is won by the troops on the ground. We had no delusions. An air campaign only meant more delays, and more waiting. We’d been told Saddam had enough artillery and chemical weapons to kill us 1000 times over. We’d been told we’d have to make it through huge trenches filled with burning oil just to get to his troops. We were told if we survived and were captured, we’d experience torture beyond belief. We didn’t care. We had a job to do, and the only thing between us and a trip home was throwing 500,000 Iraqi’s out of the neighborhood.
‘It’s those Iraqi’s that need to worry’ said one of my Lance Corporals after a typical doom-and-gloom unit intelligence briefing ‘Because now, they’ve really gone and pissed me off’. Damn skippy.
On the night of January 17th, 1991, we were occupying our defensive positions just over the border from Kuwait near the Coastal Highway that runs along the eastern edge of Saudi Arabia. It was a beautiful clear night and with almost no ambient light to compete, you could see every star in the sky. Suddenly, I noticed some of the stars were moving – in fact lots of them were. Putting on night vision goggles, I saw thousands of specks, American bombers and fighters it turns out, heading north overhead to launch a devastating opening barrage in what would be a protracted air campaign. Like listening to some surreal Super Bowl, we caught the play-by-play from the BBC on a transistor radio, while the ground around us shook ominously and the flash of explosions danced in the distance. There wouldn’t be a peaceful resolution to this – we were going north one way or another, and soon. The endless training, the tedium, the wait was almost over.
This war was on.