By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
In 1989, Tom Caldwell was assigned to an Illinois National Guard unit after serving in different Army detachments.
He preferred the National Guard duty because it would have him serving stateside as opposed to tours of duty in West Germany or South Korea.
“I had been in the Army for two years. I chose the National Guard over deployment overseas. I wanted to be in Illinois,” recalled Caldwell, who has worked as an instructor for 20 years at Lake Land College in logic, ethics and composition. “I was in graduate school at Eastern Illinois University when I became an electrician with the motor pool of the 1544th Transportation Company in Paris.”
It seemed like he had basic duty ahead.
History intervened on August 2, 1990. Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, which led to the military buildup for the Persian Gulf War. The truck drivers, mechanics, electricians and other soldiers with the company in eastern Illinois would be one of the first National Guard units deployed to the Middle East as part of Desert Shield, the gathering of American and allied forces for liberating Kuwait.
“I remember there was a lot of pride because we were chosen early to go over there,” Caldwell recalled. “We were one of the first Guard units to go. We were a pretty tight unit. Sure, there was some sadness with the relatives that their kids were going to war. But there was so much pride in our going there, too,” Caldwell said.
In late fall, the Illinois Guard soldier completed a two-week training course at Fort Campbell in Kentucky and then flew a long flight up to Maine, then across the Atlantic to Europe and then landed in the military gathering point of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. Beside jet lag, there was definitely landscape shock when the troops from the Midwest walked onto the tarmac.
“Everything was plain and there were gray brick buildings everywhere. You just saw sand and no trees,” Caldwell said.
Acclimating to Saudi Arabia, the country that hosted the coalition forces against Saddam Hussein’s Army, included equipment changes, such as the switch for many soldiers from the forest green camouflage to desert shades. That switch went from top to bottom for soldiers.
“I remember when we changed to desert shade boots from our black combat boots,” Caldwell said.
The Guardsmen were also excited about getting access to drive the new Humvees, which replaced the old Jeeps in the military. It wasn’t until after the war that Humvees were made available to civilians in the United States. The Persian Gulf War Humvees were much lighter and not nearly as rider friendly as the civilian models.
The 1544th had about 50 drivers hauling various military supplies as the buildup to war went forward. They were driving multi-ton trucks on roadways on a regular basis from camps in the neutral zone between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
That created a problem for some Saudi officials because some of the 1544th drivers were women. In Saudi Arabia, women were banned from driving in public and the some Saudis wanted to push the female military drivers out of the driver’s seat on supply runs.
“One of the women in our unit gave a guy half a peace sign to keep her seat behind the wheel,” Caldwell said.
It wasn’t communication high on the diplomatic scale, but it got her point across.
The soldiers were friendly with the Saudi children by offering them different gifts whenever possible.
“The kids there wanted the glow sticks from us,” Caldwell said of the items used for marking a position or standing out in the dark.
There was sadness as American troops saw Bedouin children begging along the roadways.
“We learned the Bedouins were treated like second-class citizens. We weren’t sure if it was right or wrong or good or bad. But we saw them out there,” Caldwell said.
One of his missions in Saudi Arabia was to head out with advance parties to set up different camps and get the generators in place for providing electricity. He was also committed to guard duty on the desert from time to time. That was when he had a chance to take in nature’s lightshows.
“It was calm and peaceful out there. And at night it cooled off. There weren’t many towns or lights out on the desert so you could see all the stars. The sky was wonderful,” he remembered.
There were the manmade fireworks, too. When the airstrikes started, he and his fellow soldiers could see American and Coalition planes streaking to their Iraqi targets.
“You see the planes overhead. Then the noise came after they passed us. Then you could see the explosions.”
The 1544th helped deliver supplies prior to the start of the ground war in February. They helped with the famous “end run” or flanking assault against the Iraqi Army. When the Iraqis gave up, there were scores of prisoners. But Caldwell does not recall a specific moment of euphoria from a sudden victory.
“We knew the Iraqis were giving up, but there was talk of us moving into Iraq. It got to the point the war was effectively over,” he said.
Caldwell and his comrades would remain overseas for about a year. Then it came time for returning home to Illinois. That produced a magical bus ride for the 1544th soldiers from Fort Campbell in Kentucky to their National Guard armory in Paris.
“Every town we went through, people were lining the streets and cheering us,” he said.
But Caldwell felt uneasy about all that praise. He felt veterans from another generation should have received a similar welcome home.
“The welcome we received was so warm and I don’t like to talk about it now. I felt we received the benefits the Vietnam veterans had earned. I feel the people that day didn’t get that,” Caldwell said.
Twenty-five years later, Caldwell is working to address a lack of respect that Vietnam veterans experienced more than 40 years ago. He has conducted reading and discussion sessions for area veterans at the Effingham Public Library. So far, the five sessions have drawn some Vietnam veterans.
“The idea is to set up for readings. And then the participants are encouraged to talk about their experiences.”
Caldwell gets the discussions started, but he and others during the session are usually listening more than talking.
“Listening is the most important thing we can do. And I learn a lot by doing it,” he said. “There are only about six participants each session, but we have a camaraderie and respect for each other. I really believe there is something special between us when we gather in that room,” Caldwell said.
When he went to Saudi Arabia, Caldwell was in his mid-20s and single. Now, he and Nancy have been married for 13 years. His stepdaughters, Madeline and Felicia Totten, are just a few years younger than he was when he received the orders that eventually involved him in Desert Storm.
“We’ve talked about the war. I have visited their classrooms, too,” he said.
When he talks in private or public about the Gulf War, Caldwell uses the pronoun “we” often in reference to his fellow soldiers from the 1544th.
“When we left that country we were a really tight group. I always say I got to go over with a great group of people,” he said.