January 17, 1991, from 'My War - a wife's story'

Discovering a New Culture

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An American in Riyadh 1991

The January 15, 1991, deadline passed quietly in Saudi Arabia. The 545,000 Iraqi troops in and around Kuwait seemed to be waiting. The 539,000 American troops and the 270,000 Allied troops from more than two dozen nations waited also in the largest assembly of land and air power since World War II.

My family of five was in Riyadh with an American military advisory group that had been helping modernize the Saudi military for more than twenty years. The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq the previous August changed the mission for both countries considerably.

At three o'clock on the morning of January 17, l99l, our telephone rang. It was a neighbor from down the street calling to say we were bombing Iraq. Her husband was the duty officer that night, and he'd just called to let her know. My husband, Mike, wasn't the least bit surprised. He said he'd never had an alert called in his entire military career that hadn't started at three o'clock in the morning.

We got up. Mike started taping window seals. I started checking to make sure windows were locked shut before he got to them. I then pulled the drapes closed. They told me closing the drapes would cut down on the amount of shattered glass strewn throughout the house if windows broke. They didn't elaborate on why my windows might break. They were too busy telling me Riyadh would be a perfectly safe place for me and my children come what may. Nothing Saddam had could reach as far as Riyadh. That was the official line.

And I so-o-o wanted to believe them – whoever “they” were. I was in no hurry to return to my mother-in-law's house and give up a domain of my own. Mike's parents were very kind to take us in whenever the need arose, but even under the best of circumstances, which these were not, two families under one roof had inherent limitations. Let me be more specific. Two women under one roof had inherent limitations.

In all honesty, my biggest reason for not wanting to leave was the very real possibility that any fighting would only last a month or so, and if we left the command wouldn't let us come back until every last soldier went home. That was the picture our general was painting for us. And he said that return date could be as late as the end of the summer. So our plan for our family was to stay together in Riyadh, which meant, at three o'clock on the morning of January 17, I had things I knew I had to do.

I filled all three bathtubs in the house with as much water as they would hold. This act was insurance against the water supply being cut off or contaminated. The command suggested that too. Mike began moving half our horde of bottled water and MREs (meals ready to eat) into our upstairs walk-in closet from the storage room on the lower level of the villa. He divided our supply in two so we would have the means to meet basic needs if we had to take refuge either place: upstairs if there was a chemical attack and downstairs otherwise. All these precautions were things we were told might be a good idea, but would probably not be necessary. Yeah, Insha' Allah! These were the kinds of things you didn't really want to accept you might actually need to do, so you put them off until you knew for sure hostilities were really going to begin. Well . . . now we knew for sure.

In the process of going down our checklist, the phone rang again. It was Mike's Saudi unit calling the official alert. He needed to report to the brigade immediately. It was located just outside the city up on the escarpment, which was a stair step like topographical feature of the desert surrounding Riyadh. He was dressed to go in minutes, but before he could get out the door the Saudi air raid siren went off. We didn't know what it meant, so Mike called the duty officer to find out. Guess what? He didn't know either! Turned out it didn't mean anything except it was the Saudis way of letting the populace know things were starting. We learned this information later in the day, but at the time it made Mike more than a little nervous to be leaving his family without knowing what their circumstances might be. The siren went off again later in the day, but the intranet television ran a message at the bottom of the screen announcing it was a false alarm.

In his almost twenty years of being a soldier Mike trained thoroughly to go to war under every imaginable scenario. The Russians attacked. The Chinese attacked. The Iranians attacked. Or we attacked any of those guys first. But in all those years of training and scenarios, it never occurred to him before he went off to fight he might have to kiss his wife and tell her, "I'll call you later Honey. I'm late for the war!"

But he did kiss me goodbye, and he felt reassured that I was calm and doing all the things I wasn't supposed to ever have to do. The command gave the wives instructions “just in case.” Well “just in case” had started at three this morning.

Patriot Missiles Over Riyadh

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The Day We Hoped Wouldn't Come

It dawned on me I might consider getting dressed so I'd be ready for. . . for . . for whatever. That done, I turned on CNN and watched President George H. Bush telling America what was going on so far away. Yeah . . . so far away.

“As I report to you, air attacks are underway against military targets in Iraq. Our operations are designed to best protect the lives of all the coalition forces by targeting Saddam's vast military arsenal. Initial reports from General Schwarzkopf are that our operations are proceeding according to plan.

“Our objectives are clear: Saddam Hussein's forces will leave Kuwait. The legitimate government of Kuwait will be restored to its rightful place, and Kuwait will once again be free.

Some may ask: Why act now? Why not wait? The answer is clear: The world could wait no longer. While the world waited, Saddam Hussein systematically raped, pillaged, and plundered a tiny nation, no threat to his own. While the world waited, Saddam sought to add to the chemical weapons arsenal he now possesses, an infinitely more dangerous weapon of mass destruction -- a nuclear weapon.

“The United States, together with the United Nations, exhausted every means at our disposal to bring this crisis to a peaceful end. While the world waited, Saddam Hussein met every overture of peace with open contempt. While the world prayed for peace, Saddam prepared for war.”

When the address was finished I thought I might try to get some more sleep since the children weren’t up yet. Also, I had no idea what the following night might bring. I might just need the rest.

As I climbed back into bed a very low flying aircraft buzzed my villa. I opened the drapes and the sheers and stared out the window as a C 141 cargo plane barely cleared the warehouse next door ascending into the sky's first light, engines roaring at full blast. It must have just taken off from the airfield only a mile away. I had no idea where it was going or what its mission might be. But I caught myself instinctively calling after it, "Go get 'em fellas!" The sound of freedom - indeed. Actually the “sound of freedom” is supposed to apply to fighter jets. But as far as I was concerned, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on that morning in January of 1991, the sound of freedom applied to anything that flew with an American flag painted on it.

I tried to drift off, but it proved to be a pretty futile effort. Adrenaline and denial. Not a good mix if you want to sleep. The phone rang twice while I was in bed, and the rumble of heavy air traffic overhead prevented any real rest from being accomplished. Although, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, the sound of the air traffic was somehow comforting. One of the calls was to tell me the school would be closed today. You think? While I might be willing to stay in Riyadh after the United Nations deadline, I drew the line at sending my precious children outside the protective confines of this guarded compound.

I’d been here four months without giving the first moment’s consideration to the Bedouin soldiers who stood guard at our gate. They hardly required notice. When one shift went off duty and the next one came on they literally handed the rifle that served as their only weapon to the next soldier to stand guard. The joke on the compound was that each rifle only had one bullet in it, and nobody had any idea how old it might be. Under our present circumstances I realized I would have felt a damned sight better if those guards were American Marines or the Eighty-Second Airborne.

And on the point of sending our children to school, I could not care less what our Saudi hosts might think. So much of what we did or did not do was determined by the diplomacy involved in our relationship with our host country. But terrorism was the admitted main threat to Riyadh, the country's capital. I felt certain if the powers-that-be thought it a likely enough threat to openly admit it existed, then it was a likely enough threat to merit my healthy respect, especially when it came to my children. They were not setting one foot off this compound, and certainly not without me.

As decent hours arrived and the community around me began to stir, wives and children fell into their normal habits. The kids played on the green top (playground) and in the recreation center. They swam and rode their bikes. Their mothers watched them from the patio around the poolside, drank cokes, and picked at lunches of salads and cold sandwiches. No one had much appetite. But we couldn’t complain. We were here of our own volition. We knew what was going to happen when the deadline came. The war didn’t start on the day of the deadline, January 15. It started the day after the day after the deadline passed. The Iraqis couldn’t say we didn’t give them every chance to cry “Uncle” before we started shooting. And we couldn’t say we hadn’t been given every chance also. But here we were, and our children too. Riyadh was out of range, right? Riyadh wouldn’t be involved. That is what they told us. That is why we stayed.

Finally, late in the afternoon the women started sipping our illegal cocktails, which did wonders for the nerves. In all honesty, we really should have broken out the booze by noon. If ever circumstances called for hard liquor . . .

As the day progressed someone got a phone call from someone who got a phone call from someone else, and we heard the reassuring news of the previous night's events. Only one allied plane lost and heavy damage inflicted on the enemy. Alhamdulilah! One plane lost. Only one plane.

But I couldn't help thinking, for the wife of that pilot, this first day was the end of the war. And she lost.

{A full account of this author's experience through Desert Storm is available on Amazon.}

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Comments 9 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 22 months ago from Olympia, WA

A powerful accounting of your experience. Thank you for sharing this with us.


Susan Trump profile image

Susan Trump 22 months ago from San Diego, California

Even living in a military town, we don't really hear full accounts of these events. Thanks.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 22 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Was thinking about these memories this week because of the anniversary. Thanks for the comments.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 22 months ago from southern USA

Powerfully moving and memorable, Kathleen! You have brought us right there with you. Excellent writing. I know you will never forget that time in your life.

Up ++++ tweeting, pinning, G+ and sharing

Peace and blessings always


ahorseback profile image

ahorseback 22 months ago

I get really angry at those who never get it in their heads that the very freedom that they breath - isn't free ! And that those who pay the most are the vigilant ! Thank you and yours for us ALL ! .......:-}


DreamerMeg profile image

DreamerMeg 22 months ago from Northern Ireland

scary experience!


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 22 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

DreamerMeg: Not as scary as some have experienced, but it was scary enough for me!

Would love to visit Northern Ireland. So nice to hear from someone there!


pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 22 months ago from sunny Florida

You made me feel as if I were there Thank you for sharing this with us.

Angels are on the way to you this afternoon.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 22 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

They are always a welcomed relief! Thanks for the comment.

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