Ten years later: Base CG recalls Gulf War

18 Jan 2001 | Cpl. Mike Vrabel

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. The following are some of the Gulf War lessons and experiences of Maj. Gen. Ronald G. Richard, commanding general of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. Major General Richard served as the Operations Assistant Chief of Staff for the 2d Marine Division during the Gulf War after completing a tour as commanding officer of the 10th Marine Regiment. The entire 2d Marine deployed to the gulf for Desert Storm.What were your first thoughts after arriving in the gulf?[Division Commanding General Maj. Gen. William M. Keys] and I arrived in the Gulf prior to the Division arriving there. We had made a liaison visit to the Gulf some months before. My fist impressions were that the breach was going to be difficult. The way the Iraqis were tactically arrayed, they seemed to have strong front line units, with a lot of armor and artillery. Once the entire unit got to the Gulf, we did further examination. It was clear to us that with the tactical display of their troops, we could in fact achieve not operational surprise, but tactical surprise by doing various tactical maneuvers in the general site of where the breach was going to take place. That proved to be exactly what we did. What were your expectations of the war and how were they different than what actually transpired?At first we believed that it was going to be a lot more difficult than it was. We had an enormous force with 20,000-plus soldiers, Sailors and airmen. The Tiger Brigade was attached to the 2d Division. It came with two tank battalions. My expectations were that we would be a heavy, powerful force that could, in fact, go up against any type of adversary. That's, quite frankly, what transpired. We literally went up against an adversary that in hindsight was not as ferocious as we initially thought. As we crossed the breach line and got into the fight, the quick surrender of the Iraqis at first surprised me. Then it became commonplace, and we pushed forward until they were completely defeated. What was the most motivating moment of the conflict?For me, it's easy. There's nothing that compares to it. It's when the entire 2d Marine Division, through the efforts of three lead battalions, successfully poured through the Iraqi minefield. As we cleared the other side of the minefield, as the Marines, Sailors and Soldiers started pouring through, flags started appearing. U.S. flags and Marine Corps flags started to appear, latched to the vehicles. You could look to the left and look to the right, and you could see all these flags waving in the air. You could see for great distances. The 2d Division was completely mechanized. Nobody walked through the desert. To this day, I think about those pennants and those flags and all those Marines just bounding forward fighting as they just cleared the minefield. What was the most horrifying thing you experienced during the war?War is never easy and there are horrifying moments in any type of war. Clearly the most horrific sight I saw was at the sight of the "Road of Death." It was a place where the Iraqis were caught by our Marine air and ground forces at the intersection of the exit point of Kuwait City. It was also a place where the Iraqis had laid mines on either side of the road. Once they got caught on this road, they were destroyed, and many were killed by fire support from the air and also direct fire by ground units. Some of the Iraqis chose to get off the road and get into the minefield, and many were killed in their own minefield. That sight was very, very horrifying to those who were not used to seeing the results of what conflict really produces. Is there any one individual whose performance during the war stands out in your mind?Absolutely, there were 20,000 of them. The thing that I walked away from that experience as opposed to when I left Vietnam was the level of responsibility that was put upon very young and junior Marines. PFC's and lance corporals had responsibility they would not have in a peacetime environment. Our NCOs were given responsibilities that Staff NCOs and officers have during peacetime. I was very much impressed with them. A young corporal would be in charge of convoys of 60 miles that would be returning with POWs during the second day of the War. He would have to navigate minefields that were already identified, and some that were not. In some cases that corporal would have upwards of 2-3,000 Iraqi prisoners. They reminded me once again that we should give more responsibility to our junior Marines in peacetime. If the Gulf War were to happen today, how do you think the Corps would be better prepared?I believe the Marine Corps, first of all, is prepared. The first thing that comes to mind is that because of lessons learned during the Gulf War, we could deploy in a better fashion. Certainly we could also bring a fight to any enemy that we were [ordered] to. The difference is we're a bit smaller now and we have fewer units in the artillery side of the house and in some other areas. That is being evaluated by [Commandant Gen. James L. Jones], who is looking at those systems we stepped down after the Gulf War that probably need to be stood up again. Is there any one object you own that reminds you most of the war?I own something that is very dear to me. It's a Soviet style Iraqi bayonet that was given to me by my son-in-law who was in the Gulf War. It at one time belonged to an Iraqi lieutenant, whose serial number is etched on the scabbard. It reminds me both of the Gulf War and the sacrifices that we made, and also of the association of a young second lieutenant who ultimately married my daughter and is now a Marine major. How did your family handle your being deployed?My wife has seen me deploy many times in my career; and my children, just like any other children, were sad about the father leaving. My wife was one of the senior wives that were back here at Camp Lejeune, and she headed up a huge support group, and she was fond of being quoted as saying, "Let's keep the home fires burning." She did an absolutely wonderful job, just like many of the wives of the staff NCOs and officers did during that time. What was the most significant aspect for the Marine Corps during the war?Our ability to execute a deliberate breach of a huge minefield and do it in such a fashion that the commander in chief was quoted in many magazines as saying, "That was a textbook solution that will be studied for many years." We had never done a breach of that magnitude. The largest breach Marines had done in modern times was a company-sized breach at [Combined Arms Exercise], down in Twentynine Palms. In order to do a Division breach, much less two Divisions (1st and 2d), at the same time represented somewhere close to 85 percent of the Operational forces of the Marine Corps. That's absolutely remarkable. Had that breach not been successful, the Marine Corps, as we know it today, might look completely different. Thank God it was successful, and I think it was significant that those Marines executed in such a superb manner.Why should the Marine Corps commemorate the anniversary of the Gulf War?We should commemorate the anniversary of the Gulf War and any other type of conflict because we pay honor to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. The Gulf War is no different than the Caribbean campaigns, Grenada, Beirut, Vietnam, Korea, WWII, WWI, and so on and so forth. The reason we should bring this to everyone's attention during the ten-year mark is that this is a good time to address those lessons learned that may have been forgotten. This is a good opportunity for those of us that participated prior to our retirements. We have an opportunity and a responsibility to pass those lessons down to our fellow Marines and Sailors.