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Vipers in the Storm
Chapter Review


I completed my last flight in the F-16 Fighting Falcon on 28 February 1991 - the last night of the war.  Shortly after I returned to the United States, I decided to leave the Air Force.  I had accomplished everything I wanted as a fighter pilot, and the fact that I had spent twenty-one of the past twenty-four months away from my family convinced me that it was time to move in a new direction.  Leaving the Air Force was difficult, and at times I've regretted it.  Nothing will ever replace the camaraderie of a fighter squadron or the exhilaration of flying the F-16.  I miss the challenge of flying upside down in the middle of the night, a few hundred feet above the ground at 600 miles per hour.  I miss nine-G turns, the thrill of shacking a target, and the never-ending pursuit of the perfect sortie.

When my friends and I touched down at Al Minhad Air Base on 29 August 1990, we thought we were ready for war.  But when members of Congress proposed economic sanctions that might have lasted a year or more, our morale was crushed.  None of us was ready for a protracted stay in the UAE desert.  We wanted to fight or come home - period!  In retrospect, it is clear that initiating sanctions and pursuing diplomacy was the correct course of action.  President Bush needed time to assemble the international coalition, and our military needed time to reposition its forces in the Middle East.

While American troops prepared to deploy, a stopgap was needed to prevent Saddam Hussein's military from capturing the eastern province of Saudi Arabia.  If Saddam had wanted his army to cross the border and advance south, American ground forces would have been hard pressed to stop them.  Casualties would have been extremely high, and the Iraqi leader would have likely gained control of Saudi Arabia's strategic oil fields.  As it turned out, airpower became the deterrent that kept Iraqi forces from advancing further.  A few days after the invasion of Kuwait, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney met with King Fahd and convinced the Saudi ruler to allow American forces into his kingdom.  In the days that followed, the role of airpower began to take shape.  Fighter units from Langley and Shaw Air Force bases departed for the Middle East, and the largest airlift in military history was under way.  Over the next six months, Military Airlift Command (MAC) aircraft flew more than 15,000 strategic airlift missions, transporting more than 483,000 passengers and 521,000 tons of cargo.  In addition to the C-5s and C-141s, 151 MAC C-130s provided tactical airlift within the Kuwait Theater of Operations.  These aircraft flew approximately 47,000 sorties, delivering more than 209,000 troops and 300,000 tons of cargo.

The role of airlift was extremely important.  Even more critical, though, was the performance of the tanker community.  During the war, every F-16 sortie originating from Al Minhad AB required pre-strike refueling.  In some cases, post-strike refueling was also necessary.  Without the tankers, our wing and a number of others would have virtually been grounded.  The fighters and bombers received most of the glory, but the contribution of the tanker community cannot be overlooked.

America's success in the air is also a tribute to the effort put forth by the men and women who worked on the ground.  During Operation Desert Storm, the U.S.-led coalition flew approximately 110,000 sorties.  Of that number, 4,052 were flown by the F-16s assigned to the 388th TFW.  Only 71 sorties were aborted for maintenance reasons during the war, giving the wing an incredible sortie effectiveness rate of 98.2 percent.  We demanded a great deal from our maintenance personnel and they came through for us with flying colors.  I am proud to say that of the thirty combat missions I flew, I never once had to abort a single jet.

Years have passed since the end of the Persian Gulf War, and a day doesn't go by that I'm not reminded of the experience.  When I hear the commanding voice of James Earl Jones announce, "This is CNN," my mind immediately flashes back to the o'club lounge at Al Minhad.  When I fly into Salt Lake City and pass over Hill AFB, I look down at the end of the runway and still see Colette waving.  Looking back, I would have been extremely disappointed if our unit had been left behind during the initial deployment.  On the other hand, the war stole a part of my life that can never be replaced, and left me with a burden of guilt that will remain in my heart forever.  I felt compassion for the people of Kuwait and everything they went through.  I also felt compassion for the people of Iraq.  Many of them were innocent victims of Saddam Hussein's brutality, and I feel bad for any additional suffering that I personally may have caused them.  Time has a wonderful way of healing wounds, and I hope I have an opportunity to visit with the people of Iraq some day, under circumstances different than my last visit.

During the past few years, many people have criticized President Bush and his administration for failing to remove Saddam Hussein from power.  Some have even suggested that the war ended too soon.  On 8 August 1990, when President Bush announced that troops were being deployed to Saudi Arabia, he looked the American people in the eye and said: "Four simple principles guide our policy: the immediate unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the restoration of Kuwait's legitimate government, the restoration of security and stability in the Persian Gulf region, and the protection of the lives of Americans abroad."  President Bush reiterated these goals in the months preceding the war, and during the war itself.  He assured the American people, our coalition partners, and, most importantly, the people of Iraq, that we had no intention of seizing Baghdad and installing a new government.  On 27 February 1991, President Bush sat in the Oval Office with his advisers and asked each of them if these objectives had been achieved.  Everyone in the room answered yes, and at that point, the decision was made to end the war.

During Operation Desert Storm, 148 Americans were killed in action and 467 more were wounded.  In addition, forty-four Americans were listed as missing in action and nine were captured as prisoners of war.  A total of 157 Americans were killed in non-combat related incidents, including 105 casualties during Operation Desert Shield.  While any American death is unacceptable, it must be pointed out that casualties were extremely light compared to previous conflicts.  If President Bush had ordered American forces into Baghdad, he would have contradicted everything he had said during the previous six months, the coalition would have come apart, and many more Americans would have been killed.  If that had happened, the same people who now criticize President Bush for not going to Baghdad would instead be criticizing him for having lied to the American people.

Another issue that has gained a lot of attention during the past few years is Gulf War syndrome.  To date, my health has not been affected, and, to my knowledge, everyone I flew with in the Gulf is also in good health.  Al Minhad AB was 497 miles away from the southern tip of Kuwait, so we never worried about an Iraqi chemical attack.  Were trace amounts of chemical agents released into the air?  I believe they were, because allied pilots bombed the manufacturing facilities, as well as ammunition dumps that probably contained chemical weapons.  Consideration should also be given to the large amount of toxic chemicals that were released into the air when Iraqi forces torched hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells.  Some scientists suggest that P-Bromide tablets - intended to combat chemical weapons - might have caused Gulf War syndrome.  I will not speculate on this because, like most of the pilots at Al Minhad, I threw away my P-Bromide tablets.  However, regardless of what the cause might be, the United States should step forward and take care of the men and women who are suffering from Gulf War syndrome.  These people gave America a reason to be proud of its military again.  To quote President Bush, "Our commitment to them must be equal of their commitment to their country.  They are truly America's finest."


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Copyright © 2003 by Keith A. Rosenkranz.  All rights reserved.
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