We deployed to Operation Desert Shield in August 1990. At the time, I commanded the 20th Special Operations Squadron, flying the MH-53 Pave Low helicopter, and roughly half of the squadron deployed while half of the squadron stayed home for other possible missions. The split of the squadron in this way was not a healthy thing, as half of us were living in the desert heat and in tents, far away from home and fearful that we might be there a long time with no real war to fight. Half were home and wishing to be in the desert in case there was a war. It was tough on bonding a squadron together, especially after about three months, when family strains were showing for some and not others.
Early in November, the president made an additional decision to deploy most of the troops from Europe to have offensive capability.
Our squadron had two primary missions as we trained in the desert: combat rescue alert and a special ops mission to attack two radar sites just north of the border with Saudi Arabia. These radar sites were far away from Kuwait, west of where we were stationed in Saudi by about 400 miles and straight south of the Iraqi capital city, Baghdad. We began training for these missions, and any other special operations missions that might come up, by late August. It was to be a joint helicopter mission, with us flying to lead Army Apache helicopters to the radar sites, which were their targets. Our helicopters had an integrated GPS navigation system and the Apaches had the firepower to destroy the targets. Our early flying in Saudi had taught us that the mapping of the Middle East was unreliable but our GPS was always right. The Apaches had all the firepower we would need to destroy the sites. The war plan placed this mission first on the attack plan, and the coalition air forces would pour into Iraq through the blind spot we would create in the Iraqi radar picture.
We had established our living conditions in tents and had endured the extreme heat of summer. We were getting used to it by October, when the weather cooled off significantly. We were practicing for the opening mission in earnest by that time. I put our best pilot on the job of planning the mission. He and I were the only guys in the squadron to know the timing of the mission. He included his flight engineer, Master Sgt. Mike Lael, on the planning. Lael would develop the program, navigation points, and timing for our mission computers.
Early in November, the president made an additional decision to deploy most of the troops from Europe to have offensive capability. My wing commander saw it as a two-month delay before any action would occur. As most of the wing was split in the same way as was my squadron, he ordered all of the commanders home for a month. In my case, I attended a Commander’s Training Course in Missouri, then a training exercise at my home base at Hurlburt Field, [Florida]. While I was there, Master Sgt. Bobby Jenkins came into the office and asked for some time to talk.
Bobby had set up his retirement the previous summer and had begun terminal leave at the beginning of October. I was sitting at my desk working on four months of backlogged paperwork. I looked up to see Bobby looking at me around the doorway. His hair was already pretty long and he had a nice looking, full moustache. The home half-squadron had given a hail and farewell in mid-October where Bobby had received his medal, his plaque, and had told everyone that his family needed him to get out of this business. I invited him in. I congratulated him on his now-completed career. I remarked that the recent announcement of “Stop Loss” would have caught him if he had not already been on terminal leave. He told me that he had come to talk to me about just that. He asked me if I thought the squadron needed him and, if so, what he could do to help.
I had an immediate answer for him, despite my surprise at the offer. I told him that we did need him, that the squadron’s helicopter gunner force certainly needed another master sergeant for leadership, and that I would like to see him in uniform to work things here in the states for another month or so, then I would send him over to Saudi Arabia by Christmas. The currently deployed lead gunner had spent four months in the desert and I couldn’t give him any relief without another six-striper. Bobby looked at me for a couple of seconds and said he’d go over to the base personnel office and see what he had to do to come in off terminal leave. By 2 o’clock that afternoon, a clean-shaven and short-haired Bobby Jenkins was sitting in the ops superintendents’ office working over the schedule of training the new gunners in the .50-caliber machine gun. Bobby looked into my office to tell me he had also stopped off at home to get back into uniform. He told me then that his wife, Dottie, might be a little upset at me since I had recalled him from terminal leave and officially prevented his retirement. I consented to taking the blame as long as Bobby didn’t think his wife was a violent person.
The war plan gave our helicopter operation the first mission of the war to cross the border into Iraq. We teamed with an Army Apache helicopter battalion commanded by Lt. Col. Dick Cody, whose unit also moved to Al Jouf.
As expected, we were allowed to trade some people at the beginning of December, and Bobby Jenkins came over and became the ranking helicopter gunner of the deployment. We still did not know if we were going to really have a war or whether we were going to sit in the desert and keep training for months to come. We knew the war plan, continued to train hard, and had a desert Christmas. We also watched the debates at the U.N. and in Congress on authorizing the president to use force and setting the 15th of January as the deadline for the Iraqis to leave Kuwait. The diplomacy and the congressional debates made our training and preparation more urgent in our minds. The U.N. set the deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait, so we also had a date set to ensure our readiness.