“Halt, or I’ll Shoot”—an Army Veteran Reflects on Operation Desert Storm
My New Year’s resolution for 1991 was simple: Stay alert, stay low, and stay alive.
Simple, yes. Easy? I wasn’t so sure. At least that was my thought as I drove my five-ton tractor truck through a cleared berm into Iraq on Feb. 24, the first day of the ground war during Desert Storm. I sat on my flak vest so that if I hit a mine, it could maybe save my ass—literally. But I was hauling 5,000 gallons of volatile jet propulsion fuel. Realistically, my flak vest probably wasn’t going to be much help if things went boom near my touchy cargo. But it was my own damn fault. I had volunteered for the job.
I was a specialist, fuel handler, one each, with Company A, 9-227 Aviation Support Battalion, Aviation Brigade, 3rd Armored Division. During the ground war, seven of us were detached as a forward arming and refueling point to support Task Force Viper. As such, we supported the various attack, transport, scout, and command helicopters during the assault.
Not exactly glorious or gung-ho, but I was neither anyway. Prior to the ground war, battalion asked for volunteers to go with the task force, which would follow close behind the front-line units as they charged into Iraq. The rest of the battalion would follow from the rear.
Stay with the battalion? Screw that.
Weeks after arriving in Saudi Arabia, I was tired of the battalion dog-and-pony show, Scud missiles and MOPP 4, dumping contaminated fuel into the dunes while being chased by Bedouins, burning human waste, and living in cramped tents. I wanted freedom and wide-open spaces. I raised my hand.
So, there I was, driving into enemy territory with 5,000 gallons of potentially flaming death close behind me while visions of 10,000 U.S. casualties danced in my head. Sure, there had been rosy reports of the Air Force bombing the Iraqis into the Stone Age, and of Saddam Hussein fleeing the country and his government collapsing, but I was hearing this horseshit from a lieutenant, who heard it from a captain, who heard it from some colonel, who read a report from division. As they say, bullshit rolls downhill. But shit was shit was shit, and I felt I was knee-deep in it.
Until I wasn’t. Sort of.
The so-called 100-hour war went rather quickly and smoothly, relatively speaking. Time flies when you’re refueling helicopters day and night and constantly moving. The Blackhawks, Hueys, Kiowas, and Apaches would land, get topped off, then fly off to their next mission, whether scouting, transporting, or bombing the crap out of some hapless Iraqi unit. We were good at hot refueling the helos: filling them up while their rotors were still running to minimize their time on the ground.
The Blackhawks had an exhaust port next to the fuel receptacle, so you got blasted with hot air while refueling. The fuel receptacle on the Apache was placed in an awkward location high off the ground, so you had to climb over and stand on the Hellfire missile racks while maneuvering the heavy nozzle into the receptacle. One little slip and you could drop the hose and nozzle on the missiles, or you’d fall to the ground, which would be embarrassing. The Apache is a cool attack platform, but whoever designed the location of the fuel receptacle was an idiot.
All the helos were loud, so we didn’t do a lot of chitchat while refueling. We got to learn each helo’s distinct sound, so even before we saw them coming, we’d hear them and know what kind they were. Even today I still have a visceral reaction whenever I hear one.
While we lowly fuel handlers never interacted with the pilots, we got the distinct impression that they were cocky assholes. They rarely paid attention to our hand signals as we guided them in to land. One time, I was guiding a Blackhawk in and the pilot, for whatever reason, decided he didn’t want to land and roared past me. I dropped to the ground to avoid being hit by its nose or rear wheel. I lay there for a moment, watching the helo circle back, and then I got up, smacked the sand off, walked over to a fellow soldier, and said, “You deal with that fucker.”
Not that I couldn’t be careless. One time, after a refueling, I had to change the nozzle on the hose. I had a huge brain fart and unlatched the nozzle with the hose still full of fuel. The flammable liquid shot out, hitting me in the face and soaking my uniform. Despite the shock and awe of the moment, I froze in place, knowing that any movement, however slight, could produce just enough static to ignite the jet fuel and turn me into the Human Torch, albeit a dead one. One of my fellow soldiers was quick on his feet and dashed over with a bucket of water and doused me with it. Sputtering water and fuel, I thanked him while mentally kicking myself for my poor decision-making skills. I was thankful to be alive, but now I was less one uniform. Given the beating our clothing and equipment took in that sandy hellhole, that was a loss I could ill afford.
Overall, though, such mishaps were few. Iraqis were even fewer. One day we ran into a group of enemy armored vehicles perched on a hill. It was a weird scene, as neither the Iraqis nor we did anything. I made a point of putting distance between me and the tankers in case shooting started, but nothing happened. I guessed they had already surrendered and our commanders knew this. Leaving the mysteriously benign Iraqis behind, our motley band continued to drive north, then east, seeing occasional reminders that the combat brigades we followed were kicking serious Iraqi ass.
Before we knew it, the ground war ended, and the task force settled in an area inside Kuwait, south of the border city of Safwan, Iraq (where the peace talks would take place). We were told the place used to be a Kuwaiti military base. It had taken a beating from the Iraqis, then the Americans, so was in sorry shape, but for a temporary home, it suited us fine. We set up our tents, got comfy, and waited for the next wonderful thing to happen. In the meantime, we began making our new home livable and operational. That meant cleaning up wrecks and detritus, and prepping landing sites for helicopters. The latter meant hauling away wrecked vehicles and equipment from an open field, then hosing the field down with diesel fuel so the sand wouldn’t kick up when the choppers landed. Another soldier and I were tasked with this mission. As soon as we drove our HEMTT out into the field, I yelled, “Stop!”
“What?” asked the other soldier, who was driving.
“There’s a fucking bomb in the ground,” I replied.
“What? How big?”
“It looks like a bomblet,” I said. “Probably American.” I climbed out of the vehicle and approached the small bomb, which was a few feet from our vehicle’s right-front tire, buried halfway into the ground, inviting us to drive over it. Given its size, I figured it was a cluster bomblet, and thus couldn’t be alone. I looked around the area and sure enough, I saw other bomblets, likewise poking out of the ground. In fact, there were some behind us that we had managed not to run over. Well poop.
“They’re duds,” my partner called out.
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“Fuck that, we’re outta here,” I said. Walking in front of the HEMTT, I led it in a winding path through the field of bomblets and out of the area, then reported to the LT. The situation went up the chain of command, and a couple of National Guard explosive ordnance disposal guys were called in to dispose of the “duds.” I was picked to show them where they were.
“They’re EOD,” I explained logically. “I’m sure they can find them by themselves.”
“Just get out there, Boe, and assist,” my LT said.
So, I went out with the two guardsmen, who looked a little too casual, carefree, and long-haired for my taste. They’d place a tire around a bomblet, attach a small explosive to it, then we’d move off a distance and then blow it up. This routine was repeated for the rest of the day. One time, the lead EOD guy, a captain who kind of looked like John Lennon, was placing the tire when he accidentally dropped it on the bomblet. I flinched.
“Oops,” he said.
“Oops?” I asked. “Whadda ya mean, ‘Oops’? Really?”
“It’s OK,” he said, and adjusted the tire around the bomblet as if nothing happened. What the hell?
Well, the two hippies finished the job without blowing us up, and the area was eventually cleared and sprayed down. It took about 5,000 gallons of diesel to soak the ground. The locals didn’t seem to care that we were pouring thousands of gallons of fuel into their ground. I certainly didn’t give a shit.
Sometime later, I was tasked with burning garbage in some dumpsters. I forget the logic behind this. What I wasn’t told was that this had been done before. Essentially, I would back up my HEMTT tanker to the full dumpster, soak the contents with fuel, drive off, then return and ignite it, turning it into, you guessed it, a dumpster fire. At one dumpster, I had the driver back up to it, and I rolled out the hose and started spraying. As soon as I did, the dumpster erupted into flames with a big “Wumpf!”
“Drive! Get the fuck outta here!” I screamed, as the driver looked back in horror. He gunned it, and the HEMTT tore off, dragging the hose with it. I followed. The driver stopped the vehicle, jumped out and hustled over to me. We stood there watching the flames.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” the driver said. “That was close.”
“Yeah,” I said, looking around. “This didn’t happen, right?”
A few times we’d go on missions north to the Kuwait-Iraq border, or south back into Saudi Arabia. On one such excursion to the south we stopped to help some Arabs pull a vehicle and its trailer out of a ditch. After we did, the Arabs, who turned out to be Kuwaiti black marketeers, offered each of us a few thousand dollars if we’d tow the trailer loaded with equipment past a military police checkpoint. They had the money and showed it to us. I thought it doable, but kept my mouth shut. Our noncommissioned officer in charge hemmed and hawed, but ultimately declined. The Kuwaitis took it in stride, and thanked us for our roadside assistance by giving us each a couple bottles of Canadian whiskey. THAT we accepted.
After we had settled into Kuwait, we started to conduct search-and-recovery efforts with helicopters, and our platoon provided the fuel points to support them. To do that, two fuels teams were dispatched: one near Safwan, and the other in central Kuwait. These two locations allowed the helos to search areas and then have close refuel points for immediate support. I was tasked with the group that went out into the desolate spot in central Kuwait. We were there for about a week, and it was routine, quiet work, except for one time when some locals in two trucks popped up around a dune and spooked us. We locked and loaded on them, ready for any sneaky malarkey. But one of them approached us holding a fuel can and talking gibberish. Our female NCOIC told me to go talk to him.
“I don’t know any Arab except ‘Halt, or I’ll shoot,’” I said.
“You’re a guy,” she said. “Just do it.”
Some local men took issue with talking to our women in uniform.
I went over and “talked” to the man. Actually, it was pretty easy to deduce that all they wanted was some gas for their trucks. We gave them some, and they gave us some bottles of Canadian whiskey. Double score! They waved to us and trundled away, and I remarked, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fucking funny if they had Saddam hidden in the back of one of the trucks and we just helped him escape?” The rest got a chuckle out of that one.
A few days later, our LT flew in to tell us to pack up and head back to battalion, now relocated in Saudi Arabia. Irrational as it was, I was bummed having to leave this oasis of solitude for the battalion shitshow. Adding insult to injury, when we got back to camp, I found out my new living quarters were in between an Iraqi enemy prisoner of war compound and a morgue for U.S. soldiers. Worse, a few days later, I got a “Dear John” letter from my German wife. It wasn’t unexpected, but it did sour my attitude. My case of the “fuck its,” which would last for the rest of the year, began that day. Thank God I had some booze to help me.
I went on one last mission to the northern border before we began the hopscotch procedure for leaving this Godforsaken, fucked-up region. A female soldier named Heather was my shotgun. Our convoy went up to the border, completed the mission, then we stayed overnight in our trucks. Heather and I sat in the cab of our truck, chugging from a bottle of Canadian whiskey and talking about what we had just gone through and what we’d do when we got back to Germany. I told her about my wife and what she had done. She told me about her boyfriend and wondered whether that relationship would last. Having gotten to know her fairly well, I doubted it, but kept mum. So, we sat there in the heated cab and talked and got drunk. At one point, I jumped out to stretch my legs and take a piss, taking the bottle of whiskey with me. I looked across the darkness and saw the lights of an Iraqi town. I figured it was the outskirts of Basra, but I wasn’t sure. I had heard some people had risen up over there against Saddam (who had not been in the back of one of those trucks we refueled) and were now being slaughtered by the fearless leader’s attack helicopters, which Gen. Schwarzkopf had graciously allowed to fly. Dumbass. I raised the bottle toward the lights.
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“Fuck Saddam! Fuck Iraq! Fuck Norman! Fuck Kuwait!” I yelled. “I’m fucking going home!”
From the truck I heard Heather yell, “Hell yeah!” You go girl.
Yeah, kind of stupid, but I was drunk, and I was alive. In a few weeks I’d be “home,” back at Fliegerhorst Kaserne, to an uncertain future, but I was alive, despite everything that fickle fate had thrown at me. I had survived my first and, hopefully, last war.
New Year’s resolution?