It was with great sadness that I learned last week of the passing of our 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush. For me, President Bush was more than just my President, he was also my Commander in Chief when I served in the Army from 1989 to 1992. While stationed at Ft. Lewis, Washington, in August of 1990, my fellow soldiers and I were glued to the television watching the news of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. I was part of a logistical headquarters unit, the 593rd Area Support Group. We all assumed that combat troops would go first, and if we were ever deployed it would be much later in the war. We were only half right — four days after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait the 82nd Airborne was deployed to draw a “Line in the sand,” as the President so eloquently stated in his speech to Saddam Hussein. Within days, my unit was put on alert, and within a week I was loading up into the belly of a C-5 military cargo plane on a flight to Saudi Arabia. I would be among the first troops deployed. I served in that region through both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.
In the military, one of the first things you are taught is to memorize your chain of command. For most of my time serving in the Gulf War, I was attached to the 22nd Support Command as a military photojournalist. Due to my unusual job, I had a very short chain of command. I reported directly to Major Robert Desrosiers, and the rest of my chain of command, in order of who they reported to, was, Lt. General William “Gus” Pagonis, General Norman Schwarzkopf, Chairman of the Joint Chief Staff General Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, President George H.W. Bush. I had a great amount of confidence in my chain of command, which helped me sleep easy every night despite being in a war zone. My command was full of seasoned combat vets; Generals Pagonis, Schwarzkopf and Powell served in combat in Vietnam, and of course President Bush was a combat Navy bomber pilot in World War II. I had a special affinity for the President’s military background, as my grandfather and two great uncles were also World War II pilots.
I got the chance to see President Bush speak to the troops on one of his visits to the Gulf War when I was stationed in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. And it meant a lot to me and every other soldier, marine, seaman and airman in attendance to hear directly from the President regarding why we were there and how much he appreciated our work and sacrifice. As a leader, in my mind he did everything right. He had a clear mission; he put smart, experienced and very capable people in charge of planning and executing that mission; he gave us the resources and proper training to be successful; and he made sure that every soldier had their basic needs taken care of.
On Jan. 17, 1991, at 2:45 a.m. Baghdad time, Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm, and combat operations commenced. Shortly after, President Bush addressed the nation. In his speech he said, “Prior to ordering our forces into battle, I instructed our military commanders to take every necessary step to prevail as quickly as possible, and with the greatest degree of protection possible for American and allied service men and women. I’ve told the American people before that this will not be another Vietnam, and I repeat this here tonight. Our troops will have the best possible support in the entire world, and they will not be asked to fight with one hand tied behind their back.”
I didn’t hear him make that speech, because I was in the back of a Humvee on my way to the border of Iraq, the night sky alight with burning oil fields set fire by the Iraqi Army. A night I will never forget. However, I soon learned that his orders were not hollow. As a combat veteran, President Bush understood sacrifice and the human cost of war — and as Commander in Chief he went to great lengths to look after the livelihood of every soldier, including mine, that served in his chain of command. President Bush did exactly what he said was going to do, and the result was an overwhelming victory with minimal U.S. military casualties. Most importantly to me, due to his leadership I was able to return safely back home and with a renewed appreciation for all of the things that make our country the greatest nation in the world.
Our nation has had a few more Presidents since the Gulf War; and I will, God willing, likely live to see a few more before my days on this earth come to an end. However, for me there is only one that I will have ever called Commander in Chief. Back in 1991 it was a great honor to hear the President express his gratitude for my service and that of my fellow soldiers — and it is my turn to return that honor.
Thank you, President George Herbert Walker Bush, for your tremendous service to our country, the honor and dignity that your brought to the office of the presidency, and for being a Commander in Chief who was — as we say in the Army — “A soldier’s soldier.” However, being that you were a naval officer, it wouldn’t be appropriate to end with an Army sentiment. So as they say in the Navy, “Fair winds and following seas, Mr. President, we have the watch.”