Desert Storm: Marching into the Unknown

The media is very enamored of the phrase “boots on the ground.” Every time they talk about soldiers deploying, they reduce the individual men and women to a pair of boots on the ground. I am not a boot. I am a woman who went to war.

It was October 27, 1990, and it was the day. A sergeant went through the barracks, pounding on the door, yelling, “Wake up! Wake up!” I think I was a zombie as I got dressed and went out to the formation. We were into fall, and the Washington State air was chilly. It was still dark out — I always felt like it was too early when I got up and the sun hadn’t come up.

This time, news crews were out waiting for us with their cameras, along with a lot of family members for the married soldiers. Most of the photos you see in the news are the male soldier kissing his wife and or hugging his tearful children. Everyone forgets that there’s a single soldier, too, that’s deploying.

And I know someone will condescendingly say that family could have come if they wanted, and that’s not true. No opportunity was given to any of families of the single soldiers. We didn’t have an official date until the week we left. That only allowed families who lived nearby to come. Anyone out of state was out of luck. Who can afford short notice airfares when the cost goes from three digits to four for a flight?

So all the single soldiers could do was stand in formation and be an audience for the farewells of the married soldiers and try to ignore how alone and isolated it made us feel.

Then it was time, and I was both glad to get moving and get it over with and wishing the time could drag on forever. The first sergeant moved me down to the end of the formation. I didn’t have a sense of rhythm, so I was always out of step when marching. He didn’t want me embarrassing him on the 6:00 news, and maybe I would be less noticeable at the end of the line. So I didn’t even march out in my platoon.

Then, “Company! Attention!” And we were marching down the street. We hadn’t been told where we were going, so it was unnerving marching off into the unknown.

Military buses took us from nearby Jensen gym to the airport. It was still dark out, though the sky was beginning to lighten by the the time we arrived. A light rain fell, coating the ground with water. Of course, this was Washington State, so rain was not unusual, but years later I read in the Tacoma Morning News Tribune that it had turned into a full blown storm that had caused damage. The world was already going on without us.

A 747 jumbo jet waited on the runway for us. The military worked with the airlines to have soldiers sent over on commercial jets. The jumbo jet was a double decker plane. Officers and senior enlisted were in the top, and the enlisted in the bottom. Ever try walking up one of those aluminum airline stairs with a rifle? The stairs were very steep and very narrow, so even someone as small as me had trouble fitting with all my gear. I don’t know how the bigger men managed. I was afraid I was going to fall!

The air crew regarded us with nervousness that they tried to mask with customer service smiles. It’s hard to be friendly when you’re terrified, and they were frightened of us. I guess they’d never been around so many rifles before. The unreality of what was happening to us was reinforced by the air crew instructing us to “Show your guns in the overhead compartments.”

Once the rifles were tucked safely behind the closed doors of the compartments, then the crew began to relax.

But a new problem quickly developed. We were traveling with another company. Because everyone was concerned about the weight of our equipment — rifles are heavy! — our company commander instructed us to only bring our ruck sack (army back pack), rifle, and a small bag, which was big enough to hold magazines. But the other company brought on huge carry-ons and gym bags and whatnot. The air crew thought we were too heavy to take off.

There was most disturbing talk about taking off some of our pallets of duffel bags and leaving them behind. Our company’s. Not the one who brought too much stuff. I had visions of getting over the Saudi Arabia and having absolutely nothing!

One pallet was offloaded. It contained the training records from my office — a gold mine today since it contained social security numbers, and my squad leader’s fishing pole. He’d planned to do fishing in the Persian Gulf while we were there. The pallet would be shipped separately.

Anxiety made my stomach do flip-flops. All the delays were just making things worse. Then, at last, the plane was light enough, and we were racing into the rising sun. Ten thousand miles. It was the farthest I’d ever been from home, and journey was more than miles.