During Desert Storm, there were many faces of the war. President George H.W. Bush made decisions as the commander in chief and delivered remarks from the White House to the American people on the war’s opening night. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney advised the president on policy. Army Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf led the troops downrange. Serving as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there was an Army Veteran advising Bush and Cheney while working with Schwartzkopf: Gen. Colin Powell.

Powell was less than a year into his tour as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Operation Desert Shield started in August 1990. Soon after, he was a key player in a war that the now 83-year-old Veteran fondly recalls during his travels downrange to visit deployed service members.

“These youngsters were great,” the retired general said. “These youngsters were fabulous. These youngsters wanted to do their very, very best. These youngsters trained, like you wouldn’t believe to get ready for this conflict.”

Army Gen. Colin Powell visits U.S. troops during the war.

Army Gen. Colin Powell visits U.S. troops during the war.

‘We’re a family’

Powell said one of his fondest memories of Desert Storm Veterans was watching an Army sergeant talking to a reporter right before the war started. Powell said the reporter approached a tank crew and asked questions to get the soldier to admit fear.

“He said, ‘Well, what do you think? Are you afraid? Are you ready?’ And the young man answered, ‘I’m ready. Sir, we’re trained. We’ve been working hard and I’m ready. We’re ready.’ He said, ‘I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid because I’m with my family. This is my family. We are a family. We will do this well. We will get it done.”

Powell said 30 years later that memory still is crystal clear.

“I’ll never forget that expression of what he said,” Powell said. “His sergeants were smiling behind him. The other soldiers were smiling and that was the attitude that we went into this conflict: we’re a family. And it was not just a family of tankers. It was a family of pilots. It was a family of everybody you can name.”

Before the war ground war started, the Vietnam Veteran traveled to 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division to speak to the soldiers. Powell commanded the brigade back in the 1970s.

“I went and talked to them,” he said. “It was a very moving moment for me.”

Not all moments were serious

He then went to another unit near the Saudi Arabia-Kuwait border. As he walked with troops, he saw camels nearby. He asked if the camels bothered the unit. The NCO he spoke to said the camels realized when a truck pulled up with orange mailbags, they were in for a treat.

“The camels noticed that about once every couple of days a truck would come in, and in the truck, a lot of baggage would be thrown out,” Powell said. “It didn’t take them long to realize that when it’s an orange bag, it’s a mail bag. It didn’t take them long to realize that when you have a mailbag and it’s opened up, it has cookies because the GI’s mother’s sent them cookies.”

Army Gen. Colin Powell briefs reporters at the Pentagon.

Army Gen. Colin Powell briefs reporters at the Pentagon.

Road to war through a fax

Powell said Bush was cautious not to “go to war just to go to war.”

“President Bush went out of his way to see if he could not find a political solution and not just a conflict,” Powell said.

Despite serving as the senior uniformed military officer, Powell said he was reluctant to place U.S. military lives at stake unless necessary.

“I don’t like war,” he said. “I hate war, but people thought that, you know, I was too reluctant to go to war. Well, I’ll go to war when you want me to, but until we have to, let’s see what we can do to solve the problem.”

His policy to go to war as a last resort led to the media-labeled Powell Doctrine. The doctrine’s principle idea is that, if there isn’t a political solution, then the military should put its full weight behind the war to decisively win.

“That’s what we did in Desert Storm,” he said. “We have to make sure that when we go to war, we go to war for the reason. We have to make sure that we’ve done everything we can to try not to have a war, but if one comes, fight it and fight it to the death. Fight it so they know America cannot be challenged in this way.”

When diplomatic efforts with Iraq failed, then it was time to send in the all-volunteer force. Because of the technology limitations, Desert Storm started over a fax machine.

“Back then, it wasn’t quite the same,” he said. “The way General Schwarzkopf and I talked to each other quietly was with a fax machine. He had one and I had one. Our assistants had access to it and nobody else did.”

Air war softens the battlefield

Powell said one of the major accomplishments of Desert Storm was sending in airpower opening night and for several weeks after.

“We started the conflict with airpower, and airpower did a great job in softening the battlefield,” he said. Before long, he told U.S. commanders to stop hitting targets more than once.

“If the tank engine is cold and it’s not giving off a signal, we killed it yesterday,” he said. “Let’s not do it again. Save the bullets. And we giggled about that, but that’s what we had to do.”

The 100-hour ground war

Powell said the Iraqis were not ready for the U.S. military and more than 30-nation partner coalition. He said the Iraqis put in fire breaks on the border between Kuwait and Iraq. They also dug trenches full of fuel, setting them on fire to stop the opposing force.

The U.S. devised the famed “Left Hook,” which was a main attack to go around the Iraqis. He said the reason was simple: saving lives.

“I don’t want to waste lives, attacking them head on,” Powell said. “It’s not the way to do it. We attack them head, we will lose more people than if we go around.”

Meanwhile, Marines remained offshore, waiting for their opportunity to join the fight. The Marines froze the Iraqis in place. Shortly after the ground war started, Powell received notice the Marines were ready. After watching for weeks, the Marines penetrated through the Iraqi defense, heading toward Kuwait City. Powell said Schwarzkopf ordered Army commanders to move forward. In all, the ground war lasted 100 hours.

“We couldn’t have asked for anything better,” he said. “It was only two days and it was clear that the conflict was going to come to an end.”

Soon after, Powell spoke to Bush and said the ground war would soon end. Powell said rather than wait, Bush ordered the end to the war to stop killing more Iraqis or endangering U.S. service members’ lives.

“The president said, ‘I see no reason to keep killing soldiers, either ours or theirs. Remember, they have mothers and fathers too. And so, let’s bring it to a close,’” Powell said.

Iraqi troops surrender to U.S. and coalition forces during Desert Storm.

Iraqi troops surrender to U.S. and coalition forces during Desert Storm.

Technology at the forefront

Powell said Americans at the time were in awe of the speed and might of the American military.

“They couldn’t believe that this was that easy,” Powell said. “Well, it wasn’t all that easy, but at the same time, they also saw something they had never imagined.”

Powell said Americans were able to see the war in action because of the constant media coverage. With that, he said Americans also saw U.S. military technology in action.

“I used to kid about it with my audiences,” he said. “Yeah, the Tomahawk missiles would come up the street and wait for a red light to change. Then it would take a right turn and go after the target.”

The former chairman also said other technology such as the M-1 Abrams tank, stealth aircraft and more left a lasting impression on the American public. Another key technology was GPS. At the time, it was a newer concept that commanders wanted to keep in the military’s hands instead of releasing it to the public after the war.

“I said, ‘Guys, let me tell you something. We got to remember the American people gave us this system. Now that they see how it works, they don’t want to find out where somebody’s tank is. They want to know where they are.’”

Powell said Desert Storm provided a technology now frequently used on smart phones and cars across the U.S.

“The beauty of this is we also were able to give to our fellow citizens a great deal of technology that helped.”

Unsung heroes

Powell had high praise for logisticians, Merchant Marines and air transportation. They pushed everything from ammunition to gifts. He said he personally received a call from actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wanted to send fitness equipment to deployed troops. Powell turned to the logistics specialists, who made it happen. He said they also played a critical role moving mail to keep troops motivated. Logisticians were also the last to leave once the war was over.

“They had to pack up everything that we’d brought over there and get it all home,” he said. “They did that, and they did it well.”

Powell added that the Defense Logistics Agency quickly developed a system to track cargo flowing in and out of theater.

He said medical teams also were unsung heroes of the war. Although the U.S. had low casualties, the medical teams gave troops, “a sense of confidence that if something happened to them, we’d be there to take care of them.”

All-volunteer force worked

Another part of Desert Storm’s success relied on the first large-scale, all-volunteer force.

“They were wonderful,” he said. “You have to remember, this is the first large military operation we had of this size that was done by an all-volunteer Army. No draftees, all volunteers. But I can tell you this right now, the volunteer Army worked.”

Initial estimates for U.S. casualties ranged from military estimates of 5,000 to others as high as 25,000. In the end, there were only 382 casualties from Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

“As far as Desert Shield and Desert Storm are concerned, it was a great success,” he said. “And I think the American people still feel that way. I certainly feel that way.”

Army Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwartzkopf during Desert Storm.

Army Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwartzkopf during Desert Storm.

Return home

Upon returning home, Powell said U.S. service members received a well-deserved welcome from the American people.

“They were stunned, not only by the quality of the equipment, they were stunned by the troops,” he said. “They fell in love with this all-volunteer Army like you wouldn’t believe.”

He said commanders initially wanted troops to return home to start their normal recovery cycles. However, the popularity of the American service members’ performance changed those plans. He told his commanders to let U.S. troops enjoy American’s appreciation.

“You keep giving the American people all the parades they want to see,” Powell said. “We haven’t had this in a long time. We’re going to keep with the parades. We’ll catch up with the training later.”

When a New York City group organized a parade, the Bronx-raised Powell said he asked Bush if he wanted to participate. He said the president declined, saying “I’m not coming. This is about you guys.” The president later did attend a parade in Washington, but as a spectator, applauding the troops.

“This is the kind of class that I think our armed forces showed under the leadership of President Bush that people were not expecting,” Powell said.

Unfounded criticism

Powell said that, despite Desert Storm’s overwhelming success, some people still criticized the operation because they thought the U.S. should have continued to fight into Iraq.

“I had to spend a lot of time in my future years telling people why we didn’t continue fighting,” he said. “We did what we were supposed to do. We freed Kuwait.”

The retired general said the war eventually led to another outcome. Because the U.S. showed restraint and allowed the Iraqi army to return home, they had enough strength to fend off any attacks from neighboring Iran. That decision, he said, eventually helped Iraq become independent.

“The Iraqis now have full, complete control of their own government, their own people.”

Caring for Veterans

Powell praised VA’s work taking care of Desert Storm Veterans following the conflict. He took his Russian counterpart at the time, Gen. Mikhail A. Moiseyev, to VA to show him how the U.S. takes care of service members who have been injured. They also viewed how VA creates prostheses for Veterans in need. By the end of the visit, the Russian general told him, “We got to do more of this.”

Powell believes it’s important – in both times of war and peace – to take care of Veterans and their needs.

“I am a Veteran,” Powell said. “I take advantage of the opportunities that I have. I will never forget what VA has done for me over these years, many, many years, more importantly, what VA has done for all of our American Veterans who were there and who deserve everything that we can give to them from VA.”


Powell said the anniversary is an opportunity for all Americans to appreciate the work Desert Storm Veterans did in service of the country.

“I think the 30th anniversary of Desert Storm is a good time to sit back, think about it, reflect on what we did in a short period of time, how we responded politically to what was going on and how we put together a great force, a force of 30 nations that came together as a coalition,” he said.

Powell added Desert Storm Veterans deserve recognition and respect for earning a hard-earned title—Veteran.

“Let’s all come together and pay tribute to what our troops did for Desert Storm,” Powell said. “Let’s remember where they are now and who they are now. They’re all Veterans. I’m a Veteran. I’m proud to be a Veteran. I’m as proud of that title as any other title I’ve ever had.”

By Air Force Veteran Adam Stump is a member of VA's Digital Media Engagement team.

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Published on Jan. 17, 2021

Estimated reading time is 12.3 min.

Views to date: 588


  1. Michael Aya February 4, 2021 at 8:26 pm

    Kudos to all the doctors that sacrifice their lives to make sure humanity is safe. God will bless you guys mightily

  2. Jimmy Arocho February 3, 2021 at 8:54 am

    As a Gulf War Veteran (GWV), 1990-1991, Desert Shield/Desert Storm, 101st Airborne Air Assault Division, Fort Campbell, KY; I am mostly setback by reading about the health related challenges that may be attributable to Post Deployment, Environmental Exposures, and Toxic Wounds. My professional aim is to act upon these challenges! Today, I’m a Research Associate at Nova Southeastern University (NSU), my consumer role is to alert GWV’s to the availability of ongoing clinical research trials and studies. In working alongside Dr. Nancy Klimas, Principle Investigator, NSU, Institute of Neuro-Immune Medicine (INIM), on Gulf War Illness (GWI), we onboard volunteers to participate in our research programs. NSU has been awarded grants from the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP) to work on Gulf War Illness (GWI). Our latest grant is in support of the Gulf War Illness Clinical Trials Intervention Consortia (GWICTIC). Today, there is ongoing GWI research available across the nation. Please understand that the role of the clinical researcher is to follow the science. Research may help you learn more about your post deployment health concerns. This knowledge may lead to productive conversations with your Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT) at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). Research may help with communications in benefit claims.

  3. Soldrgrl89 January 30, 2021 at 7:48 am

    Let us all form a freaking coalition without the useless DAV, VFW & the lot of the service organizations who are supposed to be our mouthpiece & get us our benefits. We, the actual Veterans who served in Desert Storm & beyond, should formulate to help iurselves & those voiceless Veterans who we see are being taken advantage of & mistreated. I’m so turned off by the VA, but because I’m dissatisfied by their inability to help the Veterans thoroughout, I still would want the care to be readily accessible when needed.

  4. Jesse James January 27, 2021 at 7:45 pm

    How many of us are there still to fight the fight ??

  5. Wade Allen Hawk January 21, 2021 at 2:15 am

    I’m sure the VA did take real good care of General Colin Powell, who I was under by the way, but I know enough to know we can’t say the same about the majority of us. I can’t even get them to fix my testosterone problem, but if I wanted to be a girl they would get right on that. I stopped going, it’s just not productive. They deny things that even happened to us and say we don’t have record of that, it’s BS.

    You tell them what’s wrong with you and they ask who gave you that diagnosis, or prove it. I say, you prove it’s not true VA, stop f***ing us all. You can fight the Government, but you can’t win, they will throw money at it and manpower and just win almost every fight. So most of us sit here wondering what happened. I should be on disability, but the only thing they want to even try is see the shrink. They think we are all stupid and can’t figure anything out for ourselves. Some of us are smarter than the Dr.s treating us, and I’m one of them.

    O’ well, well all be dead soon enough, but they don’t really care about us.

    • Deon Holmes January 21, 2021 at 9:27 am

      Amen brother! I’ve given up talking to the VA’s people, Dr. and the like. It’s a well organized dysfunctional machine designed to lie, cheat and basically fckover anyone who has legitimate claims in hopes that they die or give up. I took them a picture of me on film (not printed on computer paper) standing next to a burn pit. DENIDED! THEY SAID THEY NEED MORE PROOF!!! WTF? WHAT??? So what the fck and I to do, go back too Saudi Arabia and find the gddamn burn pit and bring back soil samples?? The picture wasn’t taken so that I would have proof of some claim that I didn’t know about then, it was just taken just because. I had no idea I would need it later. But leave it up to the VA system to fckyou with no Vaseline! They also screwed me over with my broken ankle. I fractured it twice in the same place during PT playing on the company property with fellow Army buddies, under the instruction of the PT Sargent. I came down on someone’s foot and cracked my ankle. It happened twice the exact same way. It’s in my medical records. My ankle has never been the same and still hurts to this day…..DENIDED!

    • Derrick Brown January 22, 2021 at 2:31 pm

      I also am a victim of the VA disorganization. They have this ad campaign going on right now about how they are so highly rated by Veterans. Misinformation and lies. I was with a Heavy Helicopter Squadron and got a waiver to come in for flat feet. Walked on the sand for months at Al Jubail Airport, Saudi Arabia, thereby worsening my condition.
      On the Flight line. Sortees 24 hrs a day. I have a low hum constantly. So sad. Didnt complain about it in theater………wait for it!! DENIED!
      ..Oh…..but thanks for your service!!!
      Kiss my *ss.

  6. Mark Patrick Marcus January 20, 2021 at 11:53 pm

    The start of Desert Shield/Desert Storm, was a time of uncertainty for the country and the units deployed to the field of combat, but make no mistake about every service member were able and willing to do what was asked of them. I’m proud of my twenty plus years of service to my military family and to a country; that insist on allowing discrimination to be a part of American culture.
    I agree with Gen. Colin Powell when, he said let us appreciate the work Desert Storm veterans did in service of the country and let’s come together and pay tribute to the troops who served in Desert Storm. All these things are nice and appreciated by the veterans who not only served in Desert Storm and other wars. But if you ask any veteran they would simply say, I was just doing my job. This is the attitude of every enlisted man and woman that have served with pride in their service and pride in their country.
    It is sad to see how that same government that called them to serve in defense of the country; to treat them like second class citizens once they take off the uniform. It is dis-hearting to see, to hear and experience the many road blocks the government has put to make it hard to get what they were promised and what they have earned through dedicated service to the government.
    Here is what stood out to me at the end of his speech and celebration of those men and women who served in Desert Storm. He said, “Let’s remember where they are now and who they are now.” where are they now? they are in rehab, they are in mental health group sessions, they are on the streets of America (homeless), they are in the many Veterans Administration Offices trying to overcome the many stumbling blocks put in place by their government. Who they are now? They are broken mentally, physically and spiritually, a far cry from who they were when America called for her young men and women to rise up in defense of their country. God bless America, Gen. Powell and our troops.

    SFC. Marcus, Retired

  7. Stephen D Hiland January 20, 2021 at 10:08 pm

    Point of correction: The Marines did not wait offshore. They waited on the ground just south of the Iraqi minefields along the Kuwait border. I know, I was there. Cpl. Stephen Hiland, USMC Alpha Co., 8th Tank Battalion, 4th Marine Division.

  8. Max Hayes January 20, 2021 at 9:49 pm

    Powell us a hypocrite!

  9. Randy A Wilkinson January 20, 2021 at 9:10 pm

    I served desert sheild and storm from start to finish 94 I register for the desert storm registry and now I can not get my disabilities I have been sleep arena for 20 years ptsd from t anxiety from it was there day in and out black smoke but was on a back injury I am sure from 74 in germany mri they did even said from an old injury why is it I can not get my 100 percent disabilities

  10. Micheal Yves January 20, 2021 at 2:56 pm

    It has really been disastrous over the past years but we pray for GOD protection over us

  11. nathan j jackson January 17, 2021 at 3:43 pm

    I’m just going to lay back and watch you take my house and throw me out on the streets. You alreay took my health, I can’t fight the government. go ahead take it all.

  12. nathan j jackson January 17, 2021 at 3:32 pm

    I wish I could talk to a real doctor. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to actually have a doctor. that wanted to get me well again, or even look me in the eye and not lie. How about just tell me my status. I know that’s way beyond anything the VA. can offer me. 93 to 97 east coast Army, Navy, and Airforce all knew who Army Specialist Jackson was. I did things that saved so many lives that every where I went people in high places already knew me, that I never met. I tried to hide my deeds, even give credit to someone else for saving the day, as I slipped out. Some things I couldn’t hide from.

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