Donald Schenk

30th Anniversary of Operation Desert Storm:
American Jewish Service Members in the Gulf War

Donald F. Schenk, BG, USA (Ret)

Executive Officer, 2d (Dagger) Brigade, 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized)

Stationed at Fort Riley in 1990, I was Executive Officer of the 2d (Dagger) Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized). We were a REFORGER division, with primary mission focus on reinforcing VII (US) Corps in central Germany against the Soviet military. But this was 1990, and the Soviet Army was no more, but the threat from Russia was presumed to exist as it had since the formation of NATO. 

In late July 1990, I led the brigade’s contingent on the annual inspection of our “go to war” equipment stored in Germany at several POMCUS (Prepositioned of Materiel Configured in Unit Sets) locations. We also conducted a leader reconnaissance of marshalling areas, routes to the brigade tactical assembly areas, and the battle positions we would use in the fight against the “Red Hoard.” This was all a part of the POMCUS Inspection and Reconnaissance Exercise Program (PIREP). We had just finished our assigned tasks and were awaiting transportation in Frankfurt to return to the U.S. the morning of 2 August 1990 when we read in the Stars and Stripes that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and declared it his 19th Province. Now what?

Returning to Fort Riley we watched as soldiers from the 82d Airborne deployed to the northeastern desert of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and established positions in the desert known by all to be little more than speed bumps if Saddam made further advances south from newly occupied Kuwait. We waited to see what would happen next in Southwest Asia (SWA) as the US executed Operation Desert Shield. 

But we were busy and didn’t have a lot of time to watch since we were scheduled to deploy to the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin in mid-November. We executed all the pre-deployment training from squad/crew thru brigade over the ensuing three months culminating in a major readiness evaluation in early November. Returning to garrison the night of 7 November 1990, we accounted for all personnel and equipment and prepared for our Family Support Group briefings the night of 8 November 1990.

Early that afternoon we were notified that that Secretary of Defense Cheney would make an important announcement at 1600 and that we should be watching the news. Sure enough, he did. He announced the addition of more units to Operation Desert Shield, and I will never forget his words, “…and the 1st Infantry Division, The Big Red One [BRO], from Fort Riley, Kansas.” This changed everything!

Over the ensuing four weeks we prepared our equipment for deployment to SWA remembering that we were not supposed to go anywhere with this equipment since our “go to war stuff” was in POMCUS. We drew desert clothing and equipment from contingency stocks. We conducted intensified training on new equipment such as HMMWVs and Beretta pistols, went thru M1A1 New Equipment Training (we were equipped with M1 tanks, not M1A1s), and prepared for overseas movement. Loading the last of our M1 tanks on rail cars for the journey to cargo ships in Beaumont, TX shortly after Thanksgiving, we prepared for the airflow to Dhahran, KSA. 

The division main body began air deployment on 18 December 1990, and air movement continued thru 28 January 1991. I deployed on 5 January 1991, arriving in KSA early in the morning of 4 January 1991. Joining the rest of the brigade at Khobar Towers, I was struck by the vulnerability of the masses of Central Command (CENTCOM) troops concentrated there and in the warehouse district inside the Sea Port of Debarkation (SPOD) at Ad Dammam. I was also struck by the fact that we had no vehicles and no heavy weapons since the ships containing our equipment coming from Fort Riley were somewhere off the east coast of Africa and well southeast of the Strait of Hormuz. 

LTC Schenk (center) discussing the status of units of 2d Brigade in advance of attack into Iraq

Those of us in Warehouse 18 at the SPOD or still in Khobar Towers remember being instructed at about 2300 to begin self-medicating with pyridostigmine bromide (PB) not having a clue what this actually was or was supposed to do. It should be noted that the pre-administration consent forms for use of this investigatory drug were never given despite existing Food and Drug Administration guidelines. That we began taking this medication was a clear indicator that something was about to happen. The BRO after action report records that Operation Desert Storm commenced at 170145CJAN91 with the initiation of the air campaign. We then began watching the news being broadcast via Armed Forces Network and the CNN feed and listening to the BBC. The video of the air attacks on Baghdad and elsewhere were, in a word, awesome!

To say that our sense of urgency increased would be an understatement. Still without tanks, Bradley’s, trucks and the rest of our kit, we were sitting ducks as the air campaign against Iraq ensued. The SCUD attacks on U.S. and coalition forces commenced within days. We spent every day transitioning thru all possible MOPP conditions while awaiting our ships and the needed truck/bus transport to get us out of the port and forward to Tactical Assembly (TAA) ROOSEVELT.  Saddam’s SCUD attacks on Israel—made in a desperate attempt to lure Israel to attack Arab forces and drive a wedge into the coalition—were of only limited impact on Israel and the coalition remained intact. We finally closed on the TAA on 29 Jan 91 and began training and rehearsals for the breach into Iraq. The BRO was to be the breaching force for VII (US) Corps, and 2d Brigade was to be the Main Effort for the breach.

It is significant to note that 2d Brigade—composed of two tank battalions, a mechanized infantry battalion and assigned and supporting engineer, artillery, and combat support and combat service support formations—was the least modernized brigade in ARCENT. Some would ask why a brigade equipped with M1 tanks (105mm cannons vice 120mm cannons and without NBC overpressure systems) would be the main effort. The answer is simple: good training and superb leadership. Remember, this brigade was on the cusp of deployment to the NTC when it received deployment orders to SWA. It was a fine-tuned machine with leaders and soldiers who knew one another, knew their combat tasks, and new the equipment they brought with them from Kansas.

During the period 29 Jan 91 to 23 Feb 91, the brigade repositioned multiple times finally settling into final attack positions prepared to cross the Line of Departure at 240538CFEB91. What was my role in all of this? As second-in-command, I led the planning, operational command and control, administrative, and logistical support operations of this very heavy brigade of about 6000 Soldiers. Composed of two tank battalions, a mechanized infantry battalion, three artillery battalions, two engineer battalions, a forward support battalion, and multiple company-sized air defense, chemical, signal, and military police formations, 2d Brigade possessed tremendous combat power. My task was to keep it moving and in the fight.

Additionally, I was assigned duty as Crossing Area Commander for the combat breach into Iraq between Phase Line (PL) IOWA and PL COLORADO and thus responsible for movement of all assigned and OPCON forces as they transitioned into direct contact in Iraq. From 24 Feb 91 to 28 Feb 91, my job was to push the staff and the supporting elements of the brigade to keep up with and anticipate the needs of the commander and the assigned combat arms elements of 2d Brigade. This necessitated not only orchestrating the elements of combat power from the Brigade Main Command Post, but also frequent trips throughout the battlespace to ensure everyone was oriented on the objective of destroying all Iraqi forces in zone in accordance with our mission. Rest was a luxury, and sleep was nearly out of the question as we maneuvered thru the desert in close proximity to the oil wires set ablaze by Saddam’s retreating forces as we executed a clear exploitation towards the heart of Iraq.

Dagger Brigade command and staff at Safwan, Iraq where General Schwarzkopf dictated surrender terms to the Iraqi military (Schenk is in second row, fourth from right).

As combat operations came to a close early in the morning of 28 Feb 91, I was well forward in the brigade zone. Then, early in the morning of 1 Mar 91 we were ordered to secure Safwan, Iraq so that General Schwarzkopf could dictate terms to the Iraqi Army. This we did, and despite the existing cease fire orders, our commander issued ultimatums to the Iraqi forces defending in the vicinity of Safwan. Recognizing the situation for what it was—hopeless—the Iraqi commanders relented and withdrew so that we could occupy the airfield and surrounding territory in preparation for CENTCOM arrival. The morning of 3 Mar 91, we escorted Iraqi commanders to the site established at Safwan airfield and hosted the CINC and Saudi LTG Khalid bin Sultan for the final act of direct ground combat operations in Iraq.

At that point, we transitioned from direct combat to civil action while defending Safwan astride the road from Basra, Iraq to Kuwait City. The next two weeks we processed prisoner of war exchanges between the governments of Kuwait and Iraq, oversaw transfer and repatriation of displaced persons and refugees to Kuwait and elsewhere, and conducted humanitarian aid and assistance to those temporarily delayed in Safwan. Our medical teams delivered at least one new-born child every day we occupied this position.

Our slow return to the United States and Fort Riley had us occupy defensive positions in southern Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia until we closed on the Redeployment Assembly Area at King Khalid Military City where we finally executed the long-anticipated rollover from M1 tanks to M1A1. Onward to Ad Damman and Dhahran for final agricultural and customs inspection of our equipment, clothing, and persons before boarding flights back to Kansas. Reuniting with our families in May 1991, we were all proud of the work we had done to defend Saudi Arabia and restore the territorial integrity of Kuwait while destroying a significant portion of Saddam’s vaunted military capability.

NO MISSION TOO DIFFICULT.  NO SACTIFICE TOO GREAT.  DUTY FIRST.

Donald Schenk retired from the US Army in 2004 as a Brigadier General.  He resides in Bloomfield Hill, Michigan and currently serves as Chief of Staff of the Department of Michigan of the Jewish War Veterans.

American Jewish Service Members in the Gulf War