in Geezer

Desert Storm 20 years later

USS Elliot (DD-967) in North Arabian Gulf, circa 1998

Sunday was the 20th anniversary of the start of Operation Desert Storm. Hard to believe it’s been that long.

When Desert Storm started, I was in the Navy and spending a week in training at NSGA Imperial Beach, which was far closer to vacation than war. My ship, the USS Elliot (DD-967), had just come out of the yards for long-needed maintenance so the ship was pierside at the time and the crew was taking advantage of the time ashore to do some training. Like a lot of Americans, my experience of the fighting came from CNN, though I had the advantage of being able to read classified intelligence reports as the war raged.

Then, almost as soon as it started, the war was over. We declared victory, packed up, and went home. Saddam did the same, and a dozen years later we were back in Iraq. I knew right then that not marching on Baghdad would bite us in the ass. But why spoil a parade, right?

My ship deployed a month or two later. We spent half of our six-month deployment doing doughnuts in the Persian Gulf (er, … I mean “Arabian Gulf”). For those of you who don’t know, 99.9% of the time the Gulf is the most boring bodies of water you’ll ever come across. It’s that .1% that will kill you, though, and that’s what kept us on our toes. That old saying of “days of boredom punctuated by seconds of sheer terror” applies to the Gulf.

The fighting had stopped by the time we arrived but danger still lurked. A French vessel sailing nearby pointed out a floating mine to us and a SEAL team that had deployed with us detonated it. One of my collateral duties was being an intelligence photographer and I was itching to go on the helicopter with the SEALS to photograph the mine’s detonation. Instead I was relegated to watch the detonation from the ship’s foc’sle with the rest of the crew.

BOOM! A huge wall of water hundreds of feet high rose into the air as the mine was detonated. Even a mile away we could feel the pressure wave. I gulped at the sight and gained a new appreciation for the hazards that lurked nearby. Fortunately, this was the extent of the combat I saw during Desert Storm.

I was actively scuba diving at that time, and one of the things I noticed is just how polluted and lifeless the Gulf seemed four months after the war began. I had dived the Gulf on the previous deployment and was delighted at its tropical fish and great visibility. On the return trip, the Gulf was dirty and almost completely devoid of life. I’ll never forget the sad sight of a lone dolphin swimming slowly through the murky water. The reason for the lifeless water was Iraqis’ opening of the oil valves at Sea Island in Kuwait, spilling over 330 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. The Persian Gulf Oil Spill is still considered history’s largest oil spill into a body of water, easily dwarfing last year’s Deepwater Horizon spill.

I also vividly remember the black oily smoke from the hundreds of oil well fires in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti oil fires made the Gulf in the middle of the day as dark as dusk. No amount of cheesecloth placed over air vents or faces could filter that black, choking smoke. It was everywhere.

During that deployment we mostly circled the Gulf. Occasionally, though, we’d practice escorting a tanker north to Kuwait. One such escort brought us within a half-mile of Kuwait’s oil terminal. I braved the smoky skies to take a picture of me at the edge of Kuwait. It was as close as I ever got to the country.

The ship would pull into port about once every two weeks and we spent many of those weekends in Oman. I remember meeting Kuwaitis there who spoke perfect English, wore Lakers T-shirts, and seemed to have more money than they knew what to do with. They were all very polite, though, and seemed to be happy to meet Americans. Some of them had even left “Viva Bush!” graffiti around the city, something that seems laughable now.

When we finally left the Gulf for Australia I was not at all disappointed, to put it mildly. Even in October the thermometer would top out over 120 degrees. The hellaciously hot days wore on me, and also the boredom of circling the lake known as the Persian Gulf.

Still, I was always interested in returning to the Gulf and visiting the cities there in more detail. I was actually planning a trip to show my wife around Dubai when our plans suddenly changed. The date was September 11, 2001.