Editor’s note: Gary Kunich originally wrote this first-hand account the morning after Desert Storm started, when he was a 21-year-old Air Force sergeant. This is edited from the original version.
AL MINHAD AIR BASE, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – It’s 11:55 p.m., Jan. 16.
The clock continues ticking past the United Nations’ deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait.
While the world holds its breath in anticipation of war, F-16s sit silently on a quiet runway. Will these mighty, Fighting Falcons fly into combat tonight? If they do, when?
This silent base gives the appearance that most are asleep. But looks – and sounds – can be deceiving. From the flightline to a variety of offices, it’s manned 24 hours a day. As airmen of all ranks work through the night, they talk about a variety of subjects, but all have the same thought on their mind. With hopes of a diplomatic solution to the Gulf crisis lost, there is only one other option.
The air is thick with tension.
12:30 a.m., Jan. 17
Airman 1st Class Larry Keller, a combat cameraman, nervously paces back and forth in his office, occasionally pausing to smoke a cigarette.
“I came here to cover war,” he says. “This is my job and this is what I get paid to do.”
It’s not exactly false bravado. If war comes, it is his job to cover it with his camera. His eyes peer straight ahead, giving him the look of someone who’s expecting something to happen at any minute – perhaps any second.
Normal base operations continue. Tech. Sgt. Mark Abra, a maintenance expediter, drives his step van up and down the flightline. It’s his job to get crew chiefs what they need to do their job. That becomes more critical as the night drags on.
Is tonight “the night”?
He answers the question no one asked.
“There’s not much to be surprised about. Everyone knew it was coming.”
The only question still left unanswered is when?
“Soon,” he says. “Real soon.”
Less than a half hour later, a security policeman drives by, stops for a moment to look at the jets, then continues on. Staff Sgt. Alvaro Soto is a law enforcement specialist who’s been on the job since early in the evening.
“It’s most likely something will happen at night,” he says matter-of-factly. “There’s a lot of anxiety right now. We may see six jets take off, but how many are coming back?”
The crowd has grown considerably back in the hangar. Tech. Sgt. Phil Farthing comes from one of the back shops and walks toward the group.
“Something’s happening tonight. The people on the front line … ”
He breaks off as the smile disappears from his face.
“I pray it ends soon.”
Staff Sgt. Alan Hile holds a Styrofoam cup in his right hand. He savors a mouthful of black coffee and looks out on the flightline in silence. One can only imagine what’s running through his mind.
A few feet away, Sgt. Jeff Wilson speaks up in a shaky voice.
“Everyone’s antsy. They don’t know where their nerves are at. But,” he says in a more affirmative voice, “there ain’t no way the Iraqis can stop us at night. They don’t have the power.”
An F-16 takes off down the runway.
Within seconds, all that can be seen from the ground is its afterburner flame. Already far away, it’s a mere blue dot surrounded by a world of black.
“Here we go,” Hile whispers. He knocks back the rest of his coffee and repeats himself. “Here we go.”
At that same moment at another part of the base, Sgt. Tony Radford checks his watch and writes in a blue notebook. As each jet takes off, he adds another entry.
“Never can tell if this stuff will come in handy or not,” he tells no one in particular. “Maybe it’ll help me write a book someday.”
Still no official word.
The Maintenance Operations and Control Center is mum, saying nothing more than the mission is classified. The command post doesn’t say much more. But by now, no official word needs to come down.
More than four months in the desert has come to a head.
Jets continue to roar into the sky, one after another, startling most of the base awake. The streets are lined with people from the day shift, wearing sweatpants, shorts, flip-flops and bath robes.
There’s utter silence as their eyes follow each jet into the sky. A few mumble silent prayers and cross themselves.
Moments later it’s official. This is no longer Desert Shield. Operation Desert Storm, a U.S.-led offensive on Iraqi forces, has begun. There is no turning back, no second-guessing. As the last aircraft soars into the sky, onlookers head back to their tents for sleep. For others, sleep will be long in coming.
The darkness begins loosening its grip. The wait continues.
And then … “They’re all on their way back,” a bleary-eyed Col. Bill Huddle announces.
A small smile cracks his face and he lets out a breath of air, but looks exhausted. He’s been up all night. It will be hours before his day ends. He waits for the first jet to land so he can meet the pilot.
A couple hundred feet away in the life support portable trailer, Staff Sgt. Micah Burns also waits for the pilots. This will be their first stop after they return. All is quiet in the room except for a staticky radio newscast detailing the attack.
Finally, one by one, the pilots stream in. Burns shakes their hands and gives them a brotherly hug as they take off their gear.
Daylight is finally here.
As night shift workers shuffle home, their replacements arrive for their 12-hour shift. All is quiet as a young sergeant gazes upward. The morning silence is broken by more jets screaming into the air …
Editor’s note: Gary was part of the 388th Fighter Wing deployed from Hill Air Force Base, Utah. One pilot, Capt. Michael Chinburg, was killed in a training accident a week before the war. The rest of the unit returned home safely.