#ThrowbackThursday: Looking back at Operation Desert Storm

#ThrowbackThursday: Looking back at Operation Desert Storm


A ground campaign to kick Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army out of Kuwait began 26 years ago this week on Jan. 17 with the start of Operation Desert Storm.

Area veterans had a range of emotions about the war, with some proud of the country’s success in its mission and one hoping to forget the experience entirely.

Joseph Yorski heard about his upcoming deployment around Christmas of 1990 and was in Saudi Arabia with his unit, the 143rd Military Police Company, the next month.

“I was excited, I had volunteered to go months earlier,” he said.

Yorski joined the Army National Guard in 1987 and graduated Southington High School the next year. During the war, he along with 1,000 other military police guarded tens of thousands of Iraqi prisoners of war at a camp in northern Saudi Arabia.

“Everybody was surprised at the amount of prisoners there were,” Yorski said.

Resistance was less than expected, according to Yorski, despite measures by Hussein to goad his reluctant soldiers into fighting, such as planting mines behind Iraqi lines to impede a retreat. When Iraqi’s got the chance to surrender, they did so and were mostly compliant once in captivity.

The Record-Journal ran a host of articles on locals going off to war in early 1991, including an article on the departure of the 143rd Military Police Company.

Family members interviewed at the time worried about their loved ones, particularly families who had lost relatives in Vietnam. Teachers told the Record-Journal about how they explained the war to their pupils, trying to maintain a sense of normalcy during tumultuous days. Schools had just recently heard lessons on Martin Luther King Jr.

“There’s been lots of opportunity to talk about peace,” said Nena Nanfeldt, Meriden’s Nathan Hale Principal in 1991.

Yorski worked with Kuwaiti soldiers at the camp and heard from them the devastation caused by Hussein’s invasion. He later saw the devastation firsthand in a bus trip to the country after fighting had stopped.

Sympathy for Kuwait’s plight helped build support among the American public for the war. Yorski said the army was cheered both before and after Desert Storm.

“People saw what was going on with Kuwait and people being brutalized,” he said.

Now a Cromwell resident, he recently retired from the New Britain Police Department and works for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Manny Santos, former Meriden mayor, deployed to Bahrain for Desert Shield, the preparatory operation for combat in Desert Storm in 1990 with the Marines. In the weeks prior to ground operations, there were constant Scud missile alarms which required Santos to don biological warfare suits and masks. The alarms disrupted sleep but the closest hit was an eighth of a mile away from the base. Other missiles went farther off course or were intercepted by Patriot missile batteries, Santos said.

“We never really knew if we would get hit by one,” he said.

He repaired fixed-wing aircraft, some of which came back from missions with holes in them from anti-aircraft fire. Santos recalled the sand, which would coat everything.

“A layer of sand was all over us when we’d wake up,” he said.

Santos called the Gulf War a national effort that had wide support for the mission of liberating Kuwait.

“Everybody seemed to be on board with the mission, everyone knew what the mission was,” he said. “The general public was very much in support of us.”

Santos communicated with his family through letters and also got a lot of notes from strangers wishing him well. He responded to some of those people and kept up with them for years following the war.

He and his fellow Marines watched CNN International every night for a “bird’s-eye” view of the war they were fighting. The sudden victory caught Marine leaders by surprise. Santos and his unit were on stand-by for a week after hostilities ceased with nothing to do. Returning to the United States took more time and Santos left the Marines shortly after returning.

Another Marine contacted for the story said he had no comment and preferred to forget about the Gulf War.

Yorski’s second deployment to Iraq in 2003 was quite different than his Gulf War experience. Rather than guarding prisoners, he and his squad were helping restore order and law enforcement in western Baghdad shortly after U.S. soldiers and marines had swept through. While frustrated at the inconsistency of the electricity and other civil services, Yorski said Iraqis were mostly happy that the U.S. was there.

An influx of foreign fighters through the border with Syria in the following months made patrolling in unarmored Humvees with Iraqi police much more dangerous. Two soldiers of the company were wounded by an improvised explosive device, which by later standards was small.

“It was our responsibility to set up law enforcement,” Yorski said. “Then it became more don’t get blown up and help the Iraqi police. Then it just became don’t get blown up.”

Yorski is disappointed that the bulk of U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011.

“We had the job pretty well licked,” he said. “And then we pulled our troops out.”

“We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” Yorski said. “Americans don’t seem to have a taste for prolonged engagements.”

jbuchanan@recordjournal.com 203-317-2230 Twitter: @JBuchananRJ

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