Soldiers, safety and sacrifice

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena
  • Air War College
From our holes, we could see friendly aircraft "go dark" as they crossed the "fence" into Iraq. The air war had been raging for more than a month, and now, ordered into our attack positions, we knew our own fight was close at hand. For most of us, this was our first war. Combat was no longer an abstract; its sights, sounds and smells served to highlight the immediacy of the task at hand. Displays of bravado were the norm, but the reality was that we all worked to control our emotions, an unsettling concoction of anticipation and uncertainty. On the surface, everyone appeared calm and professional, yet no one could say with certitude what the future and fate had in store.

Twenty-three years ago, our nation was at war. Iraq had invaded Kuwait; our mission was to take it back. In February 1991, Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Shield. Beyond war stories, this commentary is about the duty leaders have to the people they lead.

As a tactics instructor at Fort Benning, Ga., I wasn't supposed to deploy, let alone find myself on the Saudi-Iraq border serving in an infantry battalion. War, however, is not normal, and the abnormal is always present in war. Through a peculiar string of events, I found myself deploying on short notice with a unit I knew little about and with people whom I did not know. The only thing we had in common was our training, the mission and extreme circumstances. That was enough.

After training for months in the Arabian desert, we became an efficient team. When diplomatic efforts failed, we were ordered to cross the "berm," engage and destroy Iraqi forces and free Kuwait. Our attack took us deep into the Euphrates River valley. Along the way, we captured the Iraqi airbase at Tillil and cut the main highways leading into and out of An Nasiriya. Our unit destroyed more than 200 enemy vehicles and captured more than 1,400 prisoners of war; we didn't count their dead. By comparison, our casualties were light (unless you were one of the casualties): less than 20 wounded by small arms and shrapnel and no one killed, until ...

The sunrise on March 2, 1991, was a beautiful display of color and contrast; the explosion was deafening. What was thought a routine munitions collection and destruction detail was anything but. Two Soldiers were killed instantly; the battalion executive officer and others were wounded. My conjecture is that an enemy mine caused a chain reaction with other munitions. Hindsight is always illuminating; there were too many people standing too close during this operation. Leaders, to include myself, had become desensitized to danger; we did not take appropriate steps to protect our people. The learning point is that safety matters, even in combat, and, maybe, especially in combat.

That explosion shook the unit back to the reality of our circumstances. Soldiers continued to do their duty, but, more importantly, leaders remembered their training. Safety and standards became watchwords of the day. One might think it odd to talk about safety while in combat, but safety is always an obligation of leadership.

The official cease-fire occurred at 3 p.m. March 3, 1991, the day after the explosion. Weeks later, our unit returned to Saudi Arabia and then back to America. Two Soldiers, while doing their duty, sacrificed all and did not return home.

We were at war 23 years ago.