On the evening of January 16, 1991, I was with my parents and brother at the Pierre Bossier mall in Bossier City, Louisiana collecting autographs. Several members of the Houston Astros were there as part of a regional winter PR tour. Like Ralphie waiting in line for Santa Claus in A Christmas Story, this was a big deal to me. At 12 years old, baseball is what I was all about, and I'd spent days waiting for the event.
There was an undercurrent of stress that night, however. It was like people were bracing for impact. I remember that -- even as a kid.
The January 15th deadline for Saddam Hussein to begin removing his forces from Kuwait had passed hours earlier. And it wasn't just that the U.S. had over half a million troops massed in the Arabian desert, poised for war. It was that America hadn't used its military in a way remotely close to this since Vietnam. There was this fear -- a complex really -- that any large-scale war we attempted would end up the same way. I got that from watching the news during the buildup. Or maybe it was just my perception from living with a mother whose cousin had been killed at Long Khanh in South Vietnam.
After I got my autographs, we went to the food court for dinner. My parents picked out a table and we set our stuff down to go order. I held onto my autographed cards. As we approached the counter of a burger place, I could hear a radio in the background. An older gentleman working the counter was a few feet away, listening to it. When he saw us, he came back. He didn't look good. He looked somber and sad. Without a thought to our order, he said quietly, "It's started. They just started bombing."
Of course, for me, this was exciting. There was a hint of adrenaline. This was war. And it was suddenly more interesting than baseball. It was to be my gateway drug. My mother saw it very differently. She turned away and slowly walked back to the table. She sat down and started to cry. I hadn't seen her cry in public like that before.
We hurried home. During the ride, we listened to initial reports come in. My parents didn't say anything. Back at home, every TV channel was providing coverage -- for the most part, commercial-free. Anchors were providing frenetic updates, while the country got its first glimpse of Baghdad's green lightshow. The country had tuned in to what would become America's first reality show.
To me, this first taste was what I thought war was all about. The tension. The bombing. The rush of seeing these things happen live. SCUD missiles. Norman Schwarzkopf. It was primetime war. Unlike my mother -- or the troops in Saudi Arabia -- I had no concept of what was really occurring.
In hindsight, 20 years later, I see this differently. Having witnessed that same Baghdad sky lit up with tracer fire in person, I get it. I get that what happened in 1991 was horrible for all sides involved, but necessary on our part. And I get that those American troops in their chocolate chip DCUs -- many of whom with I later served -- paved the way for today's troops in countless ways.
Among the anniversaries of war, the transition from Operation Desert Shield to Operation Desert Storm is a small one. It doesn't even mark the actual beginning of the war, which started with the invasion of Kuwait. But what I know about war now is that this date is important. It's important to the troops who served there, as well as to their families. It was a big deal and it should be remembered. It was a turbulent time. And I just wanted to bring it up -- since it happened 20 years ago tonight.
Also available at Vantage Point, the official blog of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.