Veterans of the 24th Infantry Division who served during Operation Desert Storm came to Hinesville and Fort Stewart last week to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the conflict.
The war was known for its coalition, the fear of chemical attacks and a devastating air campaign. Soldiers on the ground, including the 24th ID, fought for 100 hours across open desert and against a large army.
Francisco Irizarry was a private first class during Desert Storm, working as a field artillery surveyor. He would eventually retire as a sergeant first class.
Irizarry arrived at Fort Stewart, his first duty station, in early 1990 and reported to 1st Battalion, 41st Field Artillery Regiment. Irizarry said he did not think much of the invasion of Kuwait until his unit was put on alert.
The unit started preparing for deployment, including organizing equipment and writing wills and powers of attorney, according to Irizarry.
“Training on chemical warfare, things like that. Learning the customs of our host country,” Irizarry added.
Steve Harrington, a specialist at the time in 1-41 FA, was tasked with driving a Humvee during the war.
Before the invasion of Kuwait, 24th ID had rotations to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, and Harrington said NTC helped prepare the soldiers for the war.
“The 24th Infantry Division was the only heavy division in the Army at the time that had actually trained for desert combat and for nuclear, biological and chemical,” he said. “And we were the only division in theater at the time that had sand-painted vehicles.”
The desert terrain of the training center and the tactics of the opposition force trainers also helped the division be prepared to fight the Iraqi army, according to Harrington.
The opposing force at NTC used “Russian tactics and doctrine, which actually helped us, in my personal opinion, because that’s what the Iraqis did,” he said. “And they were trained by Russian advisers.”
Once the soldiers landed in Saudi Arabia, they were positioned at a cement factory, setting up tents in what later became known as Cement City.
After the 24th ID soldiers offloaded their equipment from ships, they moved to a defensive perimeter in September 1990 outside of Al-Sarar.
From that point until the start of the ground war, the 24th ID trained in a variety of areas, including chemical attacks. Soldiers had to keep their gas masks with them at all times because of the threat of chemical weapons from Iraq.
The unit moved again to attack positions near the border with Iraq in January 1991. Harrington would have guard duty at night, and even today he still remembers how beautiful and clear the desert sky was.
On the night of Jan. 16, 1991, Harrington was on guard duty when he noticed something different about the sky.
“And I remember sitting out there, and right about towards midnight, right before my shift ended, I noticed the stars were blinking, and I was like, ‘I don’t remember seeing that star.’ And then I just started seeing more and more and more,” he said. “And they all were moving.”
It seemed like the whole sky was moving.
“And then I realized that it was airplanes, and we would see airplanes in the sky at night before, but not at this magnitude,” Harrington added.
Harrington had seen the beginning of the massive air campaign that lasted for 38 days, according to the 25th Anniversary edition of “The Victory Book,” by JW Sternickle.
Once 24th ID was given the order to start the ground attack, Harrington said his unit started to compile information on what the soldiers were going to encounter once they crossed the border.
“We were actually expecting like 75 percent causalities,” he said. “It was supposed to be pretty bad. And a couple of guys went back to the rear and came back with stacks of body bags and toe tags.”
Irizarry was on one of those details to get the body bags for his 15-man surveyor section.
“I remember loading up the 15 body bags for 15 surveyors onto the Humvee and I think that’s when, like, oh man, one of those bags is reserved for me,” he said.
For his 19-year-old self, it was a heavy moment.
Iraq had also recently fought a long war with Iran, whereas most of the combat veterans in the U.S. Army were from Vietnam.
Iraq also had the fourth-largest Army in the world at the time, and the coalition was going to fight Iraqi soldiers on their home turf.
The U.S. Army also had equipment that had not been tested in combat at the time, such as the M1A1 Abrams, Harrington said. Eventually their training, weapons and technology were proven to be the superior in the conflict.
Joseph L. Galloway, a reporter well-known for his war coverage and the book “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young,” was embedded with 24th ID by longtime friend Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., commander of the coalition forces during the war.
“Schwarzkopf sent me to the 24th. He said, ‘I know you want to go with the (cavalry), you got history with the CAV, but they’re in central reserve in my war plan and they may not see any action. So I’m going to send you to the commander who is most like Gen. Hal Moore and the division that has the most-dangerous mission in my battle plan.’”
“And I said, ‘Gee, Norm, I thought we were friends,’” he said, laughing.
Once the 24th ID crossed the border on Jan. 24, 1991, they began their more-than 300-mile journey through the desert, making the large “Left Hook” up toward the Euphrates River and then turning right toward Basra.
Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey was the 24th Infantry Division commanding general during Desert Storm.
“When we attacked north, the first several hundred miles we encountered — the Iraqis had border security posts along the border, but from then on, there was sporadic resistance because this was dead desert,” he said. “And essentially except for Bedouins and specialized units, the Iraqis did not believe that anyone could move across that kind of country.”
“The objective, in all the briefings I was in, was that we were going to take out the Republican Guard once and for all and make sure that they couldn’t do anything like this ever again,” Harrington said.
“And so our mission was never really to free Kuwait,” he went on. “It was to kill the Republican Guard, and we did that mission and we did it very well.”
On the last night of the war, four brigades of artillery fired in support of 24th ID, according to McCaffrey.
“And it was the most amazing display of fireworks I’ve ever seen in my life,” Harrington said of that night.
Galloway remembered a moment from the morning the war ended with now-retired Lt. Gen. John LeMoyne.
“I walk up to him, and he’s got the only hot cup of coffee in a hundred miles of cold desert, and he gave me half of it,” Galloway said. “And I said, ‘Well, what do you think, John?’ and he said, ‘You know, son,’ he said, ‘any day that a war ends is a good day.’ So I got a half a cup of hot coffee and a little wisdom there.”
The reunion meant something different for everyone who attended in the last week.
“These are my brothers. Sisters, too,” Galloway said about what it means to be at the reunion. “And you know, what’s life if you don’t turn up to say hey to your friends. And these are my friends. I rode to battle with them. They shared all that they had with me.”
The reunion is also a time that Irizarry feels he can support the 24th ID soldiers who served in Desert Storm with him.
Irizarry still feels survivor’s guilt for being alive while soldiers who had families died.
“I think my purpose now is to keep this group together,” he said. “And bring more in and saying we’re a family, we’re a Taro Leaf family.”