By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, March 14, 2016 — There’s an old saying in journalism that every reporter ought to cover one war, and one is plenty. It was 25 years ago right now that I came home from covering mine, the Persian Gulf War of late 1990 and early 1991.
It was an odd war in many ways. You might say it didn’t last long — just a few months. Or you might say that it never really ended, and continues right on today.
It began in early August, 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, a small nation on Iraq’s southeast border. The issues were territorial rights, religious differences and ownership of the vast oil-producing fields in the region. The U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and other small, vulnerable Arab countries nearby, fearing that they might be overrun by Iraqi forces, asked for military help. In barely more than five months, an amazing fighting force of 750,000 troops — about 540,000 of them Americans — were mobilized, trained and flown to military bases and desert encampments in Saudi Arabia.
Among them, eventually, were more than 2,000 Iowa Army & Air National Guard soldiers, and a couple hundred more from Army Reserve units in Iowa. I recall estimates that there were probably 3,000 to 5,000 Iowans in the regular U.S. forces who wound up in Saudi and Kuwait, too.
That’s why on a Friday afternoon in late summer, I got a message while I was on the road in Iowa from my boss at the Des Moines Register, assistant managing editor Randy Evans, asking me to stop by the newsroom when I arrived back in the city. When I got there later Friday evening and asked Evans what was up, he said, “Don’t I recall that you have a passport?” Yeah, I said, “you sending me some place cool?” He grinned and said, “Saudi Arabia,” he said, “and from what we’re hearing, it seems to be pretty hot there.”
We’ve still got the “war shirt” 25 years after I was wearing it or another just like it, when I was covering the Persian Gulf War in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq.
My first thought was that I had no idea how to cover a war. But I’d served a six-year hitch in the Iowa Army National Guard, two years in an infantry unit and then four years in the Guard’s public information unit. I at least knew some military jargon, and also knew several of the highest-ranking Iowa Guard leaders.
And after I made my two trips to the Middle East — for two weeks in December, 1990, and then six weeks in February and early March, 1991 — I realized that I’d had good training for covering a war, in that I had covered several “RAGBRAIs,” the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
War and RAGBRAI, it turned out, are alike in three ways: They’re both very big; they’re both very confusing, and everybody in them wants to talk. Hence, both are good places for a reporter to be.
One of my friends and mentors in my early years at the Register was Gordon Gammack, the legendary columnist who had covered three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Gammack told me and many other young reporters about how, when he was overseas covering wars, he’d walk the mess halls and other places troops gathered, and he’d say loudly, “Anybody here from Iowa?”
So before I left for Saudi Arabia, I bought two University of Iowa sweatshirts, plain gray ones that had “IOWA” in big letters on the chest. Wearing those shirts, I did just as Gammack had done, walking among troops saying, “Anybody here from Iowa?” When you’re a long way from home, there’s nothing like running into somebody from there, you know? Soldiers would come running after me, wanting to tell their stories so folks back home could read them.
Three other factors made my coverage easier, more fun and more productive.
One, it took several months to mobilize National Guard and Army Reserve units, train and equip them, and then fly them to Saudi Arabia. So during the fall of 1990, I spent plenty of time meeting and covering them as they trained at Fort McCoy, Wis., Camp Ripley, Minn., and other posts in the region. This proved important for me later in Saudi Arabia, as the Iowa Guard units would shuttle me from one to the other, helping me have access for interviews and stories.
Second, I had good contacts with a couple of media people with strong Iowa ties. John Gaps III, then based in Des Moines, was one of the leading combat photographers for the Associated Press, and he preceded me to Saudi Arabia by a couple months. I spent a lot of time on the phone with Gaps before I traveled there, and then he gave me a whole lot of help once I was on the ground there. Brian Jenkins, a native of Ames, was one of the lead reporters on the war for the relatively new Cable News Network CNN-TV, and he gave me leads on several good stories involving Iowa soldiers. Jenkins also shared some food the afternoon after the invasion of Kuwait when there was almost nothing available to eat in Kuwait City. He, Stephanie Gibbs of the Syracuse, N.Y., Post-Standard newspaper, and I sat on the driveway of the Kuwait International Hotel, eating Jenkins’ bananas and crackers while booby traps were being detonated in the American Embassy across the street and sniper fire could be heard in the distance.
Third, and most important, there were several native Iowans in very prominent positions in the military build-up and operation in Saudi Arabia. Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, who had roots in Johnston, Centerville and Davenport, was commander of all U.S. Air Force operations in the Middle East, and wound up being commander of the air war against Iraq. One of the top Naval officers was also a native Iowan, Rear Admiral William Fogarty, of Des Moines. I had early access to both of them. Air Force Major Keith Gillett, of Fort Madison, worked as a public affairs officer at the military’s joint information bureau in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and helped me with information for many stories and also restored my press credentials after they were yanked for a few days, a story I’ll tell later here. Another excellent contact was Senior Chief Petty Officer Patrick Colwell, of Humboldt in northwest Iowa, who was working during the war as the personal secretary in Saudi Arabia to Commander-in-Chief General H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Photo from a book shows me in early March, 1991, with a bombed & burned Iraq Army tracked vehicle in Kuwait City. The U.S. Marines had destroyed the vehicle in their invasion liberating Kuwait, which had been occupied by Iraqi soldiers from the previous August.
So, here’s how and when things happened. By Christmas time, 1990, the building-up of allied troops in Saudi Arabia was complete. Serving with the huge force of Americans were personnel from Great Britain, France, Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and a few other nations in a build-up that was nicknamed “Desert Shield.” Speculation was that Iraq might have a million troops, either in Kuwait or ready to move there, including troops from \Jordan, Algeria, Sudan, Yemen, Tunisia and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
In mid-January, 1991, Iraq President Saddam Hussein refused an order from the allies to withdraw his invasion force from Kuwait. On Jan. 17, General Horner and his pilots launched the air war that turned “Desert Shield” into “Desert Storm.”
For 42 days, the allied forces continued bombing strategic targets in Kuwait and Iraq. On Feb. 24, the allies started a ground offensive that needed only four days to reclaim Kuwait and either kill, capture or drive-out the under-equipped and under-prepared Iraqi forces.
Then it was over. Most estimates were than 8,000 to 10,000 Iraqi forces were killed, compared to about 300 from the western allies. There have been arguments ever since about whether the allies should have marched on across Iraq, which had almost no forces left to defend itself, and capture Baghdad. But the U.S. had committed only to the liberation of Kuwait, and began withdrawing troops.
I came home and wrote that there would never be another long, multi-year war like World War II, Korea or Vietnam. Not with the sophisticated weaponry, fantastic air power and transportation capability that I’d just seen in the Middle East. I said from then on, there would probably still be occasional disputes between nations, but there would be only “mini-wars” that would only last a few days and generally be fought with “smart bombs,” missiles and long-range artillery. Ground troops would be obsolete.
You can argue somewhat legitimately that the Persian Gulf War has never really ended. The U.S. maintained at least a few thousand troops in the region throughout the 1990s, in support and enforcement of a no-fly zone over Iraq. Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. Eighteen months later, the U.S. and Great Britain launched the highly-questionable Iraq War, and there are still American forces there now.
After you’ve seen real war, with bodies on battlefields and all that, you come to realize that there never really was, or ever will be, glory in war. There is courage and heroism and inspiration. But no glory. As General Horner, the Air Force commander told me, “What war really represents is failure. When diplomacy fails, then we have war.”
But it was during and after the Persian Gulf War that we all learned that while many of us hate war, we can still honor our soldiers. We can, and in fact, we should.
This is an Iraqi Army helmet I found on the “Highway of Death” going north from Kuwait City toward Basra in Iraq. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Iraqi troops were killed there when U.S. Air Force, Marines and Navy pilots caught up with the Iraqi convoys as they fled Kuwait City when the allies’ liberation of Kuwait began.
The Persian Gulf War gave us many innovations to remember, things that have impacted our lives ever since.
Listing some: Humvees. Everybody carrying bottled water. “MREs” — those “Meals Ready to Eat” that replaced the military’s long-standard “C-rations.” Scud missiles. Patriot Missiles. Desert camouflage and desert combat boots. CNN-TV and the 24-hour news cycle.
One day in December during the build-up, when there was not much going on for media, I decided to go along on a military-arranged trip out into the Saudi desert north of Riyadh to see “some new technology,” as we were told. We were taken out to meet several members of a graves registration unit, who would be in charge of burying bodies during and after battles, then keeping track of the graves so the bodies could possibly be recovered later. The captain leading the unit explained that this new technology for permanently notating such locations is called a “Global Positioning System.” I could barely understand what he was talking about, and he must’ve noticed.
“Did you say you’re with the Des Moines Register?” he suddenly said, and I nodded. “Well, let me tell you, in a couple of years all those farmers you have out there are going to have Global Positioning Systems on their tractors and combines.”
Yeah, right, I said. But as we all know, he was right!
My three most enduring memories?
–Walking into the crowded Sand Coffee Shop at the Dhahran International Hotel in the eastern Saudi city of Dhahran, spotting an empty chair at one table and asking if I could join the group. “Sure,” said David Lamb, renowned war correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, who then looked at my name tag. “Des Moines Register, huh? You’ve got a fine little ball park there in Des Moines.” I about fell off my chair. Lamb explained he’d taken six months off work in the summer of 1989, rented an RV and drove around the nation going to games at minor league baseball parks, and that he had particularly liked what was then called Sec Taylor Stadium in Des Moines. Needless to say, that started a long friendship. A year later, his baseball book was published, “Stolen Season: A Journey Through America and Baseball’s Minor Leagues.”
–We war reporters who had media credentials from the joint Saudi and military information bureau, were always supposed to travel with military escort officers. In Riyadh in February, 1991, I ran into Captain Steve Wieneke, them from Ames, commander of an Iowa National Guard medical company from Washington, Iowa. Wieneke and three or four of his troops were planning to take an ambulance and a truck on a two-day swing up north in Saudi Arabia, delivering supplies to other medical units, including one from Iowa City. I wanted to go, but the joint information bureau could not provide a military escort officer and told me not to go. I did anyway, of course. I had no trouble until I was walking through a remote base’s mess tent near King Khalid Military City. When I started asking “Anybody here from Iowa?” a group of National Guard Military Policemen from Iowa yelled. I started interviewing them — and was promptly arrested by a regular Army MP. I faced Capt. Wendy Lichtenstein for very blunt questioning, then she yanked my media credentials for “circumventing the media procedures” and “traveling without public affairs escort.” She decided to let me continue traveling with Capt. Wieneke and his soldiers, but said I was not to get out of their vehicle or out of their sight. For the remainder of our trip, they’d stop at encampments out in the desert, go into the tents without me and ask if there were any troops from Iowa there. When there were, they’d send the soldiers out to the back of the ambulance, tell them to knock and they’d find me in there. I’ll never forget asking a young nurse from Adel, Iowa, several questions. When I got done, she said, “Now can I ask you something?” Sure, I said. “Can you get me RAGBRAI tickets next summer?” I guaranteed them for her.
–When the ground war started February 24, I flew from Riyadh to Dhahran and hoped to find a way to get to Kuwait. The public information officers at the joint information bureau there couldn’t help; they were assisting network TV crews and the major newspapers. I called Marc Jones, a native of Des Moines working in the petroleum industry in the city of Jubail, about 75 miles north of Dhahran. I’d gotten to know while doing earlier stories. I asked Jones if he’d come pick me up, take me as far north as he could, and then I’d find another ride. He agreed. By the time he arrived in Dhahran, Stephanie Gibbs from the Syracuse newspaper had arrived from Riyadh. She, too, was trying to get to Kuwait. So Jones took both of us to his home, let us stay the night, and then early the next morning began driving us north. We soon were stopped at a Saudi checkpoint, so Gibbs and I got out, and Jones returned to Jubail. As convoys of military vehicles streamed by us, Gibbs and I pulled out signs we had made at Jones’ house. Mine said “Des Moines Register” and hers said “Syracuse Post-Standard.” We stood by the road — and began hitchhiking to the war! After three different rides — including part way with Saudi National Guardsmen who spoke no English — we had covered 200 miles and reached Kuwait City. Oil wells were burning after being torched by the fleeing Iraqis. There was no electricity. Buildings were in flames or already scorched. The bodies of Iraqi troops were scattered in battle trenches and on streets. Kuwaitis told us that when the invasion began, the Iraqis soldiers looted stores and other businesses, filled vehicles with computers, appliances and more, and fled north on what became known as the “Highway of Death” after waves of allied planes caught up with them. It was as grim a scene as I’ve ever witnessed. But the people of Kuwait, after hiding and otherwise enduring a brutal occupation that had stretched for seven months, were filling the streets, waving flags, firing weapons in the air, celebrating liberation. As I watched them, I gained a whole new appreciation for just how precious freedom really is.
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