Operation Desert Storm veterans from New Mexico recall short, intense war
By SCOTT WYLAND | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: January 10, 2021
SANTA FE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — Soon after landing in Saudi Arabia, Anthony Baca knew he was in a war zone.
Iraqis fired Scud missiles at a Saudi air base. But their poor accuracy caused some to veer toward a nearby housing complex where U.S. military members stayed during Operation Desert Storm, America's first major land war since Vietnam.
The missile attacks were unnerving. An incoming Scud would set off alarms, and a Patriot air-defense missile would zoom to intercept the Scud and blow it up — most of the time.
"The first two or three weeks, we were getting hit with Scud missiles every night," Baca, 56, recalled. "You're coming from far away, you don't know where you're at, and you don't know whether you're going to see your family [again] from one day to the next."
It's been 30 years since the U.S. went to war in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq, a six-week conflict that, with the help of missiles and modern technology, also touched neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. And Baca, then a truck driver with the New Mexico National Guard's 720th Transportation Company, remembers as if it were yesterday.
"It's something you never forget," Baca said. "Every time you see one of your fellow soldiers, it brings back memories. Anyone who's been to war is never the same. Something about you is different, always."
Baca and his 132-member unit, based in Las Vegas, N.M., arrived in the Mideast on Jan. 17, 1991, as the U.S. went to war against Iraq for invading Kuwait, a prime oil-producing country, in the summer of 1990.
Though the U.S. mobilized many of its prime front-line units to take on the Iraqis in the harsh sands, hard work and sacrifice were demanded from National Guard units like the 720th, composed mainly of people who'd grown up in northeast New Mexico.
Other National Guard and Reserve outfits also served, including the 812th Medical Detachment from Santa Fe; the 150th Security Police Flight in Albuquerque; the 52nd Engineering Battalion's Company D, a Santa Fe Army Reserve unit.
About 370 men and women from these units took part in Desert Storm, a massive 35-country coalition that included 425,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Although the war lasted only six weeks, it had a significant impact, renewing the U.S. military's confidence in itself after a drawn-out and bloody sojourn in Vietnam through the 1960s and early '70s.
The U.S. claimed a quick victory over Iraqi forces, liberating Kuwait with fewer than 150 Americans dying in battle.
"The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula," President George H.W. Bush declared jubilantly. "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all."
But if the nation's self-image grew during the Gulf War, the problem it wanted to solve — Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — refused to evaporate. Little more than a decade after the end of the conflict, the U.S., battered by a devastating terror attack on its own soil in 2001, would again head to Iraq.
But for New Mexico's homegrown soldiers, the Gulf War was a revelation about their own abilities.
Desert Storm revived the concept of deploying National Guard and reserve units overseas and paved the way for the 720th — which distinguished itself in the Gulf War — to be deployed to the Mideast three more times, most recently in October for a 10-month stint.
Until the early '90s, the National Guard had been used mainly as a stateside force in the 50 years since World War II, creating the image of weekend warriors seeking easy duty, said Adjutant Gen. Kenneth Nava, head of the New Mexico National Guard.
"The National Guard didn't have such a great reputation," Nava said. "Maybe the National Guard soldiers, they would party a little bit and maybe not take some of their role seriously. Desert Storm changed all that."
A job unlike any other
Phillip Trujillo spent six years in the U.S. Army in the 1970s, so he was a seasoned veteran when he landed a full-time job with the 720th in 1987.
In late 1990, Trujillo was at a Virginia school, training for a higher sergeant's rank, when he was ordered back to Las Vegas. No one would tell him why.
When he returned home, he learned the unit was going to El Paso to train before joining Desert Storm. He had only a few days to pack.
Trujillo, now 67, said he expected to eventually be deployed, but many of the unit's younger members were surprised they were heading to a war zone. They enlisted for the educational benefits in return for doing drills once a month, he said.
The unit departed on Nov. 20, 1990, receiving an emotional sendoff from Las Vegas townspeople that a New Mexican reporter at the time described as akin to a Norman Rockwell scene.
They were scheduled to fly to the Mideast around Christmas, but the ship carrying their equipment broke down at sea, delaying their departure by a few weeks. The unit arrived on Jan. 17 amid a full-on war, giving them no chance to gear up and acclimate as originally planned.
The teams went immediately to work, hauling tanks and other heavy equipment from a supply ship to wherever they were needed.
Trucks often would travel in convoys, protected by tanks at the front or Black Hawk and Cobra helicopters flying overhead, depending on what they were transporting, Trujillo said.
As a result, the trucks were never attacked.
Sometimes they were tasked with picking up personnel and weren't given an exact location, which meant navigating by gut feeling in potential hot spots, Trujillo said.
One time, he said, he drove 1,000 miles with no map and no clear idea where the soldiers were who needed a ride. They wound up being down in a canyon.
"We found them by accident, just driving across the desert," Trujillo recalled. "Those were real mind-boggling trips, trying to find something without a road map, just coordinates."
The roughest part was driving down the "highway of death," stretching between Kuwait and Iraq, Trujillo said. U.S. air assaults had left hundreds of Iraqi trucks and tanks lining the road, half-destroyed and burning with bodies still inside, he said.
Toward the war's end, Iraqi forces ignited oil wells as they prepared to flee Kuwait.
Trujillo saw the fiery spectacle during a mission, with black smoke billowing from the flaming wells. It darkened the sky while oily water showered the 12-mile convoy traveling through Kuwait.
"When we got to the other side of Kuwait, the windows were jet black with oil," he said, describing his truck.
Medical researchers believe breathing in the oily air caused some soldiers to get what would later be called Gulf War syndrome, a wide-ranging set of health disorders afflicting veterans of the conflict. Trujillo said his unit also was exposed to sarin gas after the Army destroyed canisters of the deadly nerve agent.
When Trujillo retired from the National Guard in 2004, a doctor at a Veteran Affairs hospital diagnosed him with Gulf War syndrome, although he has yet to receive an official word on the cause, he said.
Trujillo thinks the sarin has eaten away at his spinal discs, requiring three back surgeries. He also has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from the war.
Still, he has no regrets about being deployed.
"That was our job," Trujillo said. "I feel justified doing whatever our country needed doing."
Women in the fight
Bella Pacheco recalled being surprised when she learned the 720th would be part of Desert Storm — and not only because a National Guard unit was typically anchored stateside.
"Who's going to know about our little unit here in little Las Vegas, New Mexico?" Pacheco said.
Pacheco, 52, was one of only 14 women in the unit; of those, 11 served in the war.
She recalled the continual threat of Scud missiles, estimating one would fly toward the housing complex roughly every hour. The seven-story buildings made big targets, she said.
She often wondered: "Is this it? Is that one going to hit close by us? Is that going to hit our building?"
She and other truck drivers were tasked with 24-hour missions hauling tanks, equipment and personnel through the desert, sometimes recovering vehicles that had been left behind.
Once, she and another woman connected with an engineering unit and crossed into Iraq, where the ground war was heating up. But a commander ordered them out because he didn't want female soldiers there.
"I was like ... I want to finish what we came here to do," Pacheco said. "So I always felt we were kind of cut short from that."
In 2003, Pacheco, still with the 720th, was sent back to Iraq when the U.S. took on Hussein again.
"So be careful what you wish for," she said.
The Gulf War came during a technological transition; it was broadcast live on TV in ways that would've been unimaginable during Vietnam or Korea. People could watch airstrikes live in Baghdad around the clock with the advent of 24-hour cable news coverage. But it was still the pre-internet, pre-cellphone age, requiring service members to communicate with loved ones mainly through old-fashioned means such as letters and landline phones.
Pacheco said those simple pleasures were sweet, recounting things like receiving letters and care packages by mail and calling home once a month from the base.
Aside from the Scuds, she felt safe with her unit. The soldiers looked out for one another and, despite the personality conflicts, got the job done, she said.
As a 22-year-old soldier in Desert Storm, she had a simple objective: Get through it. When she returned home with her unit in July 1991, she felt a sense of accomplishment.
"We were proud of ourselves," she said. "We put a lot of miles on the road."
Forming a legacy
Like others in the 720th, Baca recalled the grueling, monthlong workload, with Scud missile attacks compounding the stress and fatigue.
The missile assaults were the worst during the night because they disrupted soldiers' much-needed rest, said Baca, 56, who also hauled tanks and heavy vehicles.
"As soon as you fell asleep, the alarms would go off," Baca said.
Because the Scuds might be armed with chemical weapons, soldiers who were jarred awake had to don gas masks each time, a safety measure many people disliked.
For that reason, soldiers had to check each other to make sure everyone was wearing masks, Baca said.
Aside from the chemical threat, there was the constant fear a Scud might slip past the Patriot missile defenses.
"If anyone tells you they weren't scared," Baca said, "they're lying."
After the ground war ended, Baca said he was assigned to a convoy to pick up tanks in Kuwait City, where he also encountered the eerie landscape of burning tanks and oily rain.
"To me, it was like if you're going into the twilight zone," Baca said.
After he returned from the Gulf War, he worked various jobs. He was a printer for the Las Vegas Optic. He worked as a welder, machine operator and truck driver.
He has been on disability for a decade because of severe stomach problems. He's not sure whether his health issues are related to his time in the Gulf War.
Baca said his son, Keanu, 24, is carrying on the family tradition. He is a Marine who's deployed on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf.
He notes that 30 years later, a new generation of the 720th is back in the Mideast.
"We did it too good, and now they keep using them," he said. "It's a bad thing and a good thing."