24 February 2012

Letters from the Gulf, Part I

Blog-editor's note: The following essay was written in November 1990, when I was my last semester of journalism school. The assignment wasn't for journalism class, however. The class was an experimental one, an interdisciplinary exploration of American identity and family history. It was taught by Bob Woodward—the other Bob Woodward, the one who had worked at the Washington Star, rather than the Post.

Sorry, some inside jokes never get old.

I must've kept the paper as much for Woodward's red-ink marks as I did to in order to preserve my sentiments. I'm glad I did on both fronts. Who could've predicted that, more than 20 years later, I'd find myself writing about similar themes: citizen-soldiers, overseas deployments, family histories.

I've decided to share the essay with Red Bull Readers, inspired by the examples provided earlier this week by Kurt Greenbaum's "Well, Happy, and Safe" blog-project, as well as Daniel Gade's "In the Event of My Death" project. Here's the lesson-learned: Everyday letters or words can help family members understand not only where we've been as citizen-soldiers, but who we were when we went.

In November 1990, my father had just returned from a 30-day deployment to Operation Desert Shield as a member of the 928th Tactical Airlift Wing, a U.S. Air Force Reserve unit that flew out of O'Hare Air Reserve Station, near Chicago. I was approximately 30 days away from graduation, and about to receive a commission in the U.S. Army. My father would administer my oath of enlistment. Because Uncle Sam had paid for two years of my schooling, and because of ongoing preparations in the Persian Gulf, I anticipated I would be ordered to 4 years of active-duty service.

The United States was then ramping up toward Operation Desert Storm. The Air War launched on Jan. 17, 1991. The Ground War launched on Feb. 23, 1991. Despite the uncertainty of post-graduate life, I joked that I was in the safest place in the Army—I was an untrained officer, unlikely to be placed into a position of harming himself or others. I still had an basic specialty course to complete, which, depending on my assignment, could range from three to six months of additional military schooling. Army school would start sometime within 12 months of my civilian graduation.

I figured the war would be there when I got back. I was wrong.

*****

'SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS'

Dad went off to war again in October.

It wasn't a "war" then, even if it later became one. It wasn't a "police action," or even a "conflict." If anything, it was a "deployment."

Dad's first war was Vietnam. That didn't start out as a "war," either, but during my own lifetime I've seen it grow into one.

Dad's second war was deployment to the Persian Gulf. It could have just as easily been a war, what with the press pandering to the public's worst fears of inevitable bloodshed in the Middle East. The perception was the reality, at least at that point.

*****

Mom said she never expected to go through it again, which I took at the time to mean she never expected to have Dad to again go off for weeks or months. Later on, I suspected she was talking more about war, about the chance of losing Dad.

She also said something about how friends and family might somehow be more concerned about Dad than she was, the military experience being a bit foreign to most. Mom probably wasn't less concerned about Dad than the rest of the world, but she was used to it, as much as one can be.

*****

As a young Air Force officer and navigator, Dad flew tactical airlift in Vietnam—a C-130 "Hercules", big four-prop camouflaged trash-haulers capable of flying in and out of just about anything, carrying just about anything. Dad's Vietnam experience was stereotypical Air Force—when he got close enough to the ground war, he didn't have to stay for long.

Almost 20 years later, Dad wore silver clusters instead of silver bars. He was back to flying C-130s, though, and he was back to flying in and around it.

His Air Force reserve unit supplied volunteers to Operation Desert Shield for 30-day rotations. Long enough to get the idea.

*****

This fall, Ken Burns' 11-hour public television series brought home the human drama of the Civil War not only through the words of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, but through the letters and diaries of the more common soldier and spouse.

The series so possessed the public mind that Newsweek magazine put the Civil War on its cover.

More recently, Newsweek magazine devoted a cover article to "Letters in the Sand." Like the Civil War series, that article brought the military experience home to America in real, personal terms.

For 30 days, Dad's letters brought the war home to Mom, in real, personal terms.

*****

Dad wrote about 10 letters to Mom during his 30 days, plus a couple to me at school and few to his folks. They were usually short, two pages at most, and on USO "Home Away From Home" stationery. He consistently stuck to four themes: the military mind, the "hooch," the weather, and how many things one could find in the middle of nowhere.

Throughout his writing, he managed to keep his sense of humor in play. He had to.

"The arrival was generally a mess," he wrote Sept. 15, having just gotten off a Tower Airlines jumbo jet. "Four hundred people with a pile of baggage can create a real disaster. Add to that—400 people leaving with a similar pile of baggage and I believe you've got the idea. [...]"

Dad continue to note examples of the ever-present, ever-oxymoronic "military intelligence." He wrote, "I might add the similarity between this 'Op' and 'Nam is the mentality of keeping 'military.' The edict yesterday was no sweatbands are to be worn with the uniform—unless working. Give me a break." (Sept. 21)

And on Sept. 22:
All is find as long as we keep finding things to do—fly and shop, etc. We are finding some of the precautions that are being observed are really "crowd control." I read that the Arabs are pleased to have our support but worry that we will influence their way of life. To reduce this "contact" our commanders are restricting our movements out side of our operational area. (compounds). What is amusing is that the UAE is currently 80% foreign nationals—I guess "they" don't influence the Arabs?
In a similar story, Dad grew fond of telling the about the safety briefing his crew received staying overnight in Cairo, which achieved record levels of contradiction. It went something like:
  • Don't go anywhere alone.
  • Don't go anywhere in groups.
  • Don't leave the hotel.
  • Don't be predictable in movement or routine. (The hotel bus to the airport left at the same time every day, however. Probably travelled by the same route, too.)
And one other favorite of mine, about one day's mission: "Just two stops but long legs with a rather interesting load—bomb parts made by Texas Instruments. Seems to be a dichotomy there somewhere."

[Editor's note: More than 20 years later, this last joke falls a little flat. Dad went to work for an avionics manufacturer for a few years after leaving the active-duty Air Force in 1979, so this might've been a jab against a former competitor. Operation Desert Storm also saw the first large-scale employment of smart-bomb technology by U.S. forces. He might have been making a wary reference to technologies the public was about to be seen on the nightly news for the first time. After all, since when did bombs drop where people actually wanted them?]

To be continued in the next Red Bull Rising blog-post ...

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