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20 Years Later, A Gulf War Veteran Recalls the Lessons of Desert Storm

February 28, 2011, marks the 20th anniversary of the end of the Gulf War.

Has it really been twenty years?

When I was 19 years old, I felt the urge to serve my country and left college after my freshman year to enlist in the United States Marine Corps

Little did I know that decision would soon place me on the front lines of our nation’s largest military engagement since the Vietnam War. This was of particular interest to my mother, who happens to be 100% Sicilian and who two years earlier refused to allow me to enlist because she feared the possibility of a war. Of course, as the baby boy of the family I understood her concerns, but chalked them up to the drama of an Italian mom worried about any possible danger, no matter how remote, coming to her only son. I guess mom is always right. But please don't tell her I admit that.

The summer of 1990 was a time of great optimism for our country and really for the world. The two years prior had seen the collapse of the Soviet Union’s domination of Eastern Europe.  In 1991, that collapse would soon consume the Soviet Union itself and lead to a birth of freedom for hundreds of millions of people who had suffered under the yolk of communism since 1945.

After a century of global war, Americans felt that perhaps a new era of peace and cooperation was at hand.

That illusion was shattered on August 2, 1990, when Iraqi troops under Saddam Hussein launched an unprovoked invasion of their Kuwaiti neighbors. The world reacted with disgust to a brutal act of aggression by a dictator who saw himself as the leader of a new pan-Arab empire.

A series of United Nations Security Council resolutions and Arab League resolutions were passed regarding the invasion of Kuwait. One of the most important was Resolution 678, passed on  November 29, 1990, which gave Iraq a withdrawal deadline of January 15, 1991, and authorized “all necessary means to uphold and implement an earlier resolution demanding Iraq’s evacuation from Kuwait,” and a critical diplomatic formulation authorizing the use of force if Iraq failed to comply.

Traditional allies in the region, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, turned to the United States for leadership and protection against Iraqi aggression. The commander in chief, George H.W. Bush, himself a heroic fighter pilot in World War II, mobilized the greatest international coalition ever assembled to combat aggression with the declaration that this aggression would not stand.

In a true triumph of diplomacy, our allied partners like Britain and France were joined by traditional adversaries such as Syria and the former Soviet Union client states of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Despite fierce international condemnation and a growing assembly of 34 nations’ armed forces in neighboring Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein rejected international calls to withdraw from Kuwait and unleashed a brutal repression of the Kuwaiti people.

As President Bush stated, this aggression would not stand.

The initial conflict to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait began with an aerial bombardment on January 17, 1991. After months of sitting in the desert and hoping against hope that Saddam Hussein would come to his senses, I proudly volunteered to join the ground assault to liberate Kuwait in February, just weeks after my 21st birthday. This was a decisive victory for the coalition forces who swiftly liberated Kuwait and advanced into Iraqi territory.

Within 100 hours, ground combat operations were essentially over. By the grace of God I remained intact, even as my vehicle was destroyed after driving over an anti-tank land mine.

As my unit engaged in combat, I saw many scenes of death and destruction that no one should endure. But I also saw scenes of unparalleled bravery and kindness – both among my fellow coalition soldiers and among our adversaries. Some may think “Band of Brothers” is only a Hollywood miniseries, but for those of us who served in the desert, it was a reality.

I remember most strikingly the gratitude of the people we liberated -- Kuwaitis who were the targets of an unprovoked invasion and a reign of terror, but also Iraqi soldiers, surrendering en masse, who were overjoyed to be greeted by soldiers not intending to kill or torture them, but to end a senseless war.

While some may debate the cause of the war, I was heartened by the United States continuing our tradition as liberators, an eternal beacon of freedom for the world as we were in the “hot” and “cold” conflicts that consumed most of the 20th century.

As soldiers we were welcomed home warmly and enthusiastically by our fellow Americans. Sadly, that welcome was not provided to our fathers and grandfathers who served heroically in Korea and especially Vietnam. I believe the ghosts of Vietnam were finally put to rest by the noble service of our soldiers in the Gulf War and the recognition of the sacrifice borne by all those who have and will serve in harm’s way in the name of "Old Glory."

Should we have gone on to Baghdad and removed Saddam Hussein from power despite the fact our mandate was only to liberate Kuwait? Did we only delay the inevitable for another generation of heroes to begin in 2003? I will leave that to the historians to judge.

For those of us who served in the desert, it was truly “Mission Accomplished.” I will always remember the distinct honor of serving under the leadership of a truly great American, President George H. W. Bush, and the pride I felt in following in my Grandpa Castronova's footsteps by taking part in liberating a nation as he did in WWII.

Semper Fi.

Michael Grimm is a Republican congressman from New York City. He served as a Marine during Operation Desert Shield/Storm from 1990 - 1991.