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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Dec. 17, 2021

The Long Blue Line: The Persian Gulf War—a female officer’s experience 30 years ago

By Retired Capt. Carol N. Rivers, Coast Guard reserve

During 1990, I was assigned as the training officer for Reserve Unit Syracuse, New York. One of my responsibilities was to ensure that each member of the unit had committed to an appropriate two-week training period. That year, the district office in Cleveland, Ohio, forwarded a request to fill 25 billets at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., for a Combat Skills Course giLt. Cmdr. Carol Rivers donning the contents of her deployment gear, including combat helmet, socks, t-shirt and men’s briefs! (Courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Carol Rivers)ven in July. I asked several of our members to sign up, all of whom had no desire to train in combat in July in Virginia. One of the senior Navy officers who drilled with us said to me “Carol, put your name at the top of the list and I’ll bet you will have better luck.” Well, I had to think about that, as I had no desire to do this training either. I asked a female officer who had attended a previous class what it was like and she said “Worse than childbirth.” After much deliberation, I put my name at the top of the list and would you believe, I met the goal of 25 reservists ready to take the Combat Skills Course.

A few weeks later, I received a large box filled with several pairs of combat uniforms including brown briefs (men’s), T-shirts, web gear, and combat boots.

Off we went, feeling excited about our new mission and comfortable we had each other as support. Our quarters were old Quonset huts with many of the windows broken out long ago with toads and spiders in the corners and, of course, no fans or air conditioning. But, the worst part was the head (restroom)—a dozen toilets in a row with no partitions. I thought this would never work even though there were designated male and female heads!

The following week, we had a war game with the Marines posing as the opposition force (OPFOR) and we as the friendly force (BLUFOR). Our rifles were electronic (MILES GEAR) and, once a person was hit, they were out of the game. During the exercise, I was scheduled to stand watch at midnight on one of the last training days. I was doing the low crawl to the command tent when one of the players approached me and gave me the appropriate BLUFOR password. Thinking he was one of us, I told him that I was on my way to the command tent and he told me he would escort me. Once I stood up, he captured me and brought me to the OPFOR command post. 

“I’ve got the commanderGroup photo of officers of Port Security Unit 301 deployed to Quantico, Virginia, for Combat Skills Training, with Quonset huts in background. (Courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Carol Rivers),” he bragged. 

I was mortified, but he hadn’t taken my weapon. While he was bragging, I slipped away in the dark to a nearby building, went in the back door and out the front door and made my way, on time, to stand my watch in the BLUFOR Command Post. I never told anyone.

The communal head located in the author’s Quonset hut at Quantico. (Courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Carol Rivers)It was the end of July 1990 when we completed our combat skills training. A few days later, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Our ticket was punched so to speak, and we all received orders to deploy to the Middle East the following month. I was full of pride, excitement, and fear!
My mother broke down when I told her I would be deploying to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield. Our unit received orders for a 30-day deployment. Ironically, my three brothers never served in the military yet my mother’s only daughter was going to war.

Most of us were in shock, feeling multiple emotions: adventure, excitement, fear, and pride.  There was a lot of whining, too, as the Coast Guard reserve rarely deployed for war.  However, we received training and double pay for our weekend drills and now it was payback time. 

When our captain had heard enough of the grumbling he got stern and said to us, “It is time to look behind your belly button.” There was silence. Everyone got the message. 

After one of our training sessions, the district commander in Cleveland pulled me aside and told me that it would be all right if I felt my family situation prevented me from deploying. I was married and myThe author training in the use of automatic weapons during her time at Quantico. (Courtesy Lt. Cmdr. Carol Rivers) children were 16 and 18, the younger learning to drive and the older going off to college. I asked him if he gave the men the same opportunity and he replied “No.” I answered respectfully that I didn’t feel I could accept that special favor if the men were not given the same opportunity. 

Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, 1990, and subsequently about 100 Coast Guard reservists from upstate New York were activated, assigned the billets of the Buffalo Port Security Unit 301 and scheduled to deploy to the Middle East for Operation Desert Shield. The Coast Guard was to assist in securing three ports in the Persian Gulf—Bahrain, Ad Dammam, and Al Jubail, and enforce the United Nations embargo of Iraq. The upstate New York contingent, of which I was a member, was sent to Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia’s most northern port. 

When it was time, I took a train, a cab and finally a plane to get to my point of departure to the Middle East. The cab driver noticed my sea bag and asked where I was going. When I said the Middle East, he replied, “Oh, you don’t know what they do to women over there.” Then he commented, “I heard they have ordered twice the n. As Logistics Officer, Lt. Cmdr. Carol Rivers, meets with local suppliers to purchase equipment and materials for PSU 301. (Courtesy of the author)umber of body bags for this war.” I no longer felt the adventure and excitement. I felt fear and said to myself, “What have I gotten myself into?”

After a brief stopover in Spain, we landed in Al Jubail and we were escorted to Camp One, our new home. When Operation Desert Shield was declared, employees from an oil company evacuated Camp One. The war had not begun and we were all so tired we actually slept pretty well that night not really knowing what lay ahead.
Before I left home, I read a newspaper article saying women deploying to the Persian Gulf would have to look demurely at the floor when speaking to a Saudi man. Once we were operational, I didn’t quite know what to expect when my commanding officer sent me to the nearest hardware store for operational supplies. I brought our boat engineer with me. We were introduced to the son of the hardware store‘s owner, Mr. Saied. I told him what we needed. He smiled at me and then asked my engineer who was standing next to me, a question. My engineer looked to me for an answer and I told Mr. Saied my response. I did not look demurely at the Lt. Cmdr. Carol Rivers in desert camo uniform on the breakwater at the port of Al Jubail on the western coast of Saudi Arabia. (Courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Carol Rivers)floor, but I had rolled my sleeves down to cover my arms and I had tucked my sidearm in my belt under my uniform blouse. The Saudi gave the paperwork to the engineer to sign off on, the engineer promptly gave it to me and I signed it. The second trip to the hardware store went a little better and Mr. Saied spoke to me directly. I did include my engineer in the conversation, all went well, and I was given the paperwork to sign directly. By the third visit, Mr. Saied clapped his hands and said, “My commander is here, bring us some tea.”
The women in the Gulf War were tough, yet feminine. We did bring our hair dryers and our curling irons in our sea bags, and we used them. I never saw one cry, shirk her duties, or allow the tough living conditions to get to her; BUT the Saudi Navy was not ready for us. A contingent of officers in our unit was invited to visit the nearby Saudi Naval Academy. As we came through the gate, all the men were saluted but not me, the only female officer. I was determined not to let the Saudis intimidate me…and they didn’t. I showed respect for their customs and their culture and, three months later, I earned my first salute.

I was introduced to the British officer-in-charge of maintenance. She was the first female officer I had met. We became friends and one day she asked if I would like to bring my “lads” over to see a British “Challenger” tank, similar to the American M1 “Abrams” tank. My staff was losing their morale, but I knew my commanding officer would say “No way.” He was not on the compound wLt. Cmdr. Carol Rivers sitting in the driver’s seat of a British “Challenger” battle tank. (Courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Carol Rivers)here we lived and worked, so I put a note on the door as to where we were and decided I would rather take his wrath than miss this opportunity.

In January of 1991, just before the bombing started, a young Marine from the frontline had driven south to Al Jubail. He was looking for supplies. I was the logistics officer and dutifully loaded him up with lumber, morale gear and whatever else he needed. He thanked me, stood silent for a moment, and then said respectfully, “Ma’am, I have been away from home for three months…away from my mom, my sisters and my girlfriend—could you give me a hug?” Of course, I gave him a hug, but sending him back to the frontline, knowing that the war was soon to start, made me emotional. I hid my face so he would not see my watery eyes.  

While standing the mid-watch as the command duty officer on Jan. 17, 1991, I received a classified message stating that the U.S. attack on Iraq was imminent. I advised our commander. I felt as if I was in a movie scene as low flying planes roared overhead and in minutes released their bombs. The ground shook. Desert Shield became Desert Storm and the war began.

The air raid sirens blasted a warning of incoming “Scud” missiles on a regular basis and usually in the middle of the night. One night we heard a deafening explosion and we once again gathered our gear and ran to the break wall. A Scud had broken up in its trajectory and landed in the inner harbor. We thought the boats haLt. Cmdr. Carol Rivers with Coast Guard personnel preparing to march in the June 1991 National Victory Celebration parade in in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of the author)d been hit and the boat crews thought our camp had been hit; however, we were all safe. In the morning, we watched and aided EOD in retrieving what was left of the Scud.

There were media reports that a military woman was captured by the Iraqis. Maj. Ronda Cornum was an Army flight surgeon and was aboard a Black Hawk rescue mission looking for a downed F-16. The helicopter was shot down and only three of the eight crewmembers survived. She was one of them. No names were given in the media report and Niki, my daughter who was a freshman in college, was worried that it could be her mom so she called the Pentagon. She was able to speak to the Coast Guard office, which assured her that I was fine and that it was not her mother who had been captured. I was very proud of the Coast Guard for showing such concern for my daughter’s feelings. And, I was very proud of my daughter who took the initiative to call the Pentagon.

Desert Shield/Dessert Storm was the greatest adventure of my life, other than raising children. I came home a different person. I found my inner strength a hundred times over. I was closer to knowing my limits and realized how much more I could cope with than I thought. To this day, I hardly ever cry. I learned that if others did not have material belongings greater than what I had, I did not really feel I wanted more. I learned how to be decisive and unemotional and how to deal with difficult people. I learned that it was not how smart one was, but the fact that they were part of the team that made them successful.

I cannot say that I enjoyed my Desert Shield/Desert Storm deployment, but I enjoyed the fact that I experienced it and I still enjoy how it changed my life.