RETURN TO IRAQ

Desert Storm Veterans Return
By TSgt Jeffrey Williams, 506th Air Expeditionary Group PA

Kirkuk AFB Iraq, 1/17/04 (AFPN) — When Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to march south through Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, little did he know of the resolve of the young airmen who would rise to the occasion to repulse the attack.

From November 1990 to May 1991, Senior Airmen Elbert Bembry, Edward Timberman, Darrell Wiedenbeck, and Airman 1st Class Steven Sepeda were young A-10 Thunderbolt II crew chiefs. Staff Sgt. Benjamin Hoover was an A-10 weapons loader. They worked together out of the King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia, as members of the 23rd Combined Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.

Still working on A-10s 13 years later, this particular “band of brothers” is stationed together here to finish the job they so diligently started so long ago. The then-young airmen have since gained in rank and responsibility, and are now charged with leading the future generation of aircraft maintainers.

Airmen Sepeda and Timberman are now technical sergeants, Airmen Wiedenbeck and Bembry are master sergeants, and Sergeant Hoover is now a senior master sergeant. All are deployed with the 354th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Davis-Monthan AFB Arizona.

During a recent reunion of the five sergeants, they had a lot to remember. All of them said they remember the fright they had when the scud missiles started flying.

“I saw the scud missile that hit the bunker in Dhahran,” said Sergeant Sepeda, who was only a few miles away at the time.

“We started getting hit shortly after that because a civilian news reporter tipped off our A-10 location,” Sergeant Wiedenbeck said. “Before that, the scuds were just going overhead.”

They laugh about some of the antics that happened back then, but said they know the uncertainty of the situation gave them a greater seriousness, especially in bunker dives.

“During the first scud attack, the sirens scared me so bad that I just put on my gas mask,” Sergeant Timberman said. “I just got out of bed, put my mask on and ran to the bunker in my underwear. I was later instructed to put my pants on.”

“Timberman and I were under an aircraft listening to (former) President Bush on the radio as the first wave of the attack was coming back,” Sergeant Bembry said. “We were scared but not afraid. I was a young dude then.”

Sergeant Bembry also recalled his daily lunch routine then. “I was known as PBJ because I ate two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch each day for six months,” he said. “I haven't eaten peanut butter since I left Desert Storm.”

None of them have forgotten the oil fires in Kuwait. “It was like an eclipse,” Sergeant Sepeda said. “The sun was up but couldn't come through.”

Despite the camaraderie, friendship, humorous experiences, uncertainty and the dedication to work, all the airmen said they still feel the loss of their friend and colleague, 1st Lt. Patrick Olson, a 26-year-old native of Washington, N.C.

Flying an A-10 reconnaissance mission over Kuwait on Feb. 27, 1991, the lieutenant faced some bad weather and was hit by a surface-to-air missile. He tried landing with only one engine and no hydraulics, when the aircraft landing gear collapsed upon landing and flipped, killing Olson.

Sergeant Hoover said he was greatly affected by Lieutenant Olson's loss. “He brought me mail and a pair of gloves that day. He always took care of us. He was a good friend. That day I watched him die. I watched him crash. I was told, 'You are his family. Go pick him up.' And I did.”

Sergeant Timberman also reflected on his loss: “I never knew what it was like to lose a friend or family member until that point,” he said. “It was the first time I lost someone I knew. It still (affects) me today.”

Looking to the future, Sergeant Hoover said he believes the training of the previous generation affects the current one. “We were gliding on the successes that Vietnam duty gave us,” he said. “We wanted to make our predecessors proud. We had to work to be the best. Laser-guided bombs and other high-tech weaponry were born in Vietnam. We got to use them in Desert Storm. It made us look like heroes.

“What I learned from Desert Storm prepared me well for the rest of my career,” he said. “I've got some great guys. These guys wanted to come to Iraq with me. There's no limit to the talent that we brought over here.”

After 13 years of uncertainty over the future of Iraq since Operation Desert Shield began in 1990, the five 354th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron airmen said they are happy to be here. “We thought it would have been the end of the Iraq situation during Desert Storm,” Sergeant Bembry said. “We never thought we'd be back. Hopefully this time, this will be it.”

“I think there is a sense of urgency for Iraq and this whole operation in the eyes of the American public and for many of us,” Sergeant Sepeda said. “It has dragged on for 13 years. I think people are getting tired of this and want it to be over with.”

“We were all disappointed that we didn't get to finish the job back then,” Sergeant Wiedenbeck said, “but we understood the politics of the situation.

“I'm glad we are a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom,” he said, “especially being here when Saddam Hussein was captured. On Dec. 13, our alert A-10s launched shortly after our scheduled aircraft sorties. For security reasons, we are not able to verify the exact reasons for their mission or their location, but in our hearts we firmly believe our A-10s were overhead protecting our Army brethren during the capture of the Ace of Spades, Saddam Hussein. It's great to now be 150 miles north of Baghdad, since we couldn't finish the job 13 years ago. We're all glad we had a second opportunity. This is one last hurrah for the five of us. This situation is resolved here.”

Sergeant Timberman summed up the feelings for the group: “In three to four years, this will be the end of a generation, the end of an era,” he said. “We just hope the airmen of tomorrow can carry the baton. We hope to be able to watch television and hear of the good things coming out of the troops we're training now. That will be our biggest test.”