Gulf War I Veterans on Front Lines of Gulf War II

New York Times

December 23, 2002

South of the Kuwait-Iraq Border (AP) – When Eric Olson was 19, he drove a tank in the U.S.-led blitz to drive Saddam Hussein’s occupying army out of Kuwait.

For 50 hours, Olson fought sleep and fear at the controls and kept moving in a high-tech, violent battle that turned much of the Iraqi army into a blasted trail of pulverized vehicles and bodies as they tried retreating to Baghdad.

Today, Olson is 31 and sergeant of 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company. He is one of the Gulf War veterans passing down experiences from 11 years ago to help train a new generation to take on Saddam again if war breaks out.

“Out here, the only law is who’s a better shot, who’s a quicker trigger,” said Olson, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “I don’t know if my past will give them an edge, but it will possibly give them insightfulness on what they might have to expect in the very near future.”

Gulf War old hands are hardly rare in the military, but since the ground war was fought primarily by tanks and armored infantry, the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division — one of its two armored divisions — has a high proportion of veterans.

They were prominent in weekend live-fire maneuvers in the Kuwaiti desert involving the division’s 2nd Brigade, putting thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles through the largest exercises in the border area since the Gulf War.

The Gulf War-era tank drivers are now senior sergeants, the company commanders now lead battalions. Their graying hair stands out among young soldiers mostly in their early 20s, facing war for the first time.

One is 1st Lt. Ryan Kuo, 25, of Reno, Nev., a West Pointer who leads Olson’s 2nd Platoon and says his experience of the Gulf War was “sitting on the couch and watching it on CNN.”

Though they are separated by only a few years, the life experiences between the sergeant and lieutenant are much wider. Their partnership is vital to their unit’s success. Both are highly confident about the focus of their troops and in the superiority of their equipment.

The knowledge passed down by the veterans brings a dose of reality to what until now has been a military career marked by training exercises.

“Some of the stories you hear about the remains of bodies that you cross after they’ve been destroyed, the attacks they’ve done — obviously, that’s going to create hesitancy, as any war would,” Kuo said.

But Kuo added, “these guys help us out a lot in terms of confidence and the experiences they’ve had while they were here in 1991 in allowing us to train realistically.”

The training conditions are harsh. The Kuwaiti desert is flat and devoid of vegetation. There is no shelter from sand-filled winds howling up to 60 mph. The nighttime winter temperatures drop to near freezing.

Those fighting conditions are ideal, however, compared to the scorching heat of the Kuwaiti summer, which is harder on equipment and men and means the force will lose much of its effectiveness.

The men see the end of March as the deadline for a fight and expect to be the first tanks crossing the border if efforts to peacefully divest Saddam of weapons of mass destruction fail.

Commanders are ordering their troops to get in the habit of conserving water, fuel and food. They are likely to live on what they carry until the attack is over.

Lt. Col. Eric Schwartz commands the battalion task force including Alpha Company, which he led during the Gulf War. The Army is more high-tech these days, but a chief focus of training is to give his soldiers confidence and focus.

“It’s the human aspect,” Schwartz said. “How do you motivate young soldiers to go into an environment that’s absolutely terrifying?”

Not all the new troops are youngsters. At 33, Pfc. Andrew K. Burt, of Raleigh, N.C., is older than his company commander and platoon sergeant and lieutenant.

Burt signed up nine months ago, motivated by Sept. 11 and a poor job market. The experience of Olson, his veteran sergeant, brings a feeling of security that “we’ll make it through OK,” he said.

“He tells us a lot about what to expect, what we have to be prepared for physically and emotionally,” Burt said. “He said it would be something that would weigh heavily on us for some time to come afterward, but that we’d get through it.”

Unlike in 1991, the area is no longer strange to American troops. The United States has maintained a brigade-sized force in Kuwait since the end of the Gulf War as a deterrent against attack. The brigades rotate every six months and are experienced in ways of the desert.

Some things haven’t changed. Olson said that his memories of the buildup to the Gulf War include camaraderie, “the guys lying on top of the tank. That’s coming back again.”

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