Operation Desert Storm: 1991
The war next door

We moved to Saudi Arabia in 1983 for a year, and then back in 1986 for five more years.   We enjoyed it very much, made many lifelong friends, worked for good administrators in a first class school, and enjoyed weather much like Phoenix, only we didn’t have to be there in the worst part of the summer.  Who could ask for anything more?

Desert Shield: Then, on August 2 of 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait.  There are many stories to tell about the fall buildup, called Operation Desert Shield.  Enrollment dropped more than half at the school.  Too many good people (teachers, parents, and students) left for a few months or forever.
As some teachers departed others had to teach subjects out of their comfort zone.  Teachers were issued gas masks provided by the Embassy. Administrators carried two-way radios.  We entertained American troops from nearby bases in our homes.  But the details of Desert Shield is a story for another day.

Right:  During Desert Shield we drove up to the Kuwait border and visited a number of US military camps.  Here are Kay and Andrew eating with the troops under camouflage

Desert Storm:  President Bush announced that the allies would begin the air attack on Kuwait and Iraq on January 15, 1991.  That day came and went quietly, but then, on January 17 (January 16 in D.C.) we were all awakened about 3 a.m. with loud military planes taking off from the nearby Riyadh Air Force Base.  Who could sleep?  Many people dressed and went out to the pool in the compound to listen to Armed Forces Radio for details. Someone made popcorn. What we were hearing were the heavy tankers taking off, preparing to refuel the F-15s that were leaving other air bases headed north.

We didn’t feel that we were in immediate danger.  We figured the worst thing that would happen would be an evacuation on short notice, so people thought about what could be packed in one bag, and what could be left behind.

Three hours later, at sunup, the administrators held a meeting in the superintendent’s home (3 doors from ours) to talk about options, not that we hadn’t been meeting and talking often since the previous August.  It was decided to cancel school that day, but, as it turned out, that was the only day we cancelled all year!  Some international schools thousands of miles from the war zone closed more than we did.  Enrollment had been dropping gradually and we were down from about 1800 students  to about 500 as families left for safer places. 

The infamous Scud missiles started dropping on Israel and in Saudi Arabia, most famously killing 28 U.S. soldiers in Dhahran, about 230 air miles from us.  But plenty dropped on Riyadh.

Here’s the way it often worked.  First, someone in the compound would get a telephone call from a relative in the states reporting that CNN had announced a Scud heading to Riyadh.  Then, about 10 minutes later the Scud would hit and wake the
rest of us up with a loud bang, or they would be hit in the air by one of our Patriot missiles, also noisy.  Five minutes later the local alarm would sound.  (Not much help!) 

In our housing compound all the homes had a neat little pantry off the kitchen, tucked under the stairs.  It was plenty big enough for several people to hunker in.  By general agreement, that seemed the safest place to be during a Scud attack.  The reaction by the 20 families remaining in the compound (ten families had decided to leave, at least temporarily) varied from totally ignoring the alerts and going back to sleep, to going to the pantry at the first hint of an attack.  A third group, including me, would rush outside with cameras, ready to grab a picture of a Patriot streaking up in search of a Scud. 

I would love to say that I took the picture (above).  Nope.  Many of us bought copies from a professional photographer.  Supposedly the picture shows two Patriot missiles being fired, one hitting a Scud and the other missing.  In a few weeks one could buy jewelry purported to be made from fragments of Scuds.  It was easy to find “I survived the Scud attacks!” tee shirts.

Even during the 10 Scud attacks, mostly at night, we tried to live a normal life.  School didn’t close again, and we worked hard to provide the remaining students with a good academic year.   One major snag for me personally: the person I had hired to
write, edit, and photograph the 1991 school yearbook walked into my office on January 7, with no warning, and said “I’m leaving the country.  I’ve sent the first 11 yearbook pages to the publisher.  You have 169 pages left to do by the April 20 deadline.”   Her driver was waiting outside to take her to the airport, so she grabbed a few things from her desk and vanished.  Gulp!

I worked nights and weekends on the yearbook, taking hundreds of pictures at sporting events and around campus.  With the great help from my secretary Diane we laid out 169 pages, wrote copy, captioned pictures, and tried to make it a good book.   Amazingly we met every deadline with the stateside publisher by asking people leaving for the states to carry pages with them to mail for me.  The Internet was not yet available in 1991.

U.S. soldiers and airmen had been everywhere in Riyadh since the previous August:  at the malls, in the grocery stores, and driving on the streets.  I was playing trombone in the Riyadh (adult) jazz band, and we entertained the troops at the various camps and bases near town.  Just call me Bob Hope.

Yep, that’s Ellis and a soldier sitting atop a tank, 40 miles north

of our home.  The equipment had broken down and the guy had

been left behind to guard it.  He was glad for the company and

gave us some  MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) which I still have on

my closet shelf.

There is so much more I could write about the effect of Desert Storm on the Meltons’ daily life in Riyadh that year.   I’ve already forgotten many of the details.   Here’s the bottom line.  I’m very sorry that we had to have a war.  It was lethal for many soldiers on both sides as well as Iraqi citizens, and inconvenient (to say the least) for the rest of the people in the Middle East and the soldier’s families back home.  However, if they had to have a war close by, the Meltons were glad that we didn’t miss it.  It was a civics lesson we’ll never forget.