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Tales from the Front

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While clearing Iraqi bunkers near Kuwait City on Feb. 25, Army Spec. Jonathan Alston, 27, of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Pvt. Stephen Schaefer, 21, of Claymont, Del., were pinned down by sniper fire. What happened next led to each one of them receiving a Silver Star, the country’s third-highest military honor. Alston: ‘it was an ugly morning, pitch-black from the oil-field fire smoke. The sun was trying to peek through, but it was cold and had rained all night while we slept. When we approached the bunkers, we had to step around some trip wires that connected to toe-poppers, antipersonnel mines strong enough to blow off a leg. There was no enemy in sight, but they had left everything behind. They were obviously in a hurry. So we just tore up the bunkers by [firing] rounds and tossing grenades in the sleeping areas.

“Then the Iraqi sniper started shooting at us. We advanced on the bunker [where he was hidden]. I was loaded down with a full backpack, flak vest and an assault rifle with four ammo drums. It was real hard to move. We wore camouflage mop gear with charcoal lining to protect us from a chemical weapons attack. We were sweating in those suits.

“We moved one at a time toward the sniper. One of us would advance while the other provided cover, shooting at the bunker so the Iraqi kept his head down. It took about 20 minutes to reach the bunker, but it seemed like two hours. I got up to the edge of it with a grenade and peeked over the side to see if there was a screen to reverse the direction of the grenade back toward me. It’s dangerous; that’s when you might get your head shot off.

“I threw in one grenade, and it exploded, but I heard him moving so we sprayed the bunker with fire and threw in another. The whole place went up, secondary explosions from stored ammunition. We hit the ground. I had never killed a man in combat and I got a look at him. But all I was thinking about was survival.

“When we received the Silver Star, Army Secretary Michael Stone told us it would follow us everywhere we go. A lot of people look at us like we are heroes, but I feel the ones who died are the true heroes.”

A routine mission on Feb. 27 for helicopter mechanic Spec. Nicholas Wright, 21, of Milford, Mass., turned into a night of hell: “Everything was happening so fast that we mostly slept in the helicopter because we were jumping from place to place all the time. Someone banged on the door at 3:30 [A.M.] and told us we needed to go into Kuwait and pick up some amputee patients. All I had to do was pull on my boots, and I was ready to go since I was sleeping in my clothes.

“We made it only about four or five miles before small-arms fire brought us down. I felt the helicopter go crazy, and we went into a bank on the way down. I was seated behind the pilot with my back to him. He was fighting hard to keep it under control. The blade hit [the ground] and it pulled the nose in. slamming it into the ground, nose first, on my side. The blade hit [the ground] again, and it pulled the tail in.

“After that it gets a little confusing. I do know that I hit my seat belt release on the second impact. It’s against the rules, and I know I broke the rules. But breaking the rules saved my life.

“On the second impact I shot out of the helicopter. No one ever figured out exactly how I got out. The door may have opened slightly, or my body may have ripped it off. I know I was really sore for days on that one side.

“I didn’t see the helicopter actually crash. But it bounced back into the air and flew upside-down for 40 yards before it hit the ground and burned. I heard screams and I looked over my shoulder. I saw one of the pilots covered with flames. He was the only one still alive. I don’t know how I got there. I just remember standing by him, trying to pull him out. He was holding his arms out to me and the fire hadn’t chased out his arms. The only thing not burning was from his elbows out to the end of his hands.

“I grabbed his hands and started trying to pull him out. I saw that his seat belt was still fastened. Maybe it was jammed. I kept yelling at him to hit the seat belt release. I couldn’t reach in to do it for him. He couldn’t hear me; he couldn’t think. I grabbed his hands again and started pulling, but I couldn’t pull him loose.

“About then the flames started sparking around me, little fireballs all over. The flames raced up his arms to his hands and jumped onto me. I had to let him go. I wish I could have gotten him. I had him by the hands. You don’t get any closer than that.”

With Saudi radio consisting largely of readings from the Koran, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service turned a metal cargo container into a radio station—for popular American music. Sgt. Dee Peters, 38, from Rome, Ga., is deejay: “I’m here to try to make it as easy for the troops as I can, to help them escape for a bit and to try to take their minds off their rotten jobs. When the Scuds were flying and the Patriots were knocking them down, Pat Benatar’s ‘Hit Me with Your Best Shot’ was a favorite. And so was Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’ When the air war started, ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ by Bette Midler and ‘Somewhere Out There’ by James Ingram, were big requests.

“There’s a fine line between being entertaining and being flippant, coming off as though I didn’t care what happened. There was a war going on. The troops couldn’t forget. I couldn’t let myself forget. While I had to be sort of lighthearted, this was no joke to me. I’m not here to try to make a name for myself. And how could you be jovial when you knew there were thousands of Iraqis dying every day? A lot of these kids here thought this war was a Rambo movie, and it wasn’t.”

His face jet black with oily soot, Marine Capt. Blake Crowe, 33, son of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. William Crowe (Ret.), led a company of Marine mechanized assault vehicles into Kuwait on Jan. 24: “I carried a letter in my pocket the entire time, a letter my father sent to me on Jan. 5. And I carried pictures of my girls, and the 91st Psalm. Basically the letter was a little advice on being a leader. He said to ‘stay calm. You’ve got a company of Marines depending on you.’ And to ‘be patient, strive to control your emotions.’ He just reminded me that our presence there had already achieved a great deal.

“Our battalion came under intense fire in the agricultural area about three miles from the airport. They [the Iraqis] started firing at us. We drove the battalion right through the middle of them. There was heavy machine-gun fire, and we fired back. We didn’t dismount the troops and fight them. We just continued to drive. They were firing from fighting positions [foxholes], and they had a few vehicles. But we smashed them.

“It was sort of surreal. It was pitch-dark, the middle of the night. The oil smoke didn’t help. Our mission was to get to the airport, so we just busted through them, with us firing at them, and them firing back. But we didn’t have any vehicles destroyed. People had packs with holes in them, and vehicles were shot at, but nobody got killed. A lot of people feel that God was watching out for us. The buzzword is that we were blessed, not just lucky.”

Early on Feb. 18, the Aegis-class guided-missile cruiser U.S.S. Princeton hit two mines. For more than 20 minutes Electrician’s Mate Scott Smith, 27, of Nampa, Idaho, ignored the possibility of electrocution while helping to control a gushing flow of water in the ship’s switchboard room. He was nominated for the Navy Commendation Medal: “I was relieved from my watch about 6:45 [A.M.] and went down to the electrical shop. I was sitting there by myself listening to the captain talk over the intercom about the Tripoli getting hit by mines. As he was talking, we got hit [by a mine].

“It threw me across the room 10 or 15 feet. I got up. I cussed. There were red lights flashing, and the general-quarters bell went off. The one [mine] hit, and the pressure from it set off another one a couple hundred yards forward. The superstructure got pretty torn up. All I know is it was a big boom.

“I ran to set the valves for fires and flooding. Me and a buddy went back to the No. 3 generator. We opened the hatch, and there was lots of dust. We had to make sure there wasn’t a fire. We went down there, checked it out. I walked through to the three switchboards, and that’s when I saw the flooding.

“I walked in. There was maybe two feet of water. I shut the door behind me. I called my repair [unit] and reported. ‘Flooding in three switchboard, two feet of water and rising.’

“The repairmen told me later they kept shouting, ‘Get out of the space.’ But I couldn’t hear because there was all this water flowing on me and on the switchboard. The switchboard has 6,000 amps. They were still energized. And I’m standing there in two feet of water. One tenth of an amp will kill you.

“I couldn’t tell where the water was coming from. I thought it was from the ocean, but it was from a ruptured fire main. It was coming in pretty fast. There was already water on top, but the switchboards have covers on them. The covering was protecting [them], but if it hadn’t, I would have been gone. It would have killed me for sure. I would have been fried like a marshmallow. It’s kind of hard to explain. I wasn’t even thinking straight. I just did it without being scared or anything.”

On Feb. 19, Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Fox, 40, of Fall River, Mass., was shot down in his Thunderbolt II, apparently by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile, and taken prisoner: “We get to Basra. It’s dark. My hands are tied. I’m blindfolded. We get into sort of a building, compound kind of area. They take my blindfold off. I’m taken to this very large room. Well-appointed. Couches. A desk. A large picture of our man Saddam on the wall.

“And in walks this Iraqi who introduces himself. He’s a MIG-29 pilot. And so we begin the pilot discussion: How fast does your airplane go? How long does it take to get to the target area? How many rockets do you carry? I tell him what I believe to be enough of the truth that would satisfy him, that would not lead him to believe that I was trying to pull his leg. We don’t need any leg-pulling at this point. So I’m pretty well answering his questions and he seems pretty satisfied.

“Then it gets a little Woody Allenish. The guy asks me—God bless him—have I ever seen a 1954 movie, Genghis Khan, with John Wayne? And I said, ‘Oh, yeah. Absolutely.’ I have never seen that movie, or I don’t recall seeing it. I don’t even know if John Wayne made a movie in 1954 called Genghis Khan. I said, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, it’s a great movie.’ And I bet we spent the next 10 or 15 minutes discussing American movies. He would ask me if I’d seen Gone with the Wind, and I said, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s got a great music score. I really liked the music.’ He told me he had studied much about America, and he discussed the Civil War a little bit with me. And we discussed Clint Eastwood movies.

“Now they take me from the interview with the pilot to a place where I stay for a day and half. They gave me a blanket to sleep on. They fed me every once in a while. If I wanted to go to the bathroom, I could knock on the door and ask, which I was reluctant to do. If you’ve ever seen one of their bathrooms, you’d know why you don’t want to go to the bathroom. So you do certain things. Like you go to the bathroom in your boot and you throw it out the window. That worked for me on more than one occasion.

“We arrived in Baghdad early in the—I’m guessing the date here—early on the 22nd. They interview me, ask me a whole bunch of questions. I tell them the answers as far as I know. You know, as much of an answer as I can give them. They tell me that I’m lying. And so they take me to another room. And these three or four guys begin to circle and talk around where I’m sitting. Then out of the clear blue sky, one of these guys strikes me on the right side of the head and breaks my eardrum. Right off the bat. He continues to pound on my head for probably three or four punches. And simultaneously another guy is beating on my right knee with what feels like a solid rubber hose. Or a Billy club kind of thing.

“I fall off the chair, in some disarray. You know, screaming a good amount. And those guys’ve got the nerve to tell me, to put their hand over my mouth and tell me, ‘Don’t scream,’ or ‘No yell,’ or something like that.

“Anyway, they’re done with me there. They put me in the truck, and I go to what we, in the prison world, called the Baghdad Biltmore. This is the place where all the other pilots are. On the evening of the 23rd, it’s dark. It’s late. I don’t know what time it is, but it’s very dark. And the place gets bombed. By allied fighter planes. BOOM! The first bomb hits. Then here comes the second bomb. BOOM! I’m still alive. But my room is beginning to fill up with smoke and debris. Then here comes the third and final bomb. The building doesn’t collapse, but it feels like an earthquake. No one was killed or seriously injured, but some of the guys couldn’t get out [of their cells] that night. At least I was able to get out.

“So they moved us. There is no lack of prisons in Iraq. They put us in a courtyard, surrounded by the jail complex. We sat out there for hours, hours and hours, in the sun, just sitting there on your rear end. You had to sit there with your head glued to the ground. I think they were interviewing everybody individually. They would tap you on the shoulder and say, “Let’s go.’

“They took me to a little room, and they asked me a couple of questions. They said, “Mr. Jeff, you’re lying. We’re going to kill you.’ All of a sudden, everybody in the room starts moving, in this little area. I can hear the desk move, and I hear this gun cock. And he chambers the round. So now I’m on this chair, not knowing whether these people are serious or not. Deep, deep, deep, deep, deep down in the pit of my stomach, I didn’t think that they were going to kill me. I had made it five days. I was with the other guys. I hadn’t heard any guns go off that day. But on the surface, on the conscious level, I figured there’s always a chance.

“I was waiting to actually feel the gun against my head or my back or my neck or something. In which case I would know that I was in trouble. I never felt that. It was just BOOM! The gun goes off, as close as that guy could get it to my right ear. If my eardrum was healing at all, from the beating a couple of days before, it went back to its original condition here. I had ringing in my ears. I had difficulty with balance. It was obvious these people were not out to poke your eye out or break your nose, although they could have done it easily. They were just out to harass the hell out of you.”

Capt. Eric Salomonson, 28, of Berthoud, Colo., and 1st Lt. John Marks, 26, of Kansas City, Mo.—better known as Fish and Marx—were warming up their A-10 Warthogs when they got the call: Another Air Force pilot had spotted a column of Iraqi tanks and destroyed two of them, the one in front and the one in back. But he was running out of fuel. Fish and Marx went to work. Marx: “The Iraqis had hundreds of thousands of prepared revetments along every road. So what they did, as soon as they saw the front [tank] blow up, they drove off the side of the road and pulled into these revetments.”

Fish: “The tanks looked like they were running, so the [Iraqi soldiers] may have been sitting in their tanks. If they were, they were crazy, because they had to know they were going to get under attack, because they already had two burning.”

Marx: “The sun was just coming up. It was hazy. Not really good visibility. It was tough to pick’em up at first. You had to get fairly close. Normally with Mavericks [missiles] we like to get way out there several miles away and just launch them in there. But we couldn’t do that that day. You had to get in there real close because the haze was so bad.”

Fish: “The limiting factor wasn’t the missile, it was our eyes. You have to be able to see the target to line up and hit it. The whole ground war/was characterized by lousy weather. We’d been there for five months and never seen a cloud in the sky, and the weather was lousy just about the whole ground war.”

Marx: “We ended up killing 17 [tanks] overall with the Mavericks and having, I think, six confirmed burning with the [30-mm rapid fire] cannon. It took three missions—the whole day.”

Fish: “We killed [the first] eight tanks in that area, refueled and rearmed and then went to two completely different areas.”

Marx: “And got eight more and then seven.”

Fish: “We know we were sent to a lot of the good places where there was a lot of armor. And we were able to go in there and kill it. We had the right ordnance, the right day, the right combination of events …”

Marx: “Some of it was just being aggressive. The second mission we could have easily just said, ‘Hey, the weather’s too bad.’ Because it was pretty low. Low ceiling, bad vis. We could have said, ‘Hey, we don’t want to go in there.’ But…”

Fish: “It becomes natural. You want to go in there and help out. You realize you’ve got Army grunts down there that are counting on you.”

By Jan. 28, the 20,000 residents of the Saudi city of Khafji, near the Kuwaiti border, had fled further into Saudi Arabia. Two squads of U.S. Marines slipped into the deserted town and hid on various rooftops at great risk, to radio valuable information back to allied commanders. One of them was Cpl. Jeffrey Brown, 22, of Cincinnati: “We waited out the night, kept reporting to the rear. The firefights started dying off, and by the time the sun started coming up, there was no more artillery, no rockets, no flares, no aircraft overflying our position, no firefights. We figure that the Iraqis have stopped on the border. And everybody starts breathing a little easier, relaxing a little bit.

“Then we hear this really high-pitched whine. It’s getting louder and louder. My first thought was that it was a jump jet, one of the jets that took out the Iraqi armor that night. So I’m thinking to myself, ‘Hey, cool. I get to see a jump jet flying through the city.’ So we’re all watching the street because it sounds like it’s coming down there. And that’s when we saw ’em.

“Here they come, the Iraqi armored forces in their type 531 APCs [armored personnel carriers]. They’ve got the APCs packed, and there’s guys sitting on top. They’ve got these black coats on. They look like Darth Vader storm troopers. On each APC they’ve got a guy with a heavy machine gun, and he’s looking all over. At first it didn’t register. I was like, ‘No, it can’t be.’ Then I started noticing: ‘Okay, Chinese APCs. Russian weapons. It’s the Iraqis. Great.’ We were basically surrounded.

“It’s kind of weird, because you realize, ‘Shit, these guys are here to kill me.’ If they spot me, they’re not going to say, ‘Freeze!’ They’re just going to fire us up. And we’re six people against armor, rocket launchers and a battalion-size unit reinforced by Iraqi special forces.

“From where we were, we could observe them as they moved south, but as they passed by—about 40 yards away—our view was blocked by a four-story building about 100 yards down the street, and we couldn’t tell what they were doing. Around 8:30 [P.M.], we decided to move down the street to that building. It was dangerous to move, but the only way we could continue to observe them was to get into that building. That’s when the adrenaline really started pumping. We closed the doors behind us and slipped out a back gate into a side street. We took up our standard order of march. My position was in the rear.

“We moved from spot to spot, cover to cover, bounding from cars to telephone poles to alcoves until we got to the building. Then we flew up the steps. It was good timing on our part. After we got in, they sent patrols into the side streets to look around.

“We set up on the roof behind a low parapet. If they found us up there, we knew we wouldn’t make it. We were just going to give them a fight and take as many with us as we could. It sounds like an old war movie, but that’s basically how we were thinking: ‘As much as we don’t want to go, we’re not going without a fight.”

“From the south wall I could see all the Iraqis in a hidden position. If you were coming into the city from the south, you couldn’t tell they were there. I could also see one of their tanks at the southern end of the city. So we established communications with the rear. There are special precautions we have to take now because some of the Iraqis are using our building as cover. You see them everywhere. It was like being on an island with sharks in the ocean around you.

“We started calling artillery and air onto their positions, giving constant reports. That’s one of recon’s main jobs—to call for fire. Because that’s the best way for a small team to inflict heavy damage. We spent the day like that. And they told us on the radio that the relief force was going to be coming in that night. We thought, ‘Cool. Get us out of here. This is fun, but, hey, it’s time to go.’

“All that night it was a long-range battle. It was fought with heavy machine guns, missiles and rocket launchers, long-range mortars. All we could do was just hit the deck and become one with the ground. You stay exactly where you’re at. Dawn comes, and it starts getting even more intense, if you can believe that.

“We look on the northern side of our building, and to and behold, there’s even more Iraqi armor. And it looks like they’re massing. We called in on the radio and gave them a grid. The command post came back and said, ‘You realize that’s only 100 meters from your position?’ We said, ‘We know. Just give us the mission.’ They gave us a round, a big artillery shell that blows up in midair and releases all these baseball-size bomblets. Each little bomblet is capable of going through armor. It’s really good for taking out APCs because it will cover a large area.

“So [Marine artillery] gives us four guns firing 10 rounds apiece. It was like all hell’s breaking loose, because these rounds whistle in, and you hear a really loud crack in midair when they release the bomblets. Then the bombs hit, and it’s like a really long, deep peal of thunder. It shakes everything. On the last volley we heard that loud crack right above us. We looked up, and one of the rounds had burst over our heads. We start running in a crouch for the building.

“That’s when I got hit in the leg with a piece of shrapnel. Even then you’re on such an adrenaline pump that you don’t feel any serious pain. It felt like somebody had hit me with a baseball bat. It just knocked me to the deck. But I didn’t want to stay out there. So I just jumped up and ran inside the building. I was lucky I got hit with a small piece because the bigger pieces were turning foot-thick steel-reinforced concrete into confetti. What it did to the Iraqis, it vaporized them.”

The war in the gulf brought home a new word to Americans: Scud. At the same time it brought universal recognition to a new weapon, the Patriot missile. Army 1st Lt. Phoebe Jeter, 27, of Sharon, S.C., was the only woman to direct the launch of a Patriot missile during the war. In all, she sent up 13: “Thank God I had a nap before I came on duty the first night Scuds were launched in my direction. I had just settled down in the van, the Engagement Control Station, when the word we had a Scud alert came over my headset. It was about 12:40 A.M. on Jan. 21. My heart began to pound, and my throat constricted when the word came over: ‘Okay, folks. We have a Scud alert.’ We called our command post, and they sounded the alarm.

“Meanwhile, I kept looking at my green scope until I saw a TBM [tactical ballistic missile] coming directly at us. There was no time to think. All around I could hear the BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! of other Patriot units beginning to fire. The van began to rock. My scope looked like popcorn, there were so many Scuds [and other debris]. [At that point she ordered her assistant to fire.]

“The attack lasted less than five minutes, but it seemed like a long, long time. By the end, I had my gas mask on. Outside the van, the other soldiers said the sky looked like something from Star Wars. When we all started congratulating each other later on about how well we did, about the four Scuds the Patriots took down that night. I felt so proud. I thought to myself, ‘I can do anything. Anything I put my mind to, I can do.’ ”

Sometimes, though, the Scuds got through. Army PFC Anthony Drees, 23, of Grand Forks, N.Dak., had been in Saudi Arabia less than a week when a Scud barreled into his tin-plated barracks, leaving 28 dead and Drees fighting for his life: “I felt it more than I heard it. Then there was a loud snap. I went from standing over my cot to kneeling. There was just a numbing feeling over my whole body. Everyone was moving, kind of like zombies. A man shouted. ‘I’m hit! I’m hit!’ And I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, we’re all hit. Goddamn it!’

“I reached back with my hand to grab my legs. All I felt was a hole. They [my thighs] were both gone. Another guy I know, he had a funny look on his face. I looked down and he didn’t have any legs. I just put my arms across his chest and pulled him as close as I could to the wall, so he wouldn’t be so close to the fire. I wanted to be able to help so bad. But he died.

“I was like a three-legged dog trying to get out of there. I lay down on the road, and I told myself, ‘I can’t go to sleep and I can’t pass out. If I do, I’ll die.’ In a few minutes there was a man there helping me, and he asked me what I was doing. I said, ‘I’m praying.’ And he said, ‘Pray out loud. We’ll pray together.’ I started with, Thank you, Jesus,’ and I never stopped until I reached a Saudi hospital. I just thanked Him for being alive.”

On Jan. 21, Air Force A-10 jet pilots Randy Goff, 27, of Jackson, Ohio, and Paul Johnson, 33, of Dresden, Tenn., rescued downed Navy pilot Lt. Devon Jones, 30, of Los Angeles. Johnson: “We were about four and a half hours into the mission. We were using [Jones’s] call sign, and suddenly there was his voice [over a survival radio]. What was amazing to me was that his voice was very calm, very matter-of-fact; it actually bothered me, because in his situation down there on the ground in Iraq on the fifth day of the war, I just know I would have been yelling and screaming into my radio.”

Goff: “I know I would have been.”

Johnson: “Once he answered, we had to make sure who he was. You have to make sure this is not a trap, and we have methods to verify his identity. At the same time, we were trying to pinpoint his location because we couldn’t see anything below. I think it took another 45 minutes to pinpoint where he was. He was a lot farther north than we thought he would be, farther into Iraq.”

Goff: “By now, enough time had gone by that we had to get gas again.”

Johnson: “The guy was not crazy about hearing this, as you can imagine. But we had talked a good bit, and he sounded well. Obviously now that he’d made contact, he didn’t want to lose it. But we had no choice.”

Goff: “Fortunately nothing happened [while we were refueling in the air], and we got back to where the guy was down.”

Johnson: “When we got back a helicopter was in the area. We were in a three-way transmission—the helicopter, the guy on the ground and us—and we were trying to get it all together. Just as the helicopter started its approach, an [Iraqi] truck suddenly blundered into the area. We asked the guy if the truck was headed in his direction, and he said, yes, it was heading straight for him. The problem was no longer just the survivor on the ground but the helicopter as well. We could not afford to have the truck there.”

Goff: “The truck could have weaponry.”

Johnson: “The helicopter flew within 100 yards of that truck. We knew we had to destroy it.”

Goff: “We still didn’t know exactly where the survivor was, and we were concerned about bullets ricocheting. But our attitude was, ‘We gotta take care of this truck.’ So Paul goes in, and he shoots.”

Johnson: “And I miss. A clean miss.”

Goff: “I see the truck is still moving, and then I roll in and get a partial hit.”

Johnson: “And then I rolled in a second time and got a hit. At just about this time, the helicopter moved in to pick up the survivor. I’ll never forget it. He just got up out of his hole and started running in sort of a running crouch toward the helicopter. He looked like a brown sand creature.”

Goff: “It was on the way back that I began to think about all that happened. But it still didn’t seem to me that it was all that big a deal. I mean it was thrilling that the guy survived the ejection and that he was there. And it was a real good feeling that we were able to bring him out. But I didn’t feel like a hero.”

Otherwise known as Mess Daddy, S. Sgt. Ricky Portis, 33, of Chicago claims to have been the best Army cook in Saudi Arabia: “We were in Saudi Arabia for six and a half months. After a while the MREs [Meals Ready to Eat] were getting boring to the troops. And the only thing in Saudi Arabia—in a combat situation—that keeps a soldier going is mail and food. And I know, for me as a mess sergeant, I played an important role. I told my colonel I was going out scrounging. I scrounged fresh eggs, bacon, the whole nine yards. I did a lot of trading with the other cooks. I had a lot of extra parts for the kitchen, and they needed some. So I made trades with them.

“At breakfast I would make homemade biscuits from scratch. I would go to the Saudi store and buy cans of baking powder and flour. The store was about 20 klicks [kilometers] away, and my colonel and a lot of the officers would pitch in and give me the money. That was to motivate the troops.

“The best time I had, as far as cooking was concerned, was Thanksgiving, because I cooked for my own troops. I wasn’t consolidated with the other cooks. Thanksgiving was the best. We cooked turkey, roast beef, ham, corn-bread dressing, corn on the cob, shrimp cocktail, pie, a couple of cakes and had a lot of little candies. I didn’t have to do no work. I cooked; I didn’t have to wash nothing. The officers did all the cleaning; they volunteered to clean up. And I loved that!”

The mission was to take out Jalibah Airfield in southern Iraq. Army S. Sgt. Joe Colon, 30, of Hinesville, Ga., who commands a fire-support team vehicle, known as an FISTV, was part of the Feb. 26 attack: “I remember it was a clear, crisp morning—two kilometers visibility—even though the sun was just coming up. The airport was surrounded by buildings and hardened bunkers full of helicopters and planes. We softened them up by shelling with artillery and then an air attack led by Apaches and A-10s.

“At 0600 [6 A.M.] we were given the order to move forward. Each side of the airport was charged by 30 tanks and 30 personnel carriers. That’s a lot of armor. Imagine what the Iraqis were thinking when they saw that coming at them.

“We were traveling about 20 to 25 kilometers per hour over flat desert terrain, and the first thing I remember seeing was Iraqi tanks pouring out of buildings. I thought to myself, ‘No friendlies, let’s make them go away.’

“They immediately countered with artillery, tank rounds and small-arms fire. Yeah, it was scary. Rounds were flying everywhere, tracer bullets, explosions, a lot of smoke.

“Those first rounds are a shock. We moved as quickly as possible, dodging and weaving toward the base. We kept moving because on an FISTV, we don’t have much firepower, just an M-60 machine gun, which is nothing compared with what was coming at us.

“Then right in front of me, I saw three Bradleys [personnel carriers] take hits. Three bright flashes, shrapnel flying everywhere, lots of smoke. I said, ‘Holy cow!” Then I saw our friends on the ground. We pulled up to help out. I directed our vehicle in front of the wounded to shield them from enemy fire. I had promised myself and my team that our goal was to make sure we brought everybody back.

“We left the FISTV to help our friends and return fire in case the enemy moved up. Rounds were falling everywhere, but the good Lord was on our side. We ordered in some artillery and set off some smoke to confuse the enemy. One of my men got wounded, and the Bradleys had lost two men—a driver and an infantryman—both friends of ours. There were at least nine wounded all around us. Then the medics came forward to administer aid. Other Bradleys pulled up, and we were able to continue the mission. My crew did an outstanding job. We swept the airport and owned it by 9 A.M.”

B-52s have been a legend since they were introduced in the ’50s. In the gulf war, eight B-52s, flying from a Royal Air Force Base in Fairford, England, dropped bombs on Iraq. Capt. Brian “Disco” Lisko, 31, of West Palm Beach was one of the pilots: “If you were just bombing something on the border, you might be in-country for three or four minutes. But if you’re going to the central part, you might be an hour and a half in-country. It’s very demanding. And at night it was even tougher. There were a lot of lights and stars out; stars sometimes look like planes. I remember my copilot [Lt. Col. Tony Daniels, 40, of Greenville, S.C.] just looking out the window at all the triple A [antiaircraft artillery] exploding near us. It was actually shaking the plane. I was kind of watching with him, and then I looked over on the left side and all of a sudden I saw some SAMs [surface-to-air missiles] being launched.

“That got my attention. It just seemed to happen continuously that night; for a good 15 minutes there were several SAMs launched at us. You might see a bright flash on the ground, and at that point, you’re just looking to see if there are any new lights other than the lights that were already there. You’re seeing a glow, then a plume behind it, a flame. You just look at it out your window and make the crew aware that there’s the possibility a SAM is coming at you. If it stays in the same place on your window for a couple of seconds, that means it’s coming at you.

“Then you’re taking some sort of defensive action; I’m telling my EW [electronic-warfare officer] that we’ve got a SAM so he can do something [with missile-jamming devices]. If after three or four seconds the missile’s still coming at you, now it’s time for you as a pilot to maneuver the plane to avoid it.

“Our first two flights there were quite a few SAM launches, more than usual. That very first time I saw a SAM coming at me, I just never thought it would happen to me. I never thought I’d be in a war, and I never thought someone would be shooting at me.”

With F-18 jet fighters screaming overhead, Father Stan Dombrowski quietly held services on a plywood altar in a makeshift chapel. A priest at St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington, Del., Dombrowski, 43, was called up in the Naval reserve: “I’ve been a priest for eight and a half years, and I’m used to dealing with the sick and the hurting, the wounded and the dying. Being in the desert is like going to work, just commuting a little farther. Military life is not all that different from the seminary. I live in a tent with 12 other men, and I get up early. But the food’s a lot better here.

“I tell people I’m afraid too. When I said my final goodbyes before we left for Saudi Arabia, my friends said I was acting funny. I was dealing with the fear. Maybe I’d come back; maybe I wouldn’t. Out here you feel pure powerlessness. Every time we have a chemical alert, I throw myself to the floor just like everyone else and say, ‘Dear God, if this is it, let it be quick and painless.’

“The big question is how to deal with the trauma of those wounded in war. When I heard that the ground war had started there was almost a feeling of relief. Finally. I went off alone and prayed that it would end soon and that few would be injured or die. I needed to be by myself. I needed to be ready spiritually to deal with it all. You could sense the anxiety and apprehension and fear and deep concern as we thought of the people on the front lines and what they were facing.”