WASHINGTON -- Only 13 months into his Army career, Ken Foulks learned that he would be deploying to Saudi Arabia to support an operation that would bolster U.S. forces against a threatening Iraqi army.
Foulks, now the director of field programs and historical services at the Army Center of Military History, didn’t know then that the conflict would eventually alter the course of the U.S. military for the next three decades.
Following Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush ordered a large-scale buildup of U.S. forces along the Persian Gulf to help defend Saudi Arabia from a potential Iraqi attack.
American forces, under the command of Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, led the largest coalition of allied nations since World War II.
In what would later be called the Gulf War, the U.S. military shifted its focus from defeating the Soviet Union in Europe to what would become a 30-year battle for stability in the Middle East region.
The retired colonel recently reflected on those five months he spent traveling in convoys through the Saudi desert before the 30th anniversary of the start of the Gulf War on Sunday.
In November 1990, Foulks recalled watching television in Germany as then-Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney announced that Foulks’ unit, the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, would be among those traveling to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Shield.
Foulks deployed to Saudi Arabia in early December toward the end of Desert Shield and about a month before Bush announced it would change to Operation Desert Storm, which was designed to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
The conflict began Aug. 2, 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait to seize control of its oil reserves. Bush condemned Hussein’s actions and asked the Iraqi president to withdraw his troops.
Fearing that Hussein may invade Saudi Arabia, Bush announced that U.S. forces would deploy to the region. At the time, Saudi Arabia boasted the world’s largest supply of oil reserves. Within seven days of Bush’s announcement, nearly 4,600 members of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in the country after Desert Shield officially began Aug. 7.
However, the U.S. didn’t yet have sufficient logistical support established in the region, including basic necessities such as shelter, sanitation, food and water.
As a 24-year-old logistics officer, Foulks and his unit faced the daunting challenge of delivering supplies and equipment to a massive influx of U.S. troops. Foulks served as a supply platoon leader and his troop continuously worked to provide fuel, rations, water and ammunition to the cavalry squadrons.
The former officer said he could always count on the NCOs he worked with to get their jobs done, even during the high-operational tempo of the war.
“The troop that we belonged to was a large troop with a lot of different missions and everyone was very supportive,” Foulks said of his unit. “But it was also an extremely busy time. A lot of things are blurry as far as dates and locations, because in the desert most things look the same.”
The conflict showed the need for pre-positioned stocks and established ports to quickly transport supplies into the region, said Army historian Travis Moger. Most troops traveled to the region by plane while 85% of supplies arrived on ships that took much longer to transport.
Foulks said his platoon fortunately did not suffer any casualties during his time in the war. His unit trained year round and had plenty of field experience by the time they landed in the coastal town of Al Jubail.
Winning the war and the public
Desert Storm marked a swift and decisive victory for U.S. forces and its allies, which included the United Kingdom, France and Egypt. Using fighter jets and bombers combined with ground attacks, U.S. and coalition forces overwhelmed the Iraqis.
Following a four-day air and ground offensive, U.S. and coalition troops finally forced the Iraqi army out of Kuwait Feb. 28, 1991. The operation lasted only 42 days and the U.S. suffered only 283 fatalities while Iraq lost around 30,000.
The victory also held symbolic value for the U.S. military.
“Vietnam hung over as this mark of shame that we had failed,” said Shane Story, another Army historian at the center. “When [the U.S.] defeated Saddam Hussein and Iraq in 1991, there was a sense of this huge weight lifted off the shoulders of the U.S. Army.”
Foulks’ regimental commander, squadron commander and sergeant major all served during Vietnam, along with several other Soldiers in his unit. Foulks said U.S. troops received an outpouring of support from the American public during and after the war. That contrasted with the reception of Vietnam veterans who did not receive the same respect, he said.
The war also changed the public perception of the U.S. military in large part because of positive media coverage that helped rally the nation around the war efforts, Moger said.
During Vietnam, media portrayals often depicted U.S. forces negatively.
“I felt [the conflict] left an indelible mark,” Foulks said. “Because that's not how [war] was often portrayed during Vietnam. It was kind of a transition point between some of the remaining actively-serving Vietnam veterans and some of the new younger, end of the Cold War Soldiers.”
“You had the entire Army really existing in this tremendous shift from Europe to the Middle East. And we didn't recognize the significance of that at the moment,” Story said. “In 1991, we thought we just wanted a decisive victory over Saddam Hussein and he knew never to mess with us again.”
Following the American triumph, Foulks and his unit would remain in Saudi Arabia until April 1991 before returning to their headquarters at Nuremberg, Germany.
Foulks would eventually leave active duty and join the Army Reserve eventually becoming an Army historian. Foulks returned to the Middle East in 2008 deploying as a historian to Kuwait and then to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010.
After the war, U.S. forces remained in the Persian Gulf to further prevent any potential attacks from Iraq. Following the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and captured Hussein, who the Iraqi government placed on trial and executed. The U.S. began to pull out its troops from Iraq in 2007 following the mass deployment of Soldiers to the country in 2006, but later returned in 2014 to fight ISIS forces.
“We're over there now in very small numbers,” Story said. “But we're still fighting a war. We are still conducting military operations in certain respects. You could say that the Gulf War of ‘91 was kind of like the negotiation of a 30-year war for the U.S. in the Middle East -- that is not yet over.”
To help commemorate the Gulf War and Desert Shield anniversaries, Moger has been documenting the conflicts’ history in an essay called “The Gulf War at 30.” The essay is slated to be published next January in Army History Magazine, which is accessible through the Army Center of Military History website.