Fighting to Go Home: Operation Desert Storm, 30 Years Later

Gen. Thomas G. Rhame never thought for a second that he’d lose 30,000 troops—or anything close to it.

During the six-month build-up to Operation Desert Storm, U.S. News and World Report reported that the Pentagon expected upward of 30,000 American troops would be wounded or killed if a shooting war with the Iraqis erupted.

Even the deputy commander-in-chief during Desert Storm, Gen. Calvin A.H. Waller, said he expected a casualty rate of between 20 and 40% of his frontline units and that the war would last just over a week—two days to breach the Iraqi frontline defenses followed by six days of tank battles against the elite Republican Guard.

That was 20 to 40% of more than 500,000 U.S. troops.

But by around 11 a.m., Monday, Feb. 25, 1991, at the moment when Rhame’s 1st Infantry Division had finished off the Iraqi 26th Infantry Division, the troops on the ground knew something the American people back home had not yet learned: The Iraqi army wasn’t nearly as formidable as everyone made them out to be.

Demolition of Iraqi munitions at Khamisiyah munitions depot, March 10, 1991. Photo courtesy of Jack Morgan.

Demolition of Iraqi munitions at Khamisiyah munitions depot, March 10, 1991. Photo courtesy of Jack Morgan.

“We knew that after the Air Force had taken away Saddam’s communications and intelligence gathering capabilities—and damaged his transportation infrastructure,” he told The War Horse. “There wasn’t much he was going to be able to do to counter us.”

Rhame had been taught an attacking force like his should have three times the strength of an entrenched defender, according to Army doctrine. Rhame estimated his force’s strength as 12 times that of the Iraqis, according to war correspondent Rick Atkinson.

“The estimates of casualties we received were so grossly overstated,” he said. “They gave Saddam so much more credit than he deserved. He had a lot of military hardware, but he couldn’t use what he had.”

Sgt. 1st Class Ralph E. Martin had a close look at that impressive array of military hardware. The day after the Iraqis’ “lazy W” line of trenches was breached, Martin and the rest of the division headed toward a chunk of desert known to American military planners as Objective Norfolk, Col. Gregory Fontenot wrote in his 2017 book, The 1st Infantry Division and the U.S. Army Transformed: Road to Victory in Desert Storm. Saddam had built several supply depots there that his troops needed to defend if they expected to stay in the fight.

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No Americans on the ground seemed to know exactly where the enemy was or what they were doing. The weather didn’t help matters much: cold rain, steely wind, and blowing needles of sand. But unlike his Iraqi counterparts, Martin knew his commander’s intent. That’s all he needed to know, really: Move fast. Don’t hesitate. Attack, attack, attack until the fight is over.

As Martin and the rest of his four-man crew prepared themselves for what would come next, his gunner asked what the plan was. Martin was silent as the tank bobbed and weaved along the desert floor. After collecting his thoughts, Martin gave it to his men straight:

“This is what we’re going to do,” he can be heard saying on a recording of the crew’s internal communications network. “We are going to fight until we fucking die.”

The War Never Really Ended

For thousands of American troops like Martin, Operation Desert Storm was the culmination of months of training, tension, and buildup that erupted in hellish fighting—much of it obscured by the fog of war.

On Jan. 16, 1991, President George H. W. Bush announced the beginning of what would be called Operation Desert Storm. Fewer than six months earlier, on Aug. 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein and his army of elite Republican Guard troops invaded the tiny Arab state of Kuwait after the oil-rich nation refused to cancel the debt Iraq had incurred while warring against Iran for most of the 1980s.

After months of failed diplomacy aimed at convincing Saddam to withdraw, the United States and Great Britain, along with a gaggle of nearly 40 countries—the “Coalition of the Willing”—launched a relentless and devastating air offensive that took out key Iraqi defenses and softened up the front lines. Despite widespread fears that Saddam would use chemical weapons against coalition forces, the ground war began Feb. 24 after nearly 40 days of air combat. The ground war ended 100 hours later. All told, somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 Iraqi fighters were killed. Another 100,000 Iraqi civilians are estimated to have died, mostly due to starvation, dehydration, and lack of medical supplies.

If there is a truth to be told about the war all these years later, it’s that it never ended. No wars ever do. The most obvious evidence that Desert Storm never ended is, of course, America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, which created immeasurable blowback that’s still playing out today.

U.S. Marines assigned to the 2nd Marine Division's Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, move out on a mission after disembarking from a CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter during Exercise Imminent Thunder, part of Operation Desert Shield. Photo by Tech. Sgt. H.H. Deffner, courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

U.S. Marines assigned to the 2nd Marine Division’s Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, move out on a mission after disembarking from a CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter during Exercise Imminent Thunder, part of Operation Desert Shield. Photo by Tech. Sgt. H.H. Deffner, courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

In a less visible way, the war has continued in the hearts, minds, and souls of those who fought and survived it. About 12% of Gulf War veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Of the veterans we know died by suicide in 2014, 65% were old enough to have seen action during Desert Storm, Vietnam, or previous conflicts. More than 250,000 U.S. troops who served in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991 were exposed to dangerous plumes of nerve gas and other chemical agents after Iraq’s chemical weapons plants and storage sites were destroyed. As of 2015, veterans of Desert Storm who had been near the plumes were dying of brain cancer at two to three times the rate of troops who were stationed farther behind the front lines. Many others suffer from Gulf War Syndrome, which consists of a series of symptoms, such as chronic headaches, chronic fatigue, and cognitive issues.

While the ground war Rhame and Martin fought famously ended in 100 hours, with a tiny number of casualties compared to what was expected, the struggle about what the war meant, what parts of it we should remember, and what parts we should never forget has continued, like a stubborn insurgency unwilling to admit defeat. For those of us who never served, the 30th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm can feel as insignificant as any other “today in history” factoid. For those who fought and came home, however, the war feels as if it ended only yesterday, and the memories of what they did, what they saw, and how they felt about it will never leave them.

“We didn’t know how we were going to deal.”

On Aug. 7, 1990, the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in Saudi Arabia to prepare for war with Hussein. Among the paratroopers who arrived that summer was 1st Lt. Harry L. Whitlock, an enlisted medic-turned-officer tasked with leading a medical platoon in support of an infantry battalion.

In the months leading up to the invasion, as the Bush administration continued its attempt to diplomatically expel Hussein from Kuwait, Whitlock and his medical platoon did what they always did. They trained.

“We were operating under the expectation that we were going to take lots of casualties,” Whitlock told The War Horse. The scariest threat, by far, was that of Saddam deploying chemical weapons against coalition forces. “We didn’t know how we were going to deal.” The Army’s process for decontaminating soldiers exposed to chemical weapons was labor and resource intensive. They needed lots of water, hot and cold, as well as bleach or other chemical reagents to remove the contaminants.

First Lt. Harry L. Whitlock in a HMMWV (Humvee) near Tallil Air Base, Iraq, March 1991. Photo courtesy of Harry L. Whitlock.

First Lt. Harry L. Whitlock in a HMMWV (Humvee) near Tallil Air Base, Iraq, March 1991. Photo courtesy of Harry L. Whitlock.

“It’s not enough to wash it all off,” Whitlock said. “We were supposed to use our scissors to remove the soldier’s contaminated clothing, and after two or three snips, we were supposed to dip the tools in bleach. It was a long, slow process. I’m thankful Saddam never crossed that line because we would have needed so much help.”

Centralized vs. Decentralized Command and Control

Rhame said he spent much of his time in the months before the war began studying the only other modern, Western military that had gone up against Arab armies—Israel. In 1967 and again in 1973, Israel defended itself against invasion and handily defeated armies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, among other Arab nations. The key to the Israeli’s success was their decentralized command and control, coupled with commanders leading from the front, Rhame said.

Arab armies, on the other hand, tended to have more centralized command and control, meaning that specific orders—as opposed to goals or intent—were handed down from the top to the front-line troops. When something goes wrong—and in war, something always goes wrong—armies with centralized command and control don’t usually react very well. Commanders on the ground in such armies are not trained to improvise, adapt, and overcome like the American soldier is, so when the plan falls apart, they tend to freeze in deference.

Through the course of his studies, Rhame determined the fastest and most effective way to defeat the Iraqis entrenched across the desert was to hit hard and fast with everything he had at his disposal. “I didn’t come here to fight fair,” Rhame told Rick Atkinson at the time. “I came here to put maximum destruction on this son of a bitch with as few American casualties as possible.”

Compared to what little resistance the Iraqis were able to muster to counter Rhame and the 1st Infantry Division, the dark of night and the fog of war proved to be the toughest enemy the Americans would face during Operation Desert Storm.

“They’d fire a few bursts and run away.”

While the 1st Infantry Division steamrolled Iraqi defenses and raced across the desert, Whitlock and his medical platoon were redirected the Iraq’s Tallil Air Base. When they arrived, they found airplane hangars destroyed by coalition bombs. All that was left beneath the metal skeleton of the hangar were short mounds of jagged corrugated steel and the burned remains of Iraqi war planes.

“It took us two days of driving nonstop to get there,” Whitlock told The War Horse. “But it felt like three.” Without doors or sufficient armor to protect his Humvee from Iraqi mines, Whitlock worried about what might happen if he, the medical platoon leader, were to get blown up.

An M1A1 Abrams main battle from the 1st Armored Division advances east through northern Kuwait on Feb. 28, 1991, shortly before a cease-fire was declared. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.

An M1A1 Abrams main battle tank from the 1st Armored Division advances east through northern Kuwait on Feb. 28, 1991, shortly before a cease-fire was declared. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.

“The night before the invasion, we were finally issued flak jackets, but they were all the wrong sizes,” he said. “Our infantrymen got first dibs on jackets that would actually fit them. By the time I got mine, there weren’t any larges left, so I took my medium-sized jacket and used it as a seat cushion. The passenger-side seat in those old Humvees was right above the battery box, which would get hotter and hotter the longer you were driving. The jacket helped with that. We also put sandbags in the wheel wells. They probably wouldn’t have done much to protect us from a mine, but it was all we could do.”

In addition to the detritus of battle, Whitlock and his platoon encountered only scant resistance. A few guys with guns. “They’d fire a few bursts and run away,” Whitlock said.

“Seemed like we did more damage to ourselves than the Iraqis ever did.”

Hell on Wheels

Rhame’s 1st Infantry Division soldiers rushed to catch up with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which had sped out ahead across the wide-open desert as it headed for Objective Norfolk. Once they caught up with the cavalry, they were to pass through the cavalry’s position (that is, perform a “passage of lines”) and continue the fight against Saddam’s Tawakalna Mechanized Division, which had been dispatched to defend the supply depots, fuel tanks, and other logistics installations that lined both sides of a main supply route the Iraqis used to support its units in both southern Iraq and Kuwait, according to Stephen A. Bourque and John W. Burdan III in their 2007 book, The Road to Safwan.

The U.S. Army had not conducted a passage of lines in combat since World War II, and the soldiers tasked with passing through the lines of a friendly force at night against an enemy of unknown strength had never practiced doing so. The Army believed this type of maneuver was too dangerous even to train for, according to Col. Fontenot.

“The plan was relatively simple,” Col. Lon E. Maggart, the commander of the 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade, told Fontenot after the war, “and involved a passage of lines, at night on unfamiliar terrain without any preparation and against an enemy about whom we knew virtually nothing.”

The combination would end in tragedy: American soldiers fired on other Americans in three separate episodes during this push for Norfolk. Of the 148 American troops who were killed in combat during Operation Desert Storm, 35 were killed by so-called friendly fire. The worst of the three episodes occurred in the early morning hours of Feb. 27, under a moonless sky, Atkinson wrote in his 1994 book, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War.

“Every effort was made by commanders to maintain control during what was very obvious, to those who were there, to be a very dangerous and potentially disastrous evening,” Col. David S. Weisman, commander of the 1st Division’s 3rd Brigade, wrote in a report on March 10, 1991.

And yet six American soldiers were killed the morning of Feb. 27. Another 30 were wounded, according to The Road to Safwan. Five tanks and the same number of Bradleys had been knocked out by depleted uranium shells—a type of tank round only fired by American tanks during Desert Storm.

Shortly before nine the evening of Feb. 26, Rhame’s 1st Infantry Division was ready to pass through the area controlled by the 2nd Cavalry, near the Kuwait border. On the way to their designated passage lanes, 1st Infantry Division troops passed the burning, stinking wreckage of an Iraqi mechanized brigade that had recently met its match. On the horizon, they saw huge explosions and massive fires raging, according to Bourque and Burdan. For the next several hours, they attacked two Iraqi brigades without rest, destroying everything in their way—including each other.

Image of Tallil Air Base taken by photojournalist from an aircraft overhead. The four vehicles in the upper left are from the battalion’s medical platoon, which set up shop in the side building directly behind them. Photo by Sgt. Nathan Webster, courtesy of U.S. Army.

Image of Tallil Air Base taken from an aircraft overhead. The four vehicles in the upper left are from the battalion’s medical platoon, which set up shop in the side building directly behind them. Photo by Sgt. Nathan Webster, courtesy of U.S. Army.

The Iraqi defenders at Norfolk buried their tanks in the sand so that only the turrets were visible—perhaps because they knew they did not have the night-vision or heat-seeking technology they would need to fight at night against American armor. The Iraqis also seem to have been caught off guard by the Americans attacking at night, for many of their tanks were not running or were unmanned, which means they did not show up on American thermal sights, according to The Road to Safwan.

A platoon of Bradleys moved across the Iraqi defenses that night, silhouetted against the orange glow of the burning Iraqi tanks behind them, unaware of their enemy’s presence in the darkness. The initial Iraqi volley of fire hit one of the Bradleys, killing three soldiers inside. Before the Iraqis could get off a second volley, an American tank company that had been trailing the Bradleys silenced the guns on three T-55 tanks. During the melee, tanks from the 1st Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade opened fire on a group of American tanks approaching the battle.

Several factors contributed to the tragedy. Chief among them were sheer exhaustion, itchy trigger fingers, and misidentification of targets, Robert Burns from The Associated Press reported. Tank gunners who had been up for days peered through their heat-detecting sights at what one officer quoted in Fontenot’s book described as “raining mud” and mistook the flashes of Iraqi rocket-propelled grenades bouncing off the thick steel of M1A1 tanks for Iraqi cannon bursts.

“Our equipment is so lethal,” Weisman told the AP, “that there is no room for mistakes.”

At the same time, the brilliant success of the overall battle, which Weisman called “the most demanding and difficult battle any soldier would ever encounter,” far outweighed the mistakes the soldiers made, he said. Weismann found “no dereliction of duty nor malicious intent” during his investigation of the incidents, according to Fontenot. The friendly fire deaths occurred, he continued, due “to the confusion, the excitement, the ‘fog of war’ and reaction of young soldiers to their first real contact with the enemy during the conduct of a tremendously difficult mission.”

In the hour after the last incident of friendly fire, the 1st Infantry Division regained its composure and methodically destroyed dozens of enemy tanks, armored vehicles, and trucks, Fontenot wrote.

“They just kept on shooting,” Gen. Rhame said. “It was like a steady drumbeat: Just keep moving forward. That’s what we were trained to do, and that’s what we did.”

By eight that morning, the 1st Infantry Division had fought its way across Objective Norfolk. Nine or 10 battalions of Iraqi armor had been reduced to nothing more than metal funeral pyres.

Rhame halted his tanks while his troops disarmed and sent westward hundreds of Iraqi prisoners, understanding his mission—his commander’s intent—must be accomplished at all costs, including the heartbreak of his troops at the unintentional deaths of their own.

The Iraqis also faced distress.

“We’re facing a broken enemy,” Rhame radioed the commander of VII Corps. “Contact is light.”

Rhame knew his men had the fortitude to continue the fight. “I’d like to press east to Objective Denver,” he continued, according to Atkinson. Rhame was referencing a point on the map 40 miles ahead of his position, the Basrah-Kuwait City highway, also known as Highway 80. It was there that Rhame believed the last vestiges of the Iraqi Army could be cut off and defeated as they poured across the border and back to their home soil.

“I don’t want to think of people as hamburger meat ever, ever, ever again.”

Joanne Palella was a sergeant in the U.S. Army’s VII Corps during Desert Storm. As a heavy vehicle driver, Palella had specialized training in transporting munitions. If it could explode or make something else explode, she hauled it. She was also tasked with mopping up after coalition forces laid waste to Iraqi defensive positions, she told the Veterans History Project.

“Mopping up” is a relatively benign term the military uses to describe the task of cleaning up the aftermath of battle. “We had to go through there and pick up the tanks that were partly survived [sic],” Palella remembered years later. They had to “clean up and—pick up explosives and, you know, pick up if there was dead inside the tanks, scrape them out and leave them for the engineers.”

“It just stunk horribly, and that was a horrible memory.”

What had begun as a conventional ground war between two mechanized—albeit unequal—armies had quickly devolved into an unceremonious massacre. The “Highway of Death,” as it came to be known, was the site of the most lopsided of such battles. Over the course of two days, coalition aircraft and ground forces laid waste to some 1,400 vehicles of all shapes and sizes—as well as their occupants—killing thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians while they tried to flee from Kuwait City, north along Highway 80 to Safwan. What was left in the wake of such overwhelming firepower can only be described as a wasteland. President Bush announced a halt to the fighting the following day.

A place the troops called “Death Valley.” Photo courtesy of Joanne Palella/Veterans History Project.

A place the troops called “Death Valley.” Photo courtesy of Joanne Palella/Veterans History Project.

“We made a joke,” Palella remembered, her voice filled with regret in the Veterans History Project tape. “Hamburger meat. Because that’s what it looked like when they were open and then, you know, bloated for three days, and anatomies of their bodies were like, you know, baseballs, and we made jokes of that. It was the only thing we could do. Though, I did vomit the first time we were there. I don’t want to think of people as hamburger meat ever, ever, ever again.”

On another occasion, Palella and her unit were ordered to recover a Bradley that had been turned into a burning husk of metal by an American-made depleted uranium tank round.

“It was a very sad day,” Palella remembered during her interview with the Veterans History Project. “Three soldiers died that day, and they were killed by friendly fire, and one of the guys was a best friend of who he killed. It was pretty bad.”

“I don’t ever want to see war again,” she said. “I will fight a war when it’s in my own backyard on my own land. Otherwise, I won’t go.”

On Sept. 21, 1992, a subcommittee from the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing before the U.S. Congress on illness in veterans of Operation Desert Storm. Among the materials submitted for the record is a letter Palella wrote to Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, the acting chairman of the subcommittee. In it she details how quickly her health deteriorated after returning to Germany with her unit in August 1991.

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“In June 1991 I received my first attack on the right side of my head,” Palella wrote. “I could not look at any form of light without extreme pain. My vision blurred on my right eye and the hole [sic] right side of my face felt numb yet painful at the same time. I still feel this pain at present and it has not gone back to normal ever since.”

Palella then found out she had a tumor growing on the upper right side of her brain. She experienced cluster headaches. And then doctors diagnosed her with trigeminal neuralgia, which can be caused by exposure to toxins.

“At the present time, I have more ribbons and awards then [sic] most high-ranking non-commissioned officers,” she continued, “but now, I am a burden to the United States Army. I cannot wear a mask or a helmet, thus I am non-deployable.”

“I have felt pain for so long that I would give my right arm to be free of it.”

Palella was encouraged to medically retire. She was told she could claim around 15% disability. But she didn’t want to retire, she said. She didn’t want the disability compensation, either.

“I am going to have brain surgery the 29 September 1992, at Bethesda Navy hospital,” she wrote. “I have a 50/50 chance of success.

“Why am I not being given any answers?” she asked. “At least I should receive a purple heart, it could sit and rot away with my other medals, awards and ribbons, just like me.”

“Orders were to destroy everything. So that’s what we did.”

Charles Miles turned 20 not long before the ground war against Iraq kicked off. He was a private first class, a loader in a tank attached to the 24th Infantry Division. On the morning of March 2, two days after President Bush declared a cessation of hostilities, the 24th Infantry Division’s commander, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, reported that a retreating tank division from the Republican Guard had attacked his division with artillery, anti-tank missiles, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades near the Rumaila oil field, west of Basra.

McCaffrey ordered his men to attack.

Miles’ tank, along with 27 others and two companies of infantrymen, slammed into the tail end of a bottled-up, five-mile-long column of Iraqi trucks, trailers, and tanks after several hours of devastating fire from Apache attack helicopters, Bradleys, and artillery units. Most of the vehicles trapped on the causeway had been reduced to burning hunks of metal, rubber, and charred flesh. The stink of death, acrid plumes of black smoke, and the smell of spent tank and machine gun rounds choked the air.

“Orders were to destroy everything,” Miles told The War Horse, “So that’s what we did.”

Retired Army Lt. Col. Fred Wellman led a scout platoon of Bell OH-58 Kiowa helicopters in an Apache battalion in the 24th Infantry Battalion. McCaffrey sent in Wellman’s platoon. Wellman was lead scout. They spent an hour “working the highway,” Wellman said.

“The Country Is Ours,” signed “82nd.” The work of two soldiers serving in the 82nd Airborne, the defaced mural of Saddam Hussein was located near the front gate of Tallil Air Base. Photo courtesy of Harry L. Whitlock.

“The Country Is Ours,” signed “82nd.” The work of two soldiers serving in the 82nd Airborne, the defaced mural of Saddam Hussein was located near the front gate of Tallil Air Base. Photo courtesy of Harry L. Whitlock.

“The cav was pulling out, and then we came in and just wreaked havoc,” he told The War Horse. “We blew up a lot of tanks that day. They were lined up pretty as can be on a causeway trying to get across the river.”

Several roads converged on one bridge, so the birds encountered end-to-end vehicles and tanks, Wellman said. Footage from the battle appears often in documentaries about the war.

“It’s like missile. Boom. Missile. Boom. Missile. Boom,” Wellman said. “They do all the things Apaches do.”

McCaffrey later described the carnage to the Senate Armed Services Committee as “one of the most astounding scenes of destruction I have ever participated in.”

The violence was entirely justified, he assured senators in testimony. In response to questions posed by Seymour Hersh for an article he wrote about the Battle of the Causeway for The New Yorker, McCaffrey wrote that he believed his actions were “appropriate and warranted in order to defend my troops against unknown and largely unknowable enemy forces and intentions.”

“If I had not proceeded as I did,” he continued, “and had American soldiers of the 24th ID [Infantry Division] suffered substantial casualties, postwar analysts would not be asking if I acted too aggressively, but would rightly condemn me for sitting still in the face of a possible major enemy attack.”

Some who were there that day dispute McCaffrey’s version of events, as detailed in Hersh’s article. Taken together, these accounts suggest that McCaffrey’s offensive was less of a “counterattack provoked by enemy fire” and more of a “systematic destruction of Iraqis who were generally fulfilling the requirements of the retreat.”

“It was crazy,” Miles told The War Horse. “It was chaos.”

The tanks had been told they were “weapons free,” Miles said, “which meant that whatever was on the road was a valid target. I shot what I was told to shoot.”

But that was the whole problem. “Who knows how many—or if there were any—civilians that were mixed up in the chaos,” Miles said. “It’s my belief that there were some.”

One of the Iraqi vehicles that was destroyed that day was a bus. “The precise number of its occupants who were injured or killed is not known,” Hersh wrote, “but they included civilians and children.”

At some point during the lopsided destruction, Miles stood up out of his hatch. About a hundred meters in front of him, an American tank erupted. The wave from the huge vertical explosion slammed Miles backward into his hatch. He took cover inside the tank. Through his periscope all he could see was fire and smoke. And men fleeing from the wreckage.

“In an M1A1, the engineering is so smart,” Miles explained. “We stored our ammo in a separate compartment, so if somehow the ammo ignited, either from enemy fire or whatever, the explosion was directed straight up instead of into the turret.”

A Bradley tank that was hit by an M1 tank. Friendly fire killed three of its crew members. Photo courtesy of Joanne Palella/Veterans History Project.

A Bradley tank that was hit by an M1 tank. Friendly fire killed three of its crew members. Photo courtesy of Joanne Palella/Veterans History Project.

Miles raced to the burning tank. Machine guns erupted all around him. Everything was on fire.

Before the invasion, Miles completed combat lifesaver training. “I knew how to place an IV and keep someone alive, hopefully, until a real medic could get there,” he said.

“No one had been killed, thankfully, but those guys were dazed. They were able to stand and walk, huddled down,” Miles said. “I’m certain the crew suffered TBIs [traumatic brain injuries], but they lived.”

Here’s what Miles thinks happened: When the tank’s loader—Miles himself was a loader—loads a tank round, he must first operate a switch with his knee that rolls open a three-inch-thick steel door that separates the crew from the tank’s ammo storage. Miles thinks that something flammable must have fallen into the compartment before the door could roll shut. “It could have been part of the combustible casings we used,” Miles told The War Horse. The case base of the shell was made of metal. The projectile itself is wrapped in a combustible case that is supposed to be completely consumed during firing.

After helping the crew into an M103 heavy tank that the division’s medics were using as an ambulance, Miles and the rest of the division’s tanks pulled off the road to take up a holding position. About an hour later, they were ordered to fire on the now-empty American tank that had blown up. While the explosion made the tank inoperable, much of the tank’s valuable electronic equipment had not been damaged. Commanders didn’t want the technology to fall into enemy hands.

“Everything was wiped out,” Miles said about the battle’s aftereffects. “There was nothing left.”

Don’t you want your prisoners back?

As the Iraqi generals pulled up in a pack of Humvees to the armistice tent near Safwan on March 3, 1991, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. had two things on his mind, Atkinson wrote. First, he wasn’t there to negotiate. “I’m not here to give them anything,” he said at the time. “I’m here to tell them exactly what they have to do.”

Kuwait had been saved. Saudi sovereignty had survived. Oil reserves had been secured. Saddam’s army had been ground to dust. Not since the end of World War II had an aggressor been so thoroughly humiliated in defeat.

Second, Schwarzkopf didn’t want to embarrass his Iraqi counterparts. “I don’t want them humiliated,” he told his officers.

Three days before the meeting with the Iraqi Generals, Schwarzkopf decided to host it near Safwan airfield, which he believed at the time was under American control. But when the cease-fire took effect at eight in the morning, Iraqi time, Feb. 28, the 1st Infantry Division was still 10 miles from Safwan.

The best course of action, it was decided, was to send an armored brigade from the 1st Infantry Division on March 1 to circle the Iraqi soldiers still at the airfield and force their surrender.

Tell the Iraqi commander on the ground there, Gen. Rhame told his officers, according to Atkinson, “that if he doesn’t leave by 1600 [4 p.m.] you’re going to kill him. You’re going to kill all his forces and attack right through them.”

“Let’s circle back to the idea of centralized command and control,” Rhame told The War Horse. “Imagine this: You’re an Iraqi captain and you’ve got maybe 150 soldiers, and he’s looking out above of his trenches and sees us—maybe 60 tanks and all these artillery pieces. There’s no way he can defend against us, but he also knows that he might be beheaded if he surrenders.”

An ammunition specialist carries a 105 mm armor-piercing, discarding sabot round, to be used in an M1 Abrams tank, during Desert Shield. Photo by Sgt. Brain Cumper, courtesy of U.S. Army.

An ammunition specialist carries a 105 mm armor-piercing, discarding sabot round, to be used in an M1 Abrams tank, during Desert Shield. Photo by Sgt. Brain Cumper, courtesy of U.S. Army.

“We were under orders not to shoot unless we were being shot at,” Rhame said. So instead of tank rounds, we used our words to convince that captain to drop his weapons and leave.”

With the Iraqi generals seated at a wooden table inside the tent, Schwarzkopf unrolled a map of the region. Nearly a fifth of Iraq was occupied by coalition troops, , according to the map. The Iraqis were stunned. They had no idea how badly they had been beat.

The next topic of discussion concerned prisoners of war. “We have, as of last night, 60 thousand,” Schwarzkopf told the generals, according to Atkinson. “Sixty thousand plus.” The figure was closer to 70,000. Again, the generals were stunned. This was all news to them.

Schwarzkopf was adamant about the cease-fire line drawn onto the map laid out before everyone. He also needed the generals to disclose the locations of all minefields and to release American and other coalition troops who had been taken prisoner by the Iraqis.

The defeated generals agreed.

Gen. Rhame remembered how unconcerned the Iraqi generals seemed about the well-being of their troops. After they agreed to release coalition prisoners—including the Kuwaitis—Schwarzkopf had to ask if the Iraqis wanted their prisoners back. It seemed as though the thought had never crossed their mind, Rhame said. “They were much, much more concerned about the cease-fire boundary and whether we planned to keep that land for ourselves.”

“You have my word,” Schwarzkopf assured them. “There is no intention of that being a permanent line at all.”

The suffering and dying didn’t end with the cease-fire.

At around two in the morning of March 5, Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Brasfield—Whitlock’s boss and the battalion’s physician assistant—was awakened from a fitful sleep to the news that a mechanic named Sgt. Mannix Pullens had driven over an American cluster munition.

The CBU-87 cluster bomb dispenses 202 BLU-97 bomblets (highly sensitive mines that cannot be defused) that were designed to sprinkle an area 800 feet by 400 feet. These cluster bombs made their combat debut during Operation Desert Storm.

The U.S. Air Force dropped 13,941 CBU-87s containing 2,027,070 BLU-97s, according to a New York Times investigation. About 20% of those bomblets (approximately 405,000 in total) failed to detonate. Pullens was only one of scores of American troops who have been wounded or killed by these mines in the years since the war.

Brasfield rushed to take care of the soldier.

“I carefully made my way to the casualty and began to assess the situation,” Brasfield wrote in his journal two days later. Buried under layers of blankets, random bits of clothing, parkas, and poncho liners, Pullens shivered in the bitter cold of night. “He was alert and oriented, and he was in better spirits than I would have imagined,” Brasfield wrote.

Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Brasfield (battalion physician assistant), 1st Lt. Harry L. Whitlock (medical platoon leader), and 1st Lt. Mark Stevens (mortar platoon leader), taken on Christmas Day 1990 at Champion Main compound in Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy of Harry L. Whitlock.

Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Brasfield (battalion physician assistant), 1st Lt. Harry L. Whitlock (medical platoon leader), and 1st Lt. Mark Stevens (mortar platoon leader), taken on Christmas Day 1990 at Champion Main compound in Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy of Harry L. Whitlock.

Pullens’ face, chest, and his right leg and foot were pocked by shrapnel. Blood soaked through the bandage someone wrapped around his foot, so Brasfield removed it. “A great deal of the inside of his foot was missing,” he remembered. “Bone, blood vessels, and nerve was exposed. Blood continually oozed from the wound.”

While Brasfield redressed the wound, Whitlock was back at Tallil Air Base trying to raise a helicopter to medically evacuate Pullens to a field hospital where he could receive the treatment he needed if he wanted to keep the foot.

“I was told that the Dustoff was inbound,” Brasfield wrote, “but actually it wasn’t. The story changed a dozen times in the hour that we waited for it. Finally word came down that the mission had been aborted and we were on our own.”

For Whitlock, not being able to get Pullens out of there as quickly as possible was beyond frustrating. “I felt powerless,” he told The War Horse. “Helpless, really.”

“I remember an officer, Joe Shevlin was his name, calling on the radio: ‘Any allied aircraft. Any allied aircraft. Request immediate medical evacuation.’ Nothing but silence and static.”

A few years after the war ended, Pullens died by suicide. Brasfield took the news particularly hard.

Trading Syndromes: Vietnam to Iraq

After 89 hours of near-constant fighting, the U.S. Army’s VII Corps had penetrated more than 160 miles into Iraqi territory; captured 22,000 enemy soldiers; and obliterated 1,350 Russian-built tanks, 1,224 armored personnel carriers, 285 artillery pieces, 105 air defense systems, and 1,229 trucks.

And that was just VII Corps.

Thirty years later, Gen. Rhame looked back on those 100 hours at the end of February 1991 and sees them for what they were: The third act in a play that began two decades before, deep in the jungles of Vietnam. As a company commander in the 1st Cavalry Division from 1967-1968 and as an adviser to the Vietnamese in 1970, Rhame had cut his teeth fighting an enemy that could not be beaten by traditional military might.

The medical platoon at Tallil Air Base, Iraq, March 1991. Chief Jeff Brasfield holds a Red Crescent flag found at the air base. Whitlock is to his left. Photo courtesy of Harry L. Whitlock.

The medical platoon at Tallil Air Base, Iraq, March 1991. Chief Jeff Brasfield holds a Red Crescent flag found at the air base. Whitlock is to his left. Photo courtesy of Harry L. Whitlock.

He then came home to a country embarrassed by defeat that had lost its faith in institutions and no longer believed America could accomplish much of anything with military intervention abroad. In the years after the Vietnam War ended, Rhame vowed to help restore honor to his profession. With their brilliantly successful venture in Iraq, Rhame and the half-million American boots on the ground helped, at long last, to kick America’s “Vietnam syndrome.”

“There was no more powerful symbol of the transformation than the helicopters landing Marines on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait,” wrote E.J. Dionne Jr. in The Washington Post on March 4, 1991. “The last collective memory of helicopters hovering above an embassy involved the chaotic evacuation of Americans and their local allies from Saigon as North Vietnamese troops closed in on the city.”

But what about an “Iraq syndrome”? Did Desert Storm convince Americans that their troops were 10 feet tall and bulletproof, that the American military was invincible, that a new American century was about to begin?

“All I can say,” Congressman David R. Obey told Dionne, “is that I hope it doesn’t make the world safe for ill-advised wars.”

What’s much harder to quantify, of course, are the aftereffects of Desert Storm, which echo across the lives of those who fought and survived. For some, like Gen. Rhame, the war is something to be remembered. It is something for which he can feel exhilaration and pride. The war was a remarkable event, he said. The American military was well led, and he and his troops were afforded the opportunity to “execute the ground war with the total flexibility needed to produce victory.”

“Our soldiers performed beyond that seen in previous conflicts,” he wrote to The War Horse.

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For others, like Harry Whitlock, Joanne Palella, Fred Wellman, and Charles Miller, there is pride, but there is also something closer to nostalgia. When Whitlock looks back on those days in the desert, it’s not like he wishes he were back there. It’s more like he’s glad he went through it, in retrospect, and he’s glad he’ll never have to go through it again.

After Chief Brasfield passed away in 2015, his wife gave Whitlock the diary Brasfield kept while he was overseas. In a passage written on March 7, 1991, Brasfield sums up nicely what Whitlock said he still feels today.

“We’re all tired now, mentally and physically,” Brasfield wrote. “We are all ready to go home. Seven long months in the desert. Seven long months of being away from family and friends.

“It almost seems like a very bad dream having been here. Of course there have been some good times, but the bad far outweighs the good. I may kiss the ground/tarmac at Pope when I arrive. Eleven more days until we catch a freedom bird home.

“Home. A place far, far away.”

This War Horse feature was reported by David Chrisinger, contributed to by Kelly Kennedy, edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Ben Kalin, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar.

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David Chrisinger

David Chrisinger is the executive director of the Public Policy Writing Workshop at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and the director of writing seminars for The War Horse. He is the author of several books, including The Soldier’s Truth: Ernie Pyle and the Story of World War II and Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing about Trauma. In 2022, he was the recipient of the 2022 George Orwell Award.

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