Pale orange flames from countless rockets streaked through the predawn darkness. Their roaring whooshes filled the Iraq desert. For 60 relentless minutes, GPS-guided missiles arced from miles behind the soldiers and landed with absurd accuracy on Jalibah Airfield in the distance.
“Nothing but rockets,” Sgt. Ken Kozakiewicz said recently at his kitchen table in West Seneca. “We just stared at them. We didn’t expect that. That was never part of the training.
“It was surreal. I was scared s---less. If anybody tells you they weren’t, they’re a liar.”
The rocket strikes looked like lightning. Seconds after the first rockets cratered the airfield, soldiers could feel the hardscrabble desert floor quake beneath their boots. They were on alert, awaiting orders to swarm their shell-shocked enemy.
Jalibah Airfield was among the final objectives of America’s lopsided campaign to evict Saddam Hussein from neighboring Kuwait. Operation Desert Storm was an unqualified rout.
When the rocket assault began at 5 a.m. Feb. 27, 1991 – less than three days after Saddam ignored a U.S. deadline to withdraw his troops – Kuwait had been all but liberated. Cease-fire was scant hours away.
“They unleashed hell on this airfield,” Cpl. Mike Tsangarakis said. “I was thinking ‘Damn, imagine what those poor Iraqi bastards are going through right now.’
“We’ve got to go over there in a little while, and hopefully there’s nothing left.”
From the outset of Operation Desert Storm’s ground offensive, Saddam’s soldiers gave up with barely a struggle. The Iraqi conscripts were hungry, filthy, afraid. Some didn’t have shoes. They surrendered in such vast numbers they couldn’t be taken as prisoners. Coalition forces merely disarmed them, pointed toward the horizon and told them to hike.
The Jalibah Airfield mission was to be yet another display of American force. In the book, “Triumph Without Victory: The Unreported History of the Persian Gulf War,” U.S. News and World Report noted the 24th Infantry Division had more firepower than Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army in World War II.
But war provides no guarantees, neither for the mission nor the individual soldiers about to enter the breach.
U.S. soldiers were anxious about sweeping Jalibah Airfield, overmatched as it was. More than 1,000 dug-in members of Saddam’s elite Republican Guard loomed ahead. They were respected professional soldiers with at least 20 tanks and 60 air-defense guns.
The Americans were exhausted. Much of the mighty 24th Infantry’s time was spent traversing the bleak desert from Kuwait into Iraq and toward the Euphrates River Valley – with Jalibah Airfield now in their cross hairs.
Along the way, they dealt with zero visibility, rain, dust and shamal winds of 50 mph. A post-battle Army memorandum stated “soldiers had been on the move almost continuously for previous 63 hours during the drive to the Euphrates River Valley.”
Five days before the mission, Pvt. Andy Alaniz sent a letter to his 19-year-old pregnant wife back home in Texas, telling her “something combat-like would be appreciated” because the desert boredom was frustrating the troops.
His request was soon granted.
“Our mission looks pretty simple,” Alaniz wrote in his journal, dated Feb. 27 at 0300 hours. “An airport is our next objective. Armed vehicles are closing in on it. So are we. With the skies clearing up and a full moon, it looks alright to fight.
“The rest of the night should be long, but exciting. ... This is no time for sleep. A hasty defense is all we are doing right now. The trip home lies ahead.”
Daylight broke and roughly 2,000 U.S. soldiers and 180 combat vehicles rolled toward the airfield.
“We were so overpowering,” Tsangarakis said last month at a cigar bar near his home in Palm Harbor, Fla. “So much power. We had power in overkill.
“That’s what got us: our own powerful power.”
No going home
U.S. troops seized Jalibah Airfield without much Iraqi resistance. The engagement was as one-sided as Operation Desert Storm itself.
Dominance, however, wasn’t without catastrophe.
Grave errors on the approach to Jalibah inflicted pain that persists 21 years later. U.S. soldiers accidentally killed and dismembered their own brothers.
Anguish in the immediate aftermath was captured in an iconic and controversial photograph that’s considered the most significant from the Persian Gulf War and among the greatest ever taken on the battlefield.
In the photo, Kozakiewicz sobs as he stares out the window of a medical evacuation helicopter. His left arm is in a sling. Next to him, in the middle of the frame, Tsangarakis lifts the bottom edge of his head bandages to peek at the bloody body bag that has been loaded at his feet. They have just learned that Alaniz is inside.
“As graphic and as horrible as that picture is – because of what it is – I think it’s an amazing photo,” said Catherine Alaniz-Simonds, a bride of eight months when Andy got killed. “It shows the effects of war and that not everybody comes home alive.
“The guys crying and injured in there are going to be changed forever.”
She is right. The lives of those in the photo remain scarred, their recoveries almost certain to be continual works in progress.
Kozakiewicz, Tsangarakis and Alaniz’s widow spoke to The Buffalo News about their lives and how the photograph, seen in newspapers and magazines around the world, affected them.
Survivor’s guilt and bitterness toward the government are serious issues.
None of the three soldiers, who signed up to serve in peacetime and without expectation of going to war, was an enthusiastic participant in Operation Desert Storm. All express doubts over U.S. motives.
Kozakiewicz and Tsangarakis are both divorced, in their 40s and have no children. They experience panic attacks and dark depression. They’ve struggled in the workplace, even with menial jobs. Loud noises frighten them.
Tsangarakis filed for bankruptcy last year. He’s a loner, estranged from his father and brother for long periods because he can’t interact without confrontational outbursts. He takes anti-anxiety medicine to sleep at night and slipped into a deep depression for days after meeting with The News for this series.
Kozakiewicz can’t drive through open countryside because he feels too vulnerable and comes undone. He lashes out at well-intentioned people, even his fiancee. He has a scowl that could make a rabid dog back away.
There was a long pause after Kozakiewicz was asked to name his biggest success in life.
“I couldn’t tell you,” Kozakiewicz said, shaking his head. “I’m still alive?”
Alaniz’s daughter, Andee, turned 21 this month. She is older than her father was when he died. She desperately wants to speak with Kozakiewicz and devour any new morsel of insight. Kozakiewicz, who just learned a few weeks ago that Andee Alaniz wants to meet him, is terrified by the idea.
Andy and Catherine Alaniz were married so briefly that they never had the chance to live together.
So Catherine stayed with her parents in Eagle Pass, Texas, and then moved with them to Oklahoma City, where her father, a U.S. Customs Service agent, was transferred with a promotion. Four years after she lost her husband in Iraq, her father was killed by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing. McVeigh drove a Bradley Military Vehicle in Operation Desert Storm, just like Andy Alaniz did.
Kozakiewicz, upon hearing this story for the first time recently, muttered a barely audible “Wow.”
He couldn’t say anything more, but his expression was quizzical, as if to ask “Wasn’t what happened near Jalibah Airfield more than enough suffering for everyone?”
More than two decades since the haunting photograph was taken, former President George H.W. Bush has remained awestruck by the heartbreak and valor the soldiers portrayed.
“Not much has changed in the 20 or so years since I first saw this photo,” Bush told The Buffalo News three weeks ago, “except my admiration for our troops and what they accomplished in liberating Kuwait now exceeds my power to describe those feelings of affection and respect.”
The photo, Bush said, “underscored the sobering reality of war. Most of all, it reminded me why Barbara and I prayed for the safety of our troops every night. President Lincoln spoke of being driven to his knees by the life-and-death decisions he faced as commander in chief, and I knew exactly what he meant.”
Hiding the truth
Alaniz, Kozakiewicz and Tsangarakis were in different Bradley Military Vehicles that were destroyed by friendly fire as they approached the airfield.
Hours before the cease-fire to a war that ostensibly had been won, two soldiers were killed and nine were wounded by their own troops, with their own devastating equipment.
With 148 servicemen and women killed in combat throughout the Persian Gulf War, it was one of the most “efficient wars” in U.S. history.
But a disproportionately high percentage of those deaths were unintentional. The Pentagon disclosed in August 1991 that 35 deaths (23.6 percent) were from accidental attacks by other U.S. soldiers.
The Washington Post reported at the time that “friendly fire now appears to have caused about 10 times as high a percentage of U.S. battle casualties in the gulf as in any other 20th century war” and cited a 1986 Army study that estimated less than 2 percent of Vietnam casualties were from friendly fire.
The Pentagon didn’t own up to the mistakes for months.
The military wasn’t forthcoming and told the media near Alaniz’s hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, that he had driven his Bradley over a land mine. His family believed that for months.
Parade magazine published David C. Turnley’s jarring photo on its cover June 9, 1991. In between her husband’s funeral and seeing the picture, Catherine Alaniz was contacted by a relative of Pvt. John Hutto – the other soldier killed in the Jalibah Airfield encounter – about investigating suspicions of friendly fire.
Parade magazine did not identify who was in the blood-soaked body bag. Alaniz-Simonds tracked down Turnley, a veteran Detroit Free Press war photographer, in search of clues.
“I probably still wouldn’t know the truth had David [Turnley] not been there,” Alaniz-Simonds said. “I still love him for that.”
Turnley, embedded with the 5th MASH unit, told Alaniz-Simonds what he saw and heard when the chopper landed at the casualty collection point. Smoke billowed from the Bradleys in the sun-scorched desert morning. The soldiers were grief-stricken and highly agitated.
“I remember these guys’ faces covered in grease and grit and dirt and sweat,” Turnley said last month. “A couple guys already suspected it had been friendly fire. One guy in particular was steaming.”
Interviews with soldiers involved in the battle and a review of Army inquiries, memorandums and other government documents reveal costly mistakes amid the chaos of war.
Artillery rained down on Jalibah Airfield for an hour when the Bradleys from Charley Company were unleashed. Their mission was to sweep the area from west to east while two other Task Force units watched over them.
One of the observing units – 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment – veered too far east from its intended position and was in the process of correcting formation when it began to take small-arms and indirect fire from the airfield. In response, the 3-69 fired on a tank decoy. Iraqi soldiers, dug in nearby, emerged from their holes.
Ron Martz, an Atlanta Constitution reporter embedded with the 3-69, listened to what he called “a mass jumble of noise” on the battalion radio.
“People were saying ‘There’s movement over here! There’s movement over there!’ And they couldn’t make out who was who,” said Martz, now a professor at North Georgia College and State University.
“You could hear the stress. You had too many people keying the microphone at the same time. Transmissions were getting cut off because they were stepping on each other. It was a very chaotic thing.”
The 3-69 fired between eight and 16 armor-piercing, 120 mm sabot rounds on the Bradleys. Sabot rounds are made with depleted uranium, a substance 2 1/2 times denser than steel and with a radioactive component.
Tsangarakis’ vehicle was struck first. A missile entered through the Bradley’s ramp in the back, took off two soldiers’ legs at the knee (Hutto was one of them), detonated a portable antitank weapon that took off another soldier’s leg and whistled straight through the vehicle’s left wall.
Tsangarakis suffered flash burns on his face. He blacked out for a few minutes, regaining consciousness to the sight of black smoke and the smell of burnt flesh.
“I look to my right and I can see this guy freaking out,” Tsangarakis said. “I’m, like, ‘Why is this guy screaming so loud?’ I had no idea. Then I notice Sgt. [Anthony] Walker, who’s missing a leg, standing up on the other leg. He looked down at the leg that was missing and just shook his head.”
Alaniz wanted to stop his Bradley and help. But his commander feared that whoever targeted the first Bradley was locked on and would fire again. The commander ordered Alaniz to keep driving toward the airfield.
The sabot ripped through the right side of Alaniz’s vehicle, just below the turret. The missile avoided the other seven soldiers in the Bradley but flew right through the driver’s compartment and cut Alaniz in half.
Kozakiewicz’s Bradley was the only vehicle hit twice, but miraculously the only one without a death. The second round missed Kozakiewicz by six inches.
The wounded soldiers were shuttled off to a collection point, where helicopters would take them to a MASH unit.
“It was like a scene out of a horror movie,” Tsangarakis said. “There were three legs in there, chunks of human flesh everywhere.”
Kozakiewicz had a broken left wrist. He remembers trying to calm down Sgt. Matt Wehausen, a gunner in Alaniz’s vehicle. Wehausen’s right eye was gone because he was looking through a sight at the time of the blast.
Medics escorted Kozakiewicz and Tsangarakis into the evacuation helicopter. The rotors whomped and whipped up the sand.
“They got in the helicopter and were very manly,” Turnley said, choking up at the memory. “I just thought there was something heroic in it all. There was such dignity in these guys, and that’s what I wanted to photograph. They risked their lives for this war.”
Kozakiewicz and Tsangarakis were dazed. But they offered comforting reassurances to each other. They were done with the Middle East and finally headed home.
But before the helicopter lifted off, the body bag was loaded on board. Kozakiewicz was surprised.
The medic leaning into the helicopter on the right side of the photo handed an ID card to the medic right behind Kozakiewicz, who demanded to see it.
The medic refused to show him at first, but Kozakiewicz was firm.
“I had to know,” Kozakiewicz said. “I just had to know.”
He and Alaniz were buddies. They were roommates for a while at Fort Stewart. Kozakiewicz knew Alaniz was excited about becoming a father.
Kozakiewicz returned the ID card to the medic, gazed out the right side of the helicopter and cried.
“There was almost a quiet about it, and that was disarming,” Turnley said of Kozakiewicz’s emotional display. “There was a timeless quality about it.”
The photograph has resonated not only because of what it so plainly illustrates, but also because Operation Desert Storm otherwise was viewed from a distance.
CNN’s 24-hour live coverage made the Persian Gulf War feel like a television show. And the Pentagon was accused of sanitizing the war. All news dispatches and pictures had to be cleared by military censors before they could be published.
Turnley’s photo was rare – if not unique – in that it included a dead Operation Desert Storm soldier.
“It surprised me to see that photo because the restrictions were ridiculous,” said Martz, past president of the Military Reporters & Editors Association. “Sanitizing images only serves to glorify war and conceal from people the true cost of war.
“That’s why David’s photo was a masterful piece of journalism. It told in that one image the anguish and the sacrifice soldiers went through in this war.”
Feelings about the photo are mixed for Kozakiewicz, Tsangarakis and Alaniz’s widow.
Alaniz-Simonds displays the photo in a shrine to Andy. Neither Kozakiewicz nor Tsangarakis has it hung at home and look at it only reluctantly.
Tsangarakis, however, noted the value of other people seeing the image as a reminder of “how much damage war really does.”
“It’s not something I’m proud of,” Kozakiewicz said. “It’s not something I want to keep looking at. Out of respect for Andy and anybody else who got killed or injured, I don’t want to look at it.
“But with or without that photo, I live with it every day.”
First of four parts.