30th Anniversary of Operation Desert Storm:
American Jewish Service Members in the Gulf War
Staff Sergeant Steve Robertson, 276th Military Police Company
I was a Staff Sergeant in the DC Army National Guard’s 276th Military Police Company. We were Federalized in January 1991 and reported to Fort Meade, MD for preparation for deployment.
We were given physicals, to include dental and inoculations, as we began training for operating a bare-base POW camp. We had weapons qualifications, as well as intense training for operating in a chemical/biological environment.
At Fort Meade, we were housed in old World War II vintage open bay wooden barracks. We had no POV and were restricted to base. Due to the loss of soldiers determined to be nondeployable, we received replacements from the Ready Reserves.
We mobilized on February 14, Valentines Day, and arrived in Saudi Arabia the next. As we landed, sirens were blaring warning us of a SCUD. Once the “all clear” was sounded, we were bused to Khobar Towers where we stayed for 48 hours before moving to our new “home” – an ammunition supply point (ASP) adjacent to the ARAMCO Compound.
The ASP was an old rock quarry which was a mixture of sand and crushed rock that resulted in a pumas-like substance that stuck to your skin like talcum powder. We shared the facility with a Puerto Rican Army National Guard Ordinance Company. Our company lived in a “tent city” and their company lived in portable cabins. We all used outdoor latrines and showers. We had a field kitchen that originally just served only a hot breakfast – otherwise we ate Meals Ready To Eat (MREs).
There were a number of wooden guard towers and bunkers built around the perimeter. The ASP had Patriot missiles, grenades, and ammunition strategically positioned in an area covering about 7 acres. There was a dirt road that weaved throughout the area looking down into the various small quarries where munitions were stored.
At the Entry Control Point, there was the only .50 caliber machine gun we had and the only defensive position with electricity from the city of Dhahran. The electricity to the “tent city” was provided by diesel powered generators.
We were not far from an airfield, so we could watch the bombing runs by the Air Force. The sky at night was impressive much like a thunderstorm and fireworks display mixture.
I vividly remember the very last SCUD attack of the war. The SCUD hit in Dhahran and destroyed building housing troops from the PA Army Reserves and National Guard. I felt the shock wave from impact, then heard the siren warning of a SCUD attack. The SCUD hit not far from our position.
We had been through many SCUD attacks, but none that had landed so close. We had watch many Patriot missile “kill” SCUDs above us and watch as debris fell from the sky and landed on our tents, equipment, and positions.
Once the ground action was over and troops began redeployment, everyone leaving from Khobar Tower had to turn in their munitions and contraband to our ASP. We saw our ASP grow to nearly 15 acres which meant establishing new defensive positions further out.
Building new positions in 100° F temperatures takes a toll on the body. The majority of the soldiers in our company were Black; however, due to the dust everyone on post looked white from a distance whether they had a brown t-shirt or not. I kept thinking that breathing in that dust can’t be healthy.
To add to our misery were flies and sand fleas. Flies infested the latrines and mess tent. If you put up a “fly strip” above your when you set down to eat, it would be covered with flies by the time you finished your meal. The sand fleas covered the wooden walls of the outdoor showers. If you placed your hand on the wall, you left an imprint of squashed sand fleas.
Then there was the preventive medications – the PB tablets and the anthrax shot. The PB tablets were placed on our cots with no written instructions on when they were to be taken. We had instructions to take our malaria pills, but not these. So we were told to take one a day – months later I found out that the PB pill was to be taken only if a chemical attack was imminent.
One morning we were marched in formation to receive our anthrax inoculation. No questions were asked and there was no documentation of our shot records. Immediately after receiving the shot, we were told to do 50 push ups. It appeared everyone received the same dosage.
The one bright spot came when I was told to report to the Commander’s tent. I had just got off post. My commander told me to pack for three days, get into the back of a deuce-and-a-half, and turn my weapons in to the First Sergeant. No further instructions.
As I climbed into the back of the truck, it was dark and I didn’t recognize anybody. I knew they were looking for troops to send to help with the Kurds, but I had not volunteered. I had been stationed in Turkey earlier in my career and thought that may be where we were headed.
As we arrived at Khobar Towers, we got out of the truck and enter the underground parking garage where we reported to tables based on our last names. I noticed many Jewish names on their uniforms, so ROBERTSON stood out like a sore thumb!
After everyone was checked in, we were reloaded on buses and headed for Bahrain. During the trip, we stopped at a number of checkpoints where our ID cards were checked. Once we arrived in Bahrain, we went to a pier where US Navy vessels were docked. One by one we walked towards the pier which was guarded by two armed Bahrain soldiers.
I was asked, “Are you a Jew?” I responded, “Yes I am.” Then I was told to go to the second gang plank on the left and board the ship. As I walked towards that ship, I noticed it wasn’t a Navy vessel, but rather a cruise ship. I slowly walked up the gang plank and heard “Happy Passover!” as I entered the ship.
Yes, there were over 350 Jewish service member rounded up in the theater of operation and brought here to celebrate Pesach. We had seven Rabbis and even an Ark! Needless to say, the Passover Seder was memorable. We started around 2000 and ended well after midnight. Each Rabbi spoke to the historical significance of that moment.
Prior to my deployment, I was told not to wear anything that was Judaic. I was instructed to put electrician’s tape around my dog tags since it identified me as Jewish. Even Shabbat services were prohibited; however, we could have Torah study. I recall a sign at Khobar Towers advising were religious services were to be held – Christians, Catholics, Muslims, and for other services report to the Chaplains’ office.
Shortly after arriving in Saudi Arabia I began feeling ill. When I finally went to “sick call”, I was told I had the flu. I was prescribed a “cold pack” and told to return in 10 days if I didn’t feel better. I returned to “sick call” every 10 days from February to June with the same symptoms. Each time I was diagnosed with the flu and issued a “cold pack.”
During my demobilization out processing, I was once again diagnosed with the flu, but told when I was discharged and back to work, I would feel better. Eventually, I became one of the thousands of sick Gulf War veterans seeking answers from both DOD and VA medical personnel to one simple question – why am I sick?
For almost 3 decades, I still don’t have an answer. I have learned to cope with my symptoms and live a productive life. I was once interviewed by Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes along with a small group of sick Gulf War Veterans. At one point, Mr. Bradley asked us if we had it all to do over again – knowing what we know now – would we have served in the Gulf War. Much to his surprise we all answered, “Yes Sir!”