Dan Zedan chokes up as he remembers saying goodbye to his children when he went off to war 30 years ago.
“I’ll never forget that night. Forgive me if I get emotional,” he said.
Zedan, a Coast Guard Reserve commander at the time, served more than six months in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He spent the first two months as a liaison to the Joint Task Force, planning and executing the war. Then he took command of Port Security Unit 302, protecting ships coming into the Bahrain harbor and advising their Coast Guard.
The U.S. Coast Guard never mobilized since World War II. No one expected they would again, including Zedan, who was a vice president of marketing in Chicago when his 15-year-old daughter called.
“Dad, are you going overseas?” she asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“There’s a war,” she said. “It’s war.”
It was Aug. 2, 1990.
Tsianina (prounced Sha-Neenah) was watching news coverage about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
“No, don’t worry,” he told her over the phone. “It will be over quick.”
Coast Guard deploys for the first time since WWII
“That’s what I told her,” he said, recalling that day three decades later. “But I knew that wasn’t going to be the case.”
As U.S. leaders assembled a multi-national force and mobilized all branches of the Defense Department, they kept active-duty Coast Guard on the home front and sent Reservists to the Middle East.
Three Coast Guard Port Security Units were mobilized — 303 from Milwaukee deployed Sept. 18 to the King Abdul Aziz Port in Saudi Arabia; 301 from Buffalo, New York, deployed Sept. 21 to Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia; and 302 from Cleveland, Ohio, deployed Nov. 22 – Thanksgiving Day – to Manama, Bahrain. Armed with M2s and M60s, it was their jobs to protect ships coming into the harbor, making sure they weren’t attacked.
“My family had gotten used to me having a bag packed and leaving for military exercises, but never anything like this,” Zedan said.
The Coast Guard prepared as early as 1982 for mobilizations.
“It was a little bit like ‘Cops and Robbers,’” said Zedan. “We didn’t think we’d ever actually deploy. We were the lifesavers. We weren’t the John Waynes.”
He put on a brave face as he said goodbye to his five kids.
“As I went down the line, I told each one what I had hoped for them. Gave them a hug and a kiss and … ”
He pauses and his voice cracks with emotion.
“I wasn’t sure when I’d be home. And if for some reason I didn’t come home, I wanted them to know how much I loved them and what I wanted for them in life.”
Schoolteacher to supply troop
Mary Fowlkes joined the Coast Guard Reserve in 1983. While she worked as a middle school teacher, she was a supply troop during her Reserve drills one weekend a month and two weeks a year.
With a new school year in place, she was busy working on gradebooks at home the evening of Sept. 15 when the phone rang.
“You need to report tomorrow at 0600 to the 440th (Airlift Wing in Milwaukee),” her commander said.
“It’s a call I never expected. Never,” she said. “He didn’t give me a whole lot of info – just to be prepared to be gone for three months. I didn’t have any camo uniforms. I had a fridge full of food. All the stores were closed. I told my sister, ‘I think I’m going to Saudi Arabia tomorrow. Here’s my checkbook, pay my bills when they come in and cancel my newspaper.’”
She was made part of PSU 303 from Milwaukee. After three days of intensive training, they arrived at the King Abdul Aziz Port.
Working on the fly with little prep
“We didn’t come over with a lot of supplies,” Fowlkes said. “The majority of supplies that were needed had to be purchased in Saudi Arabia. We had to work with merchants and stores to get oil for upkeep of our boats.
“They won’t do business with women. I’d have to stay on base, or the couple times I went out, I had to sit back while they were discussing things. I couldn’t say anything.”
Zedan arrived a day later and found out mobilization plans on paper didn’t work in real life.
“My first job was two-fold. First, the Milwaukee unit was in terrible quarters at the time. I needed to find a better place for them. Mobilization plans called for the Navy to provide vehicles to get the boats from the warehouse to the water. There were no vehicles to do that. Then we didn’t have trucks and no way for the troops to get back and forth.
“In the first several weeks, we had no way of getting gas to our boats. We’d literally have to take them out of the water, put them on a trailer and drive them to a gas station.”
While the Navy had big ships, only the Coast Guard had the 22-footers that could get close enough to shore to provide security. But they quickly discovered the boat batteries were wired wrong.
“If it ran for an extended period, it overcharged the battery, and they’d explode,” Zedan said. “We didn’t come over with extra batteries. Our warrant officer goes to the Air Force liaison officer, and some of their aircraft used the same kind, so they gave us two pallets of batteries.”
Military ingenuity worked best when he was in Bahrain, where alcohol is allowed.
“If we were short-handed and needed something, we’d work out deals with other services — a boat ride or case of beer for equipment.
Making a home in a warzone
Bruce Bruni, a lieutenant junior grade assigned to PSU 301 out of Buffalo, faced similar issues.
“I have to agree, our equipment was thrown together. The people at (Coast Guard) 9th District sent us over with 100 sandbags. We needed thousands. That was just enough to keep our tent pegs in place.”
He and his team landed at the most northern port of Saudi Arabia.
“We got off that airplane and it was like walking into a blast furnace,” he said.
“At the time, we were told we were the frontlines. If Saddam pushed south, we were going to need everyone on deck to counter that. You looked around and saw Cobra gunships and other helicopters and everything was hitting home. It looked like a warzone.”
But essentials? Not so much.
“We had no showers, nothing. We had to beg, borrow and steal stuff – literally steal.”
He and a gunner’s mate went out on a special mission to “borrow” a couple Army shower stalls.
“The Army was in a hangar across port and had eight different sections with three shower stalls each. We took off our shirts and went over there to take two of them.”
“What are you guys doing with those?” an Army lieutenant asked.
“We have to move these closer to the water, so when the water comes out, it goes into the pier,” he answered.
“That’s a good idea,” the lieutenant said.
Bruni laughs at the memory.
“We had those shower stalls moved to our side of the port and painted so quick, you wouldn’t even recognize them.”
As supplies came into port, they were cradled in wood dunnage – a variety of hard woods that could only be used once. Their team scavenged the scrap to build their base camp.
“We’re talking Philippine mahogany and other wood, just piled up on the pier,” he said. (The team) would take that stuff and build a boathouse, a shed, tables for a morale tent and walls in between tents.”
They used the wood to build stuff for the Marines who returned the favor by relieving them and manning guns on their boats when the Coast Guard needed a break. Coasties also made quick friends with the Navy’s Seabee construction crew and their underwater demolition team.
“They had the radar and sonar capabilities,” Bruni said. “Told them they’d be the ears and eyes, and we’d be the hands and feet. They’d tell us when ships were coming in, and our boats would intercept and protect from any potential threats.”
Home connections and war
And the days dragged on. Troops who were told they’d be home by Thanksgiving, were now looking at Christmas. And before Christmas, were told it would be even longer.
“By the time we got over there, we were busy the entire time,” Zedan said. “I worked from 6 in the morning to 11 at night and didn’t have a lot of time to think about home. I got my first afternoon off on Thanksgiving.
“Everything was sent by letter. There was no internet, no way to call. My kids sent me a videotape of their Halloween costumes and I didn’t get it until Christmas day.”
Fowlkes said it helped having some home connection.
“I got great support from my family, my school and my students. They would send pictures and cards. Back then we didn’t have e-mail. It took three weeks to receive a letter. We didn’t have FaceTime and Facebook. I maybe got three phone calls the entire time I was there.
“I guess what helped was we were surrounded by great shipmates and great leadership,” she said. “We were all supportive of each other, we were mature and competent. We met all the challenges we faced and found solutions.”
By the time the war started, the Coast Guard, like so many others, were just ready for something.
“I think pretty much the attitude at that point was, ‘Let’s get this thing under way,’” Bruni said. “Let’s get this over with.”
As the Air Force rained bombs on Iraqi forces shortly after midnight Jan. 17, the Coast Guard dealt with rain, high winds and ugly seas.
“There was a lot of high-risk stuff going on,” Zedan said. “When we started bombing that first night, it was bad weather. We had 7-foot seas, but we were out there because we had hospital ships we were responsible for protecting. I was worried we were risking our own men’s lives. We were out so far, if something went wrong, it would take us too long to rescue them.”
Bruni remembered those wickedly high waves.
“When you’re operating a 22-foot boat with 50-caliber guns and 6-foot-or-better waves – some of those waves were a pretty good size – we had a few guys getting banged up.”
The Iraqis haphazardly launched Scud missiles throughout the Middle East. There was no telling where they’d land or who they’d hurt.
“That first night, there were a number of Scud missiles launched,” Bruni said. “I spent the night in my freaking MOPP suit. We had one land 1,000 meters from the camp. Another missed an ammo ship by a hundred yards. It didn’t explode, but it broke apart. We didn’t know if there would be follow-up attacks.
“The British had chemical alarms and you could hear it all night long: ‘Gas! Gas! Gas!’”
Fowlkes woke that first morning and was told, “We’re at war now.”
“I remember those sirens going off, and we’d get into our MOPP suits,” she said. “Sometimes you could hear the Scuds overhead. You just had to sit and wait until the all clear. I was in that MOPP suit for six hours one time. “
And finally, it was time to go home. With the ground war ending more quickly than anyone realized, the Coast Guard teams came back stateside in March and April.
Zedan returned to his job as vice president. Bruni to his job as a police officer. Fowlkes went back to her school.
“The woman who subbed for me was outstanding. I think the kids liked her better,” she laughed. “It was a little hard and strange getting back to work but my colleagues were very supportive.”
Zedan said there was a rough transition.
“It was like it just wasn’t real. I remember getting home and my kids were doing their homework. They went about life as if Dad wasn’t there. I walked into the backyard. I remember standing there, looking around, as if my body was there, but I was still overseas. I could not believe it was finally over.
“I couldn’t stay home. I was going to drive myself nuts. Everything was rush, rush, rush. I needed to get my car and get into the office. It was snowing. Another car comes up the hill, loses control, slides into my lane and I slam into a tree and she slams into me.
“I said, ‘OK, I just went through six months and I’m going to get killed in a car accident.’”
He and Bruni both deployed to Haiti in 1994. Bruni returned to the Middle East for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
“They had me at an Army camp in the middle of fricking nowhere,” Bruni said. “They asked what the Coast Guard was doing there. Told them I was looking for the beach and should have turned in Albuquerque.
“A lot has happened since Desert Storm,” he added. “There’s a lot more recognition by DoD that we’re warfighters.”
Fowlkes did one more stateside deployment after the BP oil spill in 2010. She retired from teaching and retired from the Coast Guard in 2011 as a master chief petty officer. She gets her care at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
“It’s just outstanding care,” she said. They get me whatever I need and ask how I’m feeling. I’m always treated with the utmost respect when I go there.”
Bruni retired from the police force shortly after 9/11 and stayed mostly active Coast Guard until 2011, when he retired as a captain.
Zedan retired as a captain in 2001. He still works as a vice president for marketing and plans to stay in the job until he hits 70.
The Coast Guard asked him not long ago to write about his Desert Storm experiences.
“It hit me like a loaded truck when I realized it was 30 years ago. I can’t believe how far we’ve come, and we’ve deployed numerous times.
“It brings a lot of pride,” Zedan said. “To think back and know all the hardships and all the trouble, the Coast Guard has done an outstanding job. It brings a lot of satisfaction. It just brings a good feeling to your heart.”
(This story was updated Jan. 5 at 8 p.m.)