It hadn’t seemed real up until that moment inside that tent in Kuwait 16 years ago. My Army Reserve Civil Affairs unit had been called up the previous month, and had undergone mobilization training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Then it was time to cross The Pond: the Atlantic Ocean.
We loaded up on an L-1011 jumbo jet at Pope Air Force Base next to Bragg. The airline transporting us had a contract to ferry troops into Kuwait for Operation Iraqi Freedom. This contractor, unlike so many others, had spared no expense on creature comforts.
I could get used to this..
European style airline meals
Fancy chocolate from Switzerland
Hot scented towels
It was like flying in the Bellagio…
Of course, all good things must come to an end. After several stops, we finally landed at Kuwait Airport. We were herded into large tents where we awaited transportation to our main staging base at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.
We had only been there for a few hours and were in a meeting in our large tent. Suddenly, an ear-piercing siren went off, seemingly right outside our tent. It was so loud that I felt it was altering the shape of all the cells in my body. And then, the voice:
LIGHTNING! LIGHTNING! LIGHTNING!
SCUD LAUNCH FROM IRAQ! MISSILE INBOUND KUWAIT AIRPORT!
We were at Kuwait Airport…
Hey, that’s greeaaaat!
The standard drill for such an attack was to don your protective mask within 9 seconds and run like blind destruction to the nearest bunker, preferably at the same time. I myself had trained on this over a 17-year period. And with most things considered standard, it’s good in theory. Because we sat frozen, for at least 20 seconds. The only parts of our bodies that did move were our eyes. They moved frantically from one face to another, alternately asking if this was real, and what exactly what we should do.
A scud attack was something that happened to other people. In that 20 seconds, my mind conjured up the video footage of scud attacks during the Gulf War. They’d landed in faraway (at the time) places like Israel and Saudi Arabia. And of course, the most vivid clip inside my brain was the scud warhead landing on a US military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 27 personnel, mostly Army Reservists. Army Reservists just like us…
Finally, the paralysis was broken. We tugged on our masks and began running toward the bunker we’d been shown not 4 hours before. There we nearly collided with a crowd of other refugees. On the bunker-basically a concrete culvert lined inside and out with sandbags-was a painted sign:
MAXIMUM CAPACITY 20 PERSONNEL
There were 25 of us. Do the math.
Almost without thinking about it, myself and 4 other officers told the others, “You know. We’re gonna sit this one out.” That’s what officers are supposed to do: put the troops first. Although my experience with that concept up until that point was letting my soldiers eat first. This was new to me.
So, the 4 of us sat against the sandbags on the exterior of the shelter, waiting until the coast was clear, and trying not to look each other in the eye. The officer next to me, a captain, finally spoke up.
Hey, I heard Syracuse University made the Final Four!
That did it: the tension was broken. We began laughing hysterically. It’s tough to be terror-stricken when you’re laughing your fool head off. And that’s how we spent the next 15 minutes until the threat was over.
I should’ve put that captain in for a medal…