County vets recall their roles in Persian Gulf War
And this Memorial Day, Gulf War veterans and Leelanau County residents Jeff Gleason and James Kiessel will be among people throughout the U.S. remembering the 148 American service members who died in Gulf War combat.
Gleason is co-owner of Provemont Hydro Farm and Kiessel is a sergeant with the Leelanau County Sheriff’s office. Both men served with engineer units during the Persian Gulf War. Kiessel was with the Army’s 9th Engineer Battalion out of Aschaffenburg, Germany; and Gleason was with the 12th Engineer Battalion, also out of Germany, attached to the 3rd Armored Division during the war.
While attached to the 1st Armored Division before ground fighting began, Kiessel’s unit assembled portable helicopter pads, constructed various defensive positions and conducted endless training maneuvers.
Dubbed “Operation Desert Shield,” before the fighting began in August 1990, the operation was re-named “Operation Desert Storm” when an air campaign was launched against Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991. That was followed by a ground assault that began on Feb. 23, 1991 and ended just 100 hours later in victory for U.S. and coalition forces.
Kiessel’s unit was directly involved in blowing passageways through an immense sand berm that separated Saudi Arabia from Kuwait and Iraq.
“During the 100-hour ordeal, and thereafter we had various responsibilities to include Prisoner of War retention, mass enemy casualty burial, and the demolition of multiple enemy encampments and equipment,” Kiessel explained.
Immediately after the ground campaign, Gleason’s unit had similar duties. Gleason was directly involved in blowing up hundreds of thousands of pounds of unexploded Iraqi artillery shells, bombs and other explosive devices.
“Probably my strongest memory from that time was going into enemy bunkers we had blown up and discovering that they were full of dead Iraqi soldiers,” Gleason said. “I remember crawling into an Iraqi tank to rig explosive charges to destroy it at one point, and stumbling over body parts. These are not pleasant memories.”
Indeed, more than 35,000 Iraqi troops, most of them conscripts, were believed to have been killed by coalition forces, and as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed, mostly by coalition bombing.
Both men said they were surprised by how quickly the war ended. The mission was for coalition forces to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. That was accomplished primarily by U.S. Marines who rushed into Kuwait over its border with Saudi Arabia, while a much larger force of U.S. Army and other coalition troops to the west in Saudi Arabia crossed over into Iraq to destroy most of the Iraqi Army as it fled from Kuwait.
The original mission never called for the ouster of Saddam Hussein as Iraq’s leader or a full scale coalition invasion of Iraq. The limited mission had been authorized by the United Nations and was waged by a coalition force from 34 countries led by the U.S. The war had been authorized only as a response to Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait.
“I was glad when the fighting ended and we knew we were going home,” Gleason said. “But we were all somewhat disappointed that we really didn’t seem to accomplish the mission completely. It turned out there was really a broader mission left to accomplish.”
“Like many other soldiers, I was surprised and shocked that the war had ended so soon,” Kiessel said. “We all wanted to achieve our goal of getting Saddam Hussein and were disappointed when we weren’t allowed to do so. However, we did achieve the liberation of occupied Kuwait.”
Kiessel said he believes that the more recent war in Iraq and the ongoing war in Afghanistan are a direct result of not being able to go after Saddam Hussein in the 1990’s.
“However, politics have always ruled those decisions,” Kiessel said. “Had we been able to successfully complete that part of the mission, the military history of the last decade or so might have been a little different. Quite possibly, countless American soldiers may still be alive as a result.”