On Jan. 16, Operation Desert Storm will reach its 30th birthday.
Positioned as Junction City is right next to a military base, many veterans of many wars have made their homes here, among them people who fought in Operation Desert Storm.
Then-2nd Lt. Nate Butler of Junction City is one of them — one of many — who fought alongside other 1st Infantry Division soldiers in the 100 hour war that officially started in Iraq Jan. 16, 1991 with orders from then-President George H. W. Bush. Butler said he was positioned just south of the Iraqi border, awaiting the call to action.
It was a calling he will never forget, because it came while he was celebrating his birthday with his brothers in arms. While the war began Jan. 16 in the United States, it was Jan. 17 — Butler’s birthday — where he was stationed in Saudi Arabia.
“About midnight, about 1 (a.m.), my soldiers came over, woke me up and said ‘hey, happy birthday, come out and watch the fireworks',” he said.
And so Butler joined them, laying on top of their vehicles, watching as Iraqi forces lit up the night with anti-aircraft rounds — the ‘fireworks' his fellow soldiers had referenced.
Butler's unit was the lead for the 1st Infantry Division in entering Iraq when that call eventually did come.
It was an intimidating experience, he said.
“It was very unique, very frightening,” Butler said. “For someone to say it wasn’t — I don’t know. I don’t know that you could say that. It was the night before. We had a lot of concern, a lot of thought and a lot of prayer.”
His unit had been told to expect high casualties and though this prediction did not pan out, Butler had no way of knowing this going in. He knew there was a chance he would lose his life.
“Once we made it through that first day, things tended to lighten up,” Butler said. “We moved fast. It was different than what we initially expected.”
Operation Desert Storm was his first deployment, a source of anxiety in and of itself for both soldiers and their families. He still recalls that day — being offered some time to go home and then returning to prepare himself to go to war.
“(It caused) a lot of anxiety, a lot of concern,” he said. “Were we going to come back, was it something that we were going to be there for a long duration of time? Nobody really knew, you know?”
Once it was over, the mood shifted. There was still anxiety, but it was related to getting back home in a timely matter rather than fear over the unknown — or the possibility of themselves or their friends becoming a casualty of war.
“We were all excited to be getting back home, back to be with our families,” he said. “We couldn’t have gotten home quick enough.”
This was Butler’s only deployment.
From his short time in Iraq, Butler said he learned several life lessons which he has never forgotten.
“Enjoy today and look to tomorrow, because you never know what tomorrow holds,” he said.
It was, Butler feels, preparation for many soldiers who would go on future deployments to the Middle East.
“As a soldier, it was (our) responsibility to do the mission we were called to do and I’m proud to have been able to serve,” he said.
Then-Warrant Officer 1 Phyllis Fitzgerald and her husband Keith are also among those who fought.
They did not go into battle side by side. She was in a helicopter when she crossed the berm separating them from Iraqi combatants and her husband was on the ground.
Phyllis Fitzgerald remembers the experience to this day. It was an adjustment, she recalls.
“You do adjust, because that’s your job,” she said. “We’re soldiers. So you get into the rhythm. We were in the rhythm already of deploying out of here … The focus was on the mission and that’s what we were really there for."
She remembers going from icy winter weather here to the desert warmth of Saudi Arabia.
“You adjust to your environment, you adjust to the climate,” she said. “We had a mission to do and that was the focus."
Phyllis Fitzgerald recalls breaching the berm that separated the two opposing forces when the ground war began.
“I still remember that day,” she said. “It wasn’t a sunny, happy day. It was a cool, gloomy day.”
The fear was always present, but she pushed it to the back of her mind as best she could.
“The fear is always there,” she said. “But when you are engulfed and busy doing your job — your mission — your mind is occupied, so you’re focused on what you’re doing. But I know in the back of your mind, you always have that fear.”
Phyllis Fitzgerald and her husband were in a unique position, because both of them were deployed and fighting in the same war. Though they deployed together, they were not overseas together and so they rarely saw each other. They wrote to each other, not having the more advanced communication methods soldiers today might have, but they rarely had the chance to speak.
After the fighting ended, Phyllis Fitzgerald was concerned about her husband’s safety. She asked her Commanding General, Lt. Gen. Thomas Rhame, to take a note to her husband and make sure he was safe. Rhame did one better — he arranged for Keith Fitzgerald to come see her, to prove to both of them the other was alright.
“I’m very grateful for that,” Phyllis Fitzgerald said.
They left behind two children when they went overseas. Phyllis Fitzgerald still has letters she wrote her children from overseas, some penned on the backs of MRE boxes, but largely she was unable to communicate much with them either.
There was always the concern of what might happen to their children if one or both of them didn’t make it back from Iraq.
But they both came home to their children.
Phyllis Fitzgerald arrived home first.
She immediately went to South Dakota where her children had lived temporarily while she was overseas. They were overjoyed to see her and eager to return home. When Keith Fitzgerald came home, she and the children were there to meet him.
It wasn’t a difficult adjustment, coming home. There were few issues with the children. It was harder to leave them than to come home to them.
She said she is proud to have served in Operation Desert Storm.
“We’re all free today not necessarily because of any one of us, but we’re free today thanks to all of our fallen comrades since World War I,” she said. “Every war has continued that freedom to include Desert Storm.”
From the list Infantry Division, 27 soldiers died in Operation Desert Storm in total.
She takes pride in the 1st Infantry Division still today.
“The 1st Infantry Division is a great division,” she said. “I’m glad that we served in the Big Red One and we have a lot of respect, a lot of pride for the division — the soldiers in it and our leaders.”