25 years later: Zeroing in on Iraq

Col. Michael Carlson

Col. Michael Carlson

Late in the afternoon on Jan. 16, 1991, the United States and a coalition of nations launched a full assault on Baghdad. The coalition’s mission was to force the Iraqi army out of Kuwait after that country’s strongman, President Saddam Hussein, ordered his troops into the neighboring country on Aug. 2, 1990, claiming Kuwait was stealing oil from Iraq. Ironically, Kuwait had supported Iraq in its 1980s’ war against Iran.

high roller reconnaiSsance missions

Nevada airmen from the 152nd Tactical Reconnaissance Group deployed to Shaikh Isa Air Base in Bahrain in late 1990, where they flew their RF-4C Phantoms in support of Desert Storm.

“We actually got over there the first week of December to relieve the Alabama unit,” said Brig. Gen. Bill Burks, the adjutant general of Nevada.

Up until that time, though, the Nevada pilots practiced their maneuvers and, as Burks put it, “got up to speed” before more than a hundred men and women deployed to the Middle East. Burks, a captain at the time, said no one knew when the order for deploying to the Gulf region would come, but he was confident the Nevada aviators would be ready to conduct their reconnaissance missions if Saddam did not stand down his Army and retreat from Kuwait.

As the days and then weeks passed, the RF-4C two-man crews trained over central Nevada’s desert floor.

“We were so close to Naval Air Station Fallon at the time. And they were bringing in a lot of carrier air groups,” Burks recollected. “We were always practicing with the carrier air wings… with the Navy and Marines.”

Burks had a strong gut feeling the Silver State aviators would be heading to the Gulf. Besides the reconnaissance role with the 152nd, only one active-duty reconnaissance unit existed. After a month in the Gulf and flying out of their Kuwait base, the order to begin the aerial command commenced in mid-January. Burks said they were ready.

“Our first mission was to take pictures of the Republican Guard,” Burks said. “Unfortunately, we had cloud cover, and we didn’t get any pictures.”

At first the 152nd Tactical Reconnaissance Group flew during the daytime over Iraq and Kuwait, primarily looking for Republican Guard units. Pilots also flew high over Baghdad and the adjacent countryside looking for rocket fuel and chemical weapons plants and both command and communications centers. Military records show the Nevada RF-4Cs took more than 300,000 feet of film that produced more than 19,000 prints of targets.

Burks, a weapons system officer, flew in the backseat of the RF-4C behind pilot Ron Bath. Burks, who was also a pilot, was responsible for using the camera on the targets below. Each mission produced some anxiety.

“Every time we flew, we were shot at by missiles or artillery or both. After a while we got used to it. It was not comfortable,” Burks explained.

Prior to the air operation, Burks remembers being told that the command expected a 50 percent casualty rate and that Iraq had the third or fourth strongest Army in the world.

Capt. Scott Ronnie, who later became NAS Fallon’s commander, served as executive officer of the Strike Warfare Center during Desert Storm. Strike’s goal was to both integrate the various jets with each other as well as to integrate the cruise missiles.

During the build up and with flight training at Fallon, Ronnie’s superiors told him the military must work together and how to deploy within a week or two if ordered. Ronnie said Strike developed a realistic training program with the carrier air wings and the Nevada Air Guard RF-4C pilots. Even with the sophistication of the Navy jets, Ronnie said the Air Force had a good system in place to take high quality tactical photographs of enemy movement and have them ready for briefings.

Consequently, the RF-4Cs from Reno became involved in the Navy and Marine exercises.

“They had a critical capability, and we needed photos,” Ronnie said.

Boots on the ground

With the Air Guard pilots flying daily missions in hostile territory, Nevada’s other unit, the 72nd Military Police Co., deployed in December 1990 to Saudi Arabia. The timing was falling in place for the MP company, which previously had its headquarters in Fallon before moving to southern Nevada in 1988. Additionally, the MPs trained as an Enemy Prisoner of War unit ready to supervise Iraqi captives.

Troop Command Battalion commander Lt. Col. Larry Sage, a Vietnam vet, assumed command about a year before mobilization began.

Eighteen months after Capt. Michael Carlson took over the 72nd MP Co., he began to have his soldiers prepare for war.

“The 72nd had such a narrow mission,” Sage said, referring to guarding enemy prisoners of war.

Sage wanted an infantry officer to take the MPs to war, but due to regulations, Carlson had to change his branch designation. Because of his criminal justice degree, however, the Nevada Military Department received permission to re-brand Carlson’s branch to military police before he left Fort Ord, Calif.

Sage had a vision, though; he surprised headquarters by selecting a female major, who spent 10 years on active duty as a military police officer, as his training officer.

“We kept the unit at the highest readiness level,” said retired Col. Alicia Nyland, reflecting on her role with the MP’s mission and working with them after they returned home.

Movement came fast for Nevada’s military police.

Carlson said the morning after their December drill, orders came in for an advance party to pack their gear and leave within three days. The rest of the company, which had its headquarters in Las Vegas and a detachment in the eastern Nevada city of Ely, traveled to Fort Ord for mobilization within a week.

“The mob (mobilization) officer told us if we were ready within 36 hours, she could get us out (to the Middle East),” Carlson said. “The race was on.”

The MPs reached their goal and departed aboard three different transport planes to Southwest Asia.

Carlson, who now lives in Dayton and works for the Lyon County Sheriff’s Office as an administration officer, eventually attained the rank of colonel and became the Nevada Guard’s chief of staff in 1988 before retiring. He said if the unit was not ready to fly out of Travis Air Force Base, then their chance of deploying to Saudi Arabia would not occur until mid-to-late January.

The MPs left with 85 soldiers from Nevada and 15 active-duty soldiers, but once they arrived in the war theater, the 800th EPW Brigade of New York state became the higher headquarters. Within a week of their arrival, the Silver State’s MPs had moved some of their operations near the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border,

“They were moving forces on the border before the air war,” Carlson said. “We maintained a small footprint near the border.”

Carlson said the MP company was multi-tasked with guarding Republican Guard soldiers, maintaining top security for the camp, providing escort duties and the repatriation of enemy soldiers. During the fighting between the coalition and Iraqi troops, Carlson said the military scattered the EPW camps.

“We had a camp supporting the 1st Marine Division. This was a preliminary source of prisoners,” Carlson said.


Sage said personnel assigned to the MP company did not come from just Ely and Las Vegas, but they lived in every part of the state.

“It was the only MP unit in the state,” Sage said, noting Nevada now has at least three MP units.

The hostilities to remove Iraq from Kuwait ended Feb. 25, but the MPs did not return home until the late May-early June time frame. The city of Las Vegas honored all the units and personnel with a big parade.

“It was stirring when we had the parade. It was pretty emotional,” said Carlson, not knowing what lay before them. “We formed up our ranks and then began to march. We turned the corner and saw thousands of people welcoming us.”

Looking back 25 years later, Sage said he is proud of his battalion’s role in preparing the MPs for war and for some of the moves he made to his staff.

Command decisions prior and during Desert Storm proved to be successful. Sage said the Nevada unit performed its mission well with an infantry-trained company commander, and Nyland rose to be an important asset in the Guard with her knowledge of military police training.

“Nyland eventually proved her worth by later becoming the first female battalion commander in Nevada,” Sage said of his training officer. “History proved we were right.”


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment