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Nonprofit on path for Operation Desert Storm memorial

The first set of artist's renderings of the proposed National Desert Storm War Memorial.

NATIONALDESERTSTORMWARMEMORIAL.ORG

By ST. JOHN BARNED-SMITH | Houston Chronicle | Published: January 31, 2015

HOUSTON (Tribune News Service) — More than 20 years after American forces attacked Iraq — the first time — a memorial to those who served in the Persian Gulf War is progressing ever closer to fruition.

Ron Gilbert, of Baytown, remembers the conflict well. He had joined the Army 25 years ago for the same reasons so many others do: "to serve my country, to get a head start on life, and to get away from the house."

But a few months later, like hundreds of thousands of other American servicemen, he found himself headed for the Middle East into the First Gulf War, with the mission to oust Saddam Hussein and his forces from Kuwait, Iraq's tiny southern neighbor.

In the summer of 1990, in a dispute over oil production and other issues, Hussein invaded Kuwait, flooding the country with more than 120,000 troops.

At the time, Iraq had one of the largest armies in the world, with soldiers battle-hardened from a recently concluded, years-long conflict with Iran.

In January, 1991, Americans and their coalition partners struck, bombarding Iraqi forces with aerial assault after aerial assault, much of it captured by international news stations and broadcast to a rapt audience back home.

"We found out fast who was the superior force," said Gilbert, 44.

American and coalition forces from dozens of other countries overran the Iraqi military, culminating in a ground assault that led to a cease-fire 100 hours after it began. About 300 U.S. servicemen died in the conflict. Of those, 147 were battle deaths. More than 450 troops were also wounded in action. Thousands of Kuwaitis, and tens of thousands of Iraqis, lost their lives or were wounded.

The conflict came on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union, in an environment where the U.S. and the international community still hadn't recovered from the Vietnam War, according to Ed Djerejian, Director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

"We could not allow this type of aggression by one state to a neighboring state to stand," said Djerejian.

The response to the invasion — a multi-national coalition of more than 30 nations — restored confidence in the American military at home and abroad, said Djerejian, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Syria during the conflict.

The shared cooperation between the U.S. and its coalition partners — many of them Iraq's Arab neighbors — helped lay the groundwork for the Madrid Peace Conference, he said.

"That was the first time Israel was able to sit around table with its immediate Arab neighbors and able to engage in direct face to face negotiations," he said.

He called the national Desert Storm memorial a "worthy idea."

Congress last year approved the memorial as part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act.

After soliciting feedback from veterans of the war from around the country, architects settled on a design of a long wall which mirrored the "hard left-hook" of coalition ground troops as they rolled into battle, enveloping Kuwait City and cutting it off from Iraqi forces.

Tax dollars will not be used in the construction of the memorial, said Scott Stump, president of National Desert Storm War Memorial, the nonprofit group which has been pushing for the creation of the memorial in Washington D.C. He and other advocates for the memorial met with the National Park Service late last month to begin the process of selecting a site for the memorial.

Stump, who served as a Marine infantryman in Saudi Arabia during the war and who began pushing for a memorial in 2011, said he hopes to have construction under way by 2016, the 25th anniversary of the conflict.

The nonprofit will need about $50,000 to $100,000 to get started, he said, explaining that by the time it is finished, it could cost as much as $30 million, money that would come from private organizations and fund-raising.

Though the war was quick, and resulted in far fewer casualties, compared to the conflicts before and after, it remains an important moment in America's history, Stump said.

"You can't judge validity of a war by its length of time or its casualties," he said, explaining that the memorial was important to honor efforts by American and coalition forces to liberate a wrongly conquered nation. Most importantly, he said, the memorial honors the hundreds of servicemen who died fighting and reminds people why the war mattered.

That was the thought in Gilbert's mind as well.

"I don't need a pat on the back, but the remembrance of that campaign is important for generations to come," he said. "It's important to remember, the U.S. stepped up for a country that could not protect itself."

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