DISPATCH FROM IRAQ: A sandstorm and a history lesson in the Kuwaiti desert
Special to the Nevada Appeal
We were only supposed to be at the Udari Range for three days. Three days of sleeping on hard floors in a Quonset hut. Three days of no showers or running water. Three days of hot-box latrines that smelled like a petting zoo.
We were there for five.
Training ran us well into day four and the plan was to pack up our trucks and make the four-hour return trip back to camp.
No such luck.
A vicious sandstorm blew into Arifjan completely blocking out the sun for nearly two days and rendering the roads impassable.
Kuwaiti sandstorms are nothing like the summer-monsoon-season duststorms I remember from my youth in Arizona. Kuwaiti sandstorms laugh at Arizona in disgust.
The sand blown by the hot, fierce winds is more like abrasive talcum powder than sand. If one is unfortunate to get caught in one – like when we were walking back from chow – one’s best defense is to bury your face in your arms as best as you can, and press forward, squinty-eyed, to the nearest shelter.
The sand blasts any exposed skin, gets in your mouth and nose, and burns your eyes like pepper spray.
And It doesn’t end when the winds die. The remaining silt hangs motionless in the air until it settles to the ground. This storm took two full days to settle. ]
In the meantime, we waited for the word that the roads were clear enough to drive.
The fifth day broke with little hope that we would be leaving. Although it was a bit clearer, the sand still hung in the air like a thick fog. So we sat on our trucks, parked in their marching order, and we waited.
6:30 a.m. Day 5.
Word comes that the roads are clear enough to drive but with no guarantee for how long. Soldiers leapt from their trucks, started engines and completed radio checks with lightning efficiency seldom seen. We wanted to get the hell out of Udari.
I had personally run out of clean socks and underwear two days before and was quickly growing tired of my own stench.
Our convoy made its way to the front gate and past the private security contractors who manned it. The Kuwaiti highway spread out ahead of us, fading into the dusty morning. We drove south, deeper into Kuwait and away from Iraq – if only for a few days. The farther south we drove, the clearer the air became until we left the dust behind.
Then I realized where we were. The stretch of highway upon which we were traveling was the very same road thousands of Iraqi troops had used as they tried to flee American forces after Iraq invaded Kuwait during the first Gulf War in 1991.
I had read about and seen photos of the Highway of Death. The U.S. Air Force had caught the Iraqis in the open as they fled.
The Air Force annihilated them. The resulting carnage was apocalyptic. Vehicles and human bodies turned inside out by bombs and rockets. Untold numbers of Iraqi soldiers never got out of their vehicles and burned to death in the wreckage.
Ahead in the distance, shapes started to emerge in the sand and grew larger and thicker as we got closer. Our convoy slowed as we passed.
The wreckage from 1991, left as a silent testament to the carnage and hell of war, was still there, simply bulldozed off to the side of the road.
Vehicles of every shape and size poked from the sand in mutilated shapes. The Iraqis stole from the Kuwaitis whatever vehicles they could to escape. Buses, construction vehicles, military trucks, Soviet era tanks, even luxury cars. The pilots of the Air Force A-10 Warthogs must have had a field day as they made pass after pass over the Iraqi forces, stalled on the highway in a miles-long traffic jam.
Rockets and depleted uranium shells tore into the Iraqi column, literally shredding them and turning vehicles inside out. I saw a full-size bus that had been torn open length wise and looked like a canoe. I wondered how many human remains were still out there. I doubted that the Iraqis were in any shape in the months following the Gulf War to recover many of their dead.
We continued south and back to Arifjan, leaving behind a part of history. Tired, hot, sweaty and dirty, we turned in our trucks to the motorpool and our weapons to the arms room and shuffled back to the barracks.
Training was over.
A year of preparation and planning had come to an end. Ahead lay nearly another year of putting all of that training to the test. In just a few short days we would pull our first mission.
We were finally ready.
Sgt. Gary H. Underhill, a deputy with the Carson City Sheriff’s Office and married father of three, is a National Guardsman stationed with the 1864th Transportation Co., 1st Gun Truck Platoon in the Persian Gulf. Underhill will be writing about his experiences during the 12-month deployment of his unit during the largest deployment of Nevada Guardsmen in the history of the state.