Carrier remembers fire of a different kind


File Photo
After Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraq Freedom, members of the 776th Maintenance Company know feeling the returning home from the Persian Gulf.

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com
Before Barry Carrier became the City of Elizabethton's fire marshal, he was marshaling troops of the 776th Maintenance Company during the first Gulf War.
As Tennessee Army National Guard unit's second in command chief maintenance officer and chief executive officer, Carrier remembers his call to duty and U.S. military's ouster of the Iraqi army from Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm.
"It was kind of a surprise we got the call," said Carrier. "It had been since Vietnam that they had called reservists."
The Persian Gulf War began in August 1990 as Operation Desert Shield and became Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. Approximately 1.1 million U.S. soldiers were deployed to the Persian Gulf during operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm that involved the military might of coalition of nations.
Carrier joined the National Guard while he was still in high school. He later graduated from Officer's Candidate School and was commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant with the 776th. He was 27 when the call came to mobilize the 776th for active duty in 1990. He was married and his wife Tonya had given birth to the couple's son five months earlier.
Carrier led "advance party" groups of 776th soldiers, which set up the camp and operations of the company before the entire unit arrived. "We moved five times while we were there," said Carrier. "It was my duty to go ahead and prepare for the arrival of the main body."
"Hot, dry and confused" is how Carrier termed the initial environment in Saudi Arabia. Carrier's party moved into a youth facility and slept on the tennis courts. "At that time, they brought in 500,000 troops for that support," said Carrier. "There were so many troops coming into the country, there wasn't enough space for them."
Operation Iraqi Freedom featured a smaller, faster military presence with a maximum number of troops topping out at approximately 170,000, according to Department of Defense numbers.
The 776th moved from Fort Campbell, Ky., to eventually arrive and set up camp at Dharan, Saudi Arabia and later moved into Kuwait to set up maintenance and food operations. Shortly before the ground battle began, the unit leapfrogged ahead of combat soldiers near the Kuwait-Iraq border.
He said the war was difficult for many comrades who had to deal with participating in war and issues from back home. Unit members received "Dear John" letters from spouses wanting a divorce as well as hearing about funerals of family members that they could not attend.
When the Christmas holiday rolled around, Carrier said homesickness and resolve to win and return home set in with most. The waiting, he said, was the hardest part.
"We realized we wanted to get this over with," he said. "It was something of a relief when the war actually started in January."
U.S.-led coalition air forces pounded Iraqi defenses for weeks when the war began in January 1991. The ground assault in Desert Storm lasted barely 100 hours with tens of thousands of Iraqi troops surrendering to coalition forces.
When the ground war began, the 776th established the supply lines to keep men and machines moving forward. Carrier and the soldiers fixed vehicles and equipment as well as keeping fuel and food supplies for soldiers.
"We set up a convoy supply center so troops going into Kuwait had support," said Carrier. "We would fix the vehicles, give them something to eat and they would move on."
While the terms "e-mail" and the "Internet" were non-existent in 1990, Carrier said telephone communication allowed soldiers to call loved ones once or twice a month while they were in Kuwait.
Once combat ended, the 776th's job began.
The 776th members spent days repairing the U.S. embassy in Kuwait City. "Not many people know it was the 776th that repaired that embassy," Carrier says. "We repaired it, and we got the generators working."
The unit also provided food distribution and established power services to Kuwaitis after their country had been decimated by Iraqi soldiers.
Carrier ultimately retired as the commanding officer of the 776th in 2001 after 20 years service in the National Guard.
Including Reserve and National Guard members called up for active duty, there are 1.8 million living Gulf War era veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. When the 776th went to Iraq in 1990, the company numbered roughly 300 members. Major military cuts during the Clinton administration reduced the unit's numbers to less than 200 members when the unit left Elizabethton in January.
Battle deaths claimed the lives of 147 U.S. soldiers, another 235 service members died by other means and 467 were wounded. Carrier said his experience in warfare demonstrated much about the men and women of the 776th. "Our people from Carter County are more self-sufficient," he said. "If there's a problem, they can fix it. They've got more common sense and they will get the job done."
One of Carrier's Desert Storm comrades was Elizabethton fireman Dennis Erwin, who is still stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., with the 776th.
Twelve years removed, Carrier said the arguments of "why didn't we finish Hussein in 1991 didn't overly concern him. Political forces of the region did not set a mission to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The military's mission made specific orders for the 776th.
"The mission we had, we completed," said Carrier, "and we completed it quick and decisive."