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Volunteer Airmen: Desert Shield and Desert Storm

McGhee Tyson ANG Base, Tenn. -- In 1990 people were buying tickets to see “Pretty Woman,” and “Ghost.” Americans were listening to Whitney Houston, Garth Brooks, and Phil Collins, and were shocked when Grammy-winning duo Milli Vanilli admitted they were not the musicians on their records and had been lip-synching the entire time. The Simpsons debuted on TV, as did the Sci-Fi Channel. Kids were playing with the Super NES, Nintendo Game Boy, and Furby, and the Hubble Telescope was placed in orbit. A new home cost $123,000, a Ford Taurus cost $14,594, and a gallon of gas was $1.34.

In the Middle East, Iraq and Iran were at war from 1980 to 1988 and Iraq was consequently in debt to Kuwait. Kuwait refused to forgive Iraq’s debt, and Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq, accused Kuwait of taking possession of an Iraqi oil field on the border. On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and completely occupied the country within hours of the attack. The United Nations Security Council immediately condemned the attack, and within days issued strict embargoes on Iraq. Iraqi troops began to amass on the border with Saudi Arabia, and President George H. W. Bush ordered Operation Desert Shield to protect America’s ally from invasion.

In East Tennessee, life had been business as usual up to this point. The 134th Air Refueling Wing was flying regular missions to locations such as Germany, Hawaii and Alaska for training. When President Bush authorized Desert Shield, the training missions were recalled and the Volunteers immediately began preparing. President Bush began calling up National Guard troops by executive order, and the number of troops and length of activation continued to grow. By December 1990, McGhee Tyson had received the notice that the Volunteers were going to war.

The 134th ARW was not sure when they would be leaving, or for how long. The 109 deploying Airmen were able to spend Christmas with their families, then were in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia by New Year’s Eve. They forward deployed to Dubai, UAE, and joined the 1713th Air Refueling Wing, Provisional, commanded by their own Col. Frederick H. Forster. They arrived at a bare base that was 45 minutes from the airport where the aircraft were kept, and were bussed back and forth for work. Once the Volunteers were settled in they had nothing to do but wait for the war to kick off.

The assault began on January 17, 1991, and the 1713th members in Dubai watched it on CNN with the rest of the world. Chief Master Sgt. John Patterson was one of the deployers and said there were some small benefits to the start of the war.

“When war kicked off they shut down the airport, so they set up meals from the airline caterers for us,” Patterson said. “No one wanted a day off, because the food at the tent city was terrible. Most would take a bus to the airport on their off day just to eat. We had these blue jumpsuits we had to wear, and some active duty guys got ahold of our jumpsuits just to eat with us.”

The 1713th flew refueling missions for the length of the war, and a cessation of hostilities was declared on February 28, 1991. While they were never involved in hostile action, the Volunteers knew their role was critical in fulfillment of the mission. They had regular routes to fly as well as specific missions that would come up, and there was no room for error.

“We didn’t have the luxury of having spare airplanes,” Patterson said. “We had a mission for every aircraft, so if one broke we had to fix it and get it airborne and it took everyone one we had. We were told we were the only unit that never missed a mission. That was significant to me.”

Operation Desert Shield began on August 7th, 1990 and Operation Desert Storm ended on February 28th, 1991. The Volunteers flew 177 sorties and off-loaded 4.5 million pounds of fuel in Operation Desert Shield. During Operation Desert Storm, the 1713th ARW(P) flew 568 sorties and off loaded millions of pounds of fuel to combat and support aircraft. They received an Outstanding Unit Award for their performance.

After Desert Storm, things returned to normal in East Tennessee. The 134th ARW fell under Air Combat Command beginning in 1992 and Air Mobility Command in 1993. The wing continued to train and uphold its status as a highly effective, well-trained unit of the Air National Guard. It would be another ten years before the tragic events of 9/11 would launch the 134th ARW into the Modern War era.