FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — They didn't know.
That's what then-1st Sgt. Jon H. Cone kept telling himself, in the sands of Iraq 25 years ago.
Cone, now a retired sergeant major who serves as chaplain for the Cumberland County Veterans Council, was deployed for operations Desert Shield — the build-up of forces in the Middle East — and Desert Storm — the combat phase of the first Gulf War that began on Jan. 16, 1991.
He was serving with 3rd Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment, 18th Field Artillery Brigade. But his battery's weapon, the Multiple Launch Rocket System, or MLRS, was a relative unknown among the more than 600,000 troops in theater.
The unit's blocky vehicles, with tank-like tracks, were an unusual site for most of the U.S forces on hand for the invasion.
Cone recalls being confused for the enemy, or for supply units.
The MLRS had never been used in battle, he said. Its devastating firepower — each weapon system could fire 12 rockets that would then deploy more than 600 bomblets spread across the size of a football field — wasn't suitable for the smaller conflicts in the decade before the Gulf War.
The MLRS was one of the nation's newest and most powerful weapons at the time, Cone said. Other units couldn't comprehend the firepower.
That would change quickly, he said.
Often, other units — usually armor — would serve as security for the artillery batteries, which were not designed for close combat.
The first time Cone's battery fired its weapons, those soldiers — having never heard the rockets before — sought cover and began digging fox holes.
"It scared the pure hell out of everybody," Cone said with a smile.
Soon, the battery's missions became must-see, with soldiers stopping their regular duties to watch in awe.
"After that first time, it was showtime," he said.
When the rockets were fired, they were impressive, Cone said. Where they landed, it was devastation.
"This was no pinpoint attack," he said. "We took out the whole block. Whatever it hit, there was a hole."
Iraqi forces nicknamed the weapons "steel rain," a name 3rd Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment still proudly carries.
Cone's battalion was one of the many Fort Bragg units to deploy for the first Gulf War.
The 18th Airborne Corps and 82nd Airborne Division each played large roles in the conflict, which ended with a swift American victory that restored the independence of Iraq's neighbor, Kuwait.
Like most of the Fort Bragg units that deployed, 3rd Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment deployed with little notice.
"Our mission was 'wheels up, 18 hours, anywhere in the world,'" Cone recalled.
In August of 1990, his A Battery was the unit first up for such a deployment. The call came at 3 a.m. on Aug. 7, less than a week after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
A quarter century after the war, Cone thumbs through a well-worn copy of a book on the deployment, also titled "Steel Rain," written by Charles W. Bissett, another soldier who deployed on the mission.
That book details one of the most dangerous missions the unit undertook, a behind enemy lines artillery raid to save U.S. troops pinned down by enemy forces.
"We were in the middle of the desert by ourselves," Cone said. One of the biggest dangers was from friendly fire.
If U.S. troops overshot the Iraqis, his battery could have been destroyed, he said.
Instead, the battalion earned a Valorous Unit Award, the equivalent of a unit-wide Silver Star, for its gallantry.
On the mission, which took place in late February, the battalion is credited with neutralizing 41 Iraqi battalions, two air defense sites, a tank company and a division ammunition dump.
Looking back, Cone credits that success on the unit's younger soldiers, the same troops who would later become leaders in the second war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.
"I was really proud of the guys," he said. "I watched my 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds grow up," he said.
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