Lynden vet recalls scary nights in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 10, 2013 

I was stationed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, during Desert Storm, from October 1990 to March 1991.

I was an aeromedical specialist in the 118th Aeromedical Squadron in the Tennessee Air National Guard out of Nashville. Before October I was a reservist and a newlywed.

When I was deployed I became part of the 1611 Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron (provisional), where I was an admin specialist working night shift in charge of billeting for the aeromedical control element (headquarters) in Riyadh. At the time I was a staff sergeant in the Air Force.

At full strength we had 1,400 members in 22 locations in 18 countries throughout the Middle East and Europe. My job, as it was slow for "medevac," was to procure and assign living quarters to officers and enlisted members arriving from the states.

We called Eskan Village our home, an abandoned housing complex built by the Saudis for the Bedouin people on the outskirts of Riyadh. These were very nice villas and high-rise buildings, but the Bedouins did not like them. They preferred the tents instead. Something about being "closer to their animals." An intriguing place to stay, but so very different and so far from home.

This account is taken from the letters I wrote home to my wife, Roxane.

It was about midnight Jan. 16, 1991. I was on my way to the airport to bring 58 people to our compound. Each member carried six bags or more (as air crew has special equipment requirements), so we ended up with five trucks, two large 2 1/2-ton trucks and trailers, plus our bus and an additional truck for additional luggage.

On the way there and back there was an eerie light in clouds to the north. Our villa mates received a phone call about 8:30 that evening from some other villa mates who worked in one of the main offices on base giving us a tip about something really big going down. Nobody knew at the office I worked in when I went off to get the people at the airport, but I knew.

People were already shaken up just being in the country. Quite a few 18- and 19-year-olds were particularly shaken, and we had to be responsible not to let the tip get out too far, to keep the panic down.

We pulled the convoy into our compound, got past the guards (Saudi guards on the outside, our guys on the inside) and got the baggage sorted out. I was in charge of giving the in-country briefing to give them confidence, keeping in mind they didn't know about the war that was about to happen.

Since it was a large group, I split the group and got half on the bus to get their keys, and left the other half behind to watch the bags stacked up behind the high-rises where I had assigned them to avoid any pilfering of their belongings, as there were rumors of stealing.

As we got on the bus to retrieve their room keys, the office where we get them looked unlit or closed. I went in to find out they were too busy billeting, so I got back on the bus and told them we better go back to the high rises.

Just then, a firetruck came down the street and yelled out on the PA system, "condition yellow, MOPP level 2, MOPP 2," which means full chemical suits. People were panicking, tearing open the bags on the bus to get their suits on. Fear spread like wildfire on the bus as it headed back to the high rises.

When we arrived, nobody who had remained behind had gotten the word. So I and the staff with me advised everyone to grab their bags, get up the stairs, knock on doors and join the people already there. We would have to sort out the rest of the details in the morning.

There were so many things going on that night it was hard to keep it all straight. Before I got to the high rise to brief everyone and tell them to remain calm, I had to go to the office where I worked to find out what we had available for their rooms.

Col. Webb, our squadron commander, walked in with flak vest and helmet on. He slowly put his helmet on the desk in front of me saying in a downbeat tone, "Well, the war has started." He headed back out to one of the vehicles to go to a battle briefing.

Needless to say, I didn't get much sleep. The next day was a little better. We spent the next few nights in chem suits. Scary.

We were living in house-like villas that can hold up to 10 people comfortably. We had about 20 people in the living room area watching a football game on armed forces television. All of a sudden an alert came, with base sirens blaring.

In unison, the people said "aw come on," as we hunkered down in the hall with our suits and helmets on. Some people either forgot or did not have their suits, so they had to borrow ponchos. It was a scary situation. This was not a drill.

We just had another alert, seven or eight patriot missiles were launched from our compound. Very loud. Had to go to full alert with flak vest and helmets, the hot and uncomfortable gear.

It won't be a day too soon when all of this nonsense is over. No more alerts and fear of being targeted. I know that Saddam was trying really hard to hit Riyadh; God willing he won't get this far inland. Let's hope the bombing raids work on the moral and will of the people up there.

We were on alert for about an hour. I'd better go before the Iraqis try for us again.

In February I was moved to a tent city at the Riyadh airport, where I remained until March 17. I flew with my crew on missions with the Royal Saudi Air Force, and evacuated Egyptian troops from the front lines of Iraq and flew them to the Red Sea and Mecca, to the south and west.

Alerts still plagued us, and patriot missile batteries roared as they defended our compound. When we finally got clearance to go home, I flew from Riyadh to Cairo to Shannon, Ireland, on St. Patrick's Day, and to Bangor Maine. From there I flew to South Carolina, then onto Nashville, where I met my wife and parents and brother for the best homecoming ever!

I remained in the reserves and served for 16 years active reserve and was inactive for the last four, so I guess you can say I have retired. I now live in Lynden, where I have lived with my wife and two children for the past seven years.

- Tom Thweatt, Lynden

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