Memories of a Gulf War Veteran: Commander Harry Heatley
To some, the military actions of the early 1990s in the Persian Gulf were too brief to be emotional, too routine to be a trial. For retired Navy Commander Harry Heatley, the memories of his eight months in the Gulf War combat zone aboard the USS Saratoga will forever be charged with emotion.
1991 – Aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, with aircraft during Operation Desert Storm
Heatley became a Naval Officer in 1978, after serving in the ROTC at the University of Colorado. At a school renowned as liberal, he witnessed the derision that military service members endured in the late 1970s. “They went through hell, yet they were despised in ways you wouldn’t ever see today,” he recalls about Vietnam War veterans. “But,” Heatley continues, “when it came to the Gulf War campaign, America was back behind the military. I watched and felt that happen as the tenure changed.”
In 1990, Heatley was a Lieutenant Commander, requested as the Maintenance Department Head in a squadron responding to the Iraq invasion of Kuwait. Placed in a do-or-die, intense situation, Heatley chose to serve his country to his fullest: “I thought I had the next year or two at home with my family. We had about a week’s notice before deploying out on one of the first ships. Hussein invaded Kuwait, and President Bush replied ‘This will not stand.’ It was August, and we steamed through the Suez Canal to patrol the Red Sea.”
George H. W. Bush on Policing the World and Opposing Iraqi Aggression
Lt. Commander Heatley was a helicopter pilot, supporting aerial missions that enforced the embargo on Iraq, as well as rescues of airmen and civilians. His team boarded merchant ships to search for weapons and other contraband. He recalls twice working with the Navy SEALS, and was involved in a news-worthy rescue during a brief shore leave in Haifa, Israel.
“We pulled in on a beautiful day and anchored a half-mile from shore. When a taxi ferry capsized, all the nearby sailors tried to rescue as many passengers as possible. One told me about a situation where two people needed saving, but he could only save one. He had to make a choice, and he let one guy go. He pushed the other up and saved him. Later, they found 19 people under deck who had been fighting to get out. We lost 19 guys and the war didn’t even start yet.”
In a time without internet, Skype, or cell phones, the men at sea looked forward to the occasional, brief time on shore. Heatley laughs about the fact that it would take at least 10 days for a letter from home to reach him onboard, and how his wife would send him cassette tapes of his baby “talking.” The sailors felt detached and missed home strongly by January.
Then, Superbowl XXV: “When Whitney Houston sang ‘The National Anthem,’” says Heatley, “there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere in the country or on any ship. It was the dawn of the war, and everyone knew what was about to happen. There wasn’t a dry eye anywhere.”
From what Heatley calls “the real start of the war” with the bombing campaign, his squadron suffered losses. Although overall casualty count for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm was “light,” Heatley witnessed the effects on the first night of combat missions. They lost two planes, with the pilots unaccounted for. “It was really shocking that we actually went to war, and then three of the guys that I ate dinner with were missing. That was scary.”
For the 40 days of bombing, Heatley and the other pilots were constantly in the air, working round-the-clock. During the rigorous campaign, the Naval ships were stationed 600 miles away, and aircraft had to refuel while flying. There was never a moment where the men could truly rest. “They needed rescuing,” remarks Heatley. “Kuwait needed liberating, and we liberated them. Done.”
Although awarded several ribbons, an Air Medal for serving in 19 missions, and the Saudi Arabian Kuwait Liberation Medal, among others, retired Navy Commander Heatley downplays these decorations. For him, the actions in the year 1990-91 were not about glory. Instead, he remembers, and describes, the faces and names of shipmates. He talks about the “highly emotional” long months on the boat, and the intense weeks of fighting. By April, Heatley and his men returned home to a “raucous welcome.”
Commander Heatley and his family, April 1991
As some of the first men to go “on cruise” to the Persian Gulf, Heatley and the others aboard the Saratoga were also some of the first to return home. The feeling of returning home to his wife and three children was “absolutely amazing,” and the family’s photos of that day are some of their most cherished possessions. Yet, Heatley can’t help but recall the men who ventured overseas on the ship and didn’t return home.
Heatley feels like Vietnam War veterans “still deserve better” recognition and appreciation. He also believes that veterans of the current military don’t understand how badly past veterans were castigated. “I hope,” Commander Heatley says, “that people remember the men who were lost in Desert Storm. Those who were lost were deeply appreciated.”
Each person who serves in the US military gives a piece of his or her life. And acts of giving are always worth celebrating.
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