Nebraska Guard Soldiers reflect on Operation Desert Storm, 25 years later
By Mike Tobias , Senior Producer, Nebraska Public Media
April 15, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·
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After World War II, Nebraska Army National Guard units went decades without seeing combat. That changed in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and soon afterwards a couple hundred Nebraska soldiers went to war. Mike Tobias looks back at a challenging deployment from 25 years ago that would set the stage for a different era of National Guard missions.
It was Veterans Day in 1990 when Nebraska Army National Guard soldiers heard the phrase “Raging Bull,” code telling them it was real, they were going to war. These 250 or so Lincoln-based air medical soldiers would be split into two units (24th Medical Company and Detachment 1, 1267th Medical Company) and they had less than a week to get themselves, their helicopters and equipment, and their lives together before heading to the Persian Gulf.
What life in Saudi Arabia looked like for soldiers from the 1267th Medical Company (Video courtesy Nebraska National Guard)
February 2016 edition of the Nebraska National Guard's Prairie Soldier includes a story on 24th/1267th Medical Company deployments
PBS Frontline content on the Gulf War
History Channel article on the Gulf War
“We had to re-learn a lot of things,” said Tom Schuurmans, who was flight operations officer for the 24th. “How do we activate soldiers. How do we turn them into active duty. How do we collect all of the equipment we need. How do we ship them to a mobilization station.”
“A lot of challenges. Nobody knew how to truly go about organizing it," remembered Deb Tankesley, a platoon sergeant with the 24th. “It was a challenge for all of us, but we kicked in made a plan.
“The short time might have been a little short. But it was probably a better way to do it than to think about what we were doing and where we were going,” she added.
“Where” for the two units was separate locations in Saudi Arabia. It was just months after Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait. After a few weeks of training in Kansas and Missouri, the Nebraska soldiers deployed in preparation for U.S.-led coalition forces launching a ground attack on Iraq, an operation called Desert Storm.
“We were right on the Saudi Arabian and Iraq border,” Schuurmans said. “We were in the heat of the area that they thought they would take the most casualties.”
The mission for these pilots and medics was shuttling wounded from the front lines, sort of an air ambulance service.
“We treated them as we could flying them, then dropped them at the evacs and took off again,” said Tom McBride, senior crew chief with the 1267th.
McBride said his company transported 600 wounded during their deployment, almost all Iraqi soldiers and civilians. One he’ll never forget was a young boy wounded from head to foot by a land mine. Their chopper picked up the boy, who would survive, and his emotionally-wrecked father; but because of language barriers McBride didn’t learn the full story until later.
“We came to find out that he was a Bedouin sheep herder,” McBride said. “During the ground war he had lost his wife and seven other children. This was his only remaining child and he thought he was going to lose him. And we got him out of there. It was a pretty emotional time.”
Tankesley remembered a day they’d call “Bloody Sunday,” with non-stop injuries starting pre-dawn, not the result of bombs and bullets but rather lots of military vehicles travelling on a suddenly slick, narrow road.
“Dropping off those two patients that we had. Going back, picking up three on the next one,” Tankesley recalled. “And on that one there were some casualties. But we didn't know that until later; they were still with us when we took them. We had extra medics. The aircraft was like stacked full of people trying to help keep these guys alive.”
There were plenty of challenges for the Nebraska soldiers. Sparse living conditions in forward camps, dust storms, and the threat of scud missiles and chemical weapons. This involvement of Guard soldiers with active duty, more common now, was different at the time, and the so-called part-time warriors weren’t always well-received.
“They were not thinking anything was good about us at all,” Tankesley said.
“We were looked at very skeptically,” Schuurmans added. “That we were going to be more of a load for the active component to carry. So we certainly had to prove ourselves. We had to demonstrate our professionalism, our ability, skills. Because of the experience and the abilities, we were able to overcome some of that prejudice very quickly.”
Experience that included pilots with extensive flight hours and Vietnam veterans like McBride who had been to war before. “I think some of us older guys offered a sense of stability and that mission focus,” he said, adding that even the Vietnam veterans didn’t fully know what to expect in the Middle East.
The Guard units also had civilians with useful skills as electricians and construction workers.
Their medivac flights didn’t face enemy fire, but just flying in a desert environment with “virtually useless maps” may have been just as dangerous.
“Flying at night, there literally was no ambient light,” Schuurmans remembered. “There were no farmhouses. There's nothing but black. And we could not fly any higher than 100 feet.”
“Night vision flying over there was some of the scariest flying I've ever done,” McBride added, “because there was no relief. Sometimes the desert floor and the sky looked the same, and you just got to rely on the instruments.”
The only death from the Nebraska units, though, came stateside, when the 1267th was flying their helicopters to Texas in preparation for the trip overseas. At the last minute Tom McBride was switched to a different helicopter from his normal spot, which would have been in the same chopper with unit commander Pete Rose.
“And that's the one that eventually went down and that still kind of haunts you to this day,” McBride said.
The Desert Storm ground war lasted just 100 hours in February of 1991, although the medivac units stayed busy with non-combat injuries for another couple months. After that, 25 years ago, the Nebraska soldiers were packing up and heading home.
“Walking through personally shaking everybody's hand as they were getting on the buses to go to the airfield to leave was certainly emotional,” Schuurmans recalled.
Some would say the first Gulf War didn’t finish the job and eliminate the threat posed by Iraq and Saddam Hussein, maybe leading to the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the following years of longer Middle East combat deployments.
“Honestly, most everybody's feelings were we'll stay here, if you could finish the job over here. We'll stay here to make sure it's safe and it's done,” Tankesley said.
“Certainly there was a lot of discussion while we were there, should we have continued,” said Schuurmans, who later commanded a combat brigade in Afghanistan in 2005. “Should we have stopped when we did? But as I progressed in my career and gained a more strategic viewpoint, yeah, I mean we met the objectives. We did what we set out to do and that was to liberate Kuwait, which we truly did.”
In the process, these Desert Storm vets said they created a bond that still exists as they gather regularly 25 years later. And their historic Gulf War deployment sent a message about the value of citizen soldiers in future combat deployments.
“That operation validated the fact that yes we do play a big part in our nation's defense,” Schuurmans said. “That what we do is important. And we are able to step up in fight right alongside our active component brothers and sisters, and do it very well.”
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