Michael P. Mauer served as an Army photojournalist during Operation Desert Storm, and was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf for his actions during the war. He’s won numerous awards for his writing since, most recently the 2022 Veterans of Foreign Wars National Publications Contest for best feature article. Below, he tells the story of covering the First Gulf War as a military journalist.
Sgt. Michael P. Mauer in Eskan Village near Riyadh during Operation Desert Storm. (Courtesy of Michael P. Mauer)
Written by Michael P. Mauer
When the sirens, klaxons and horns sounded, it meant you had a few minutes to take cover or find a good position to watch. The cloudless desert sky provided an excellent backdrop. Like a shooting star, it could easily be seen without binoculars. Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army was sending another of its much-vaunted Scud missiles to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Most people stateside during Operation Desert Storm received sanitized versions of Scud attacks. I had an unfiltered, front-row seat.
The assumption back home was that Scuds were vaporized by Patriot missiles which then, in turn, vaporized themselves.
The truth was a lot messier. Patriot-Scud collisions always caused collateral damage and a lot of noise.
A Scud weighed approximately two tons after its fuel was expended, and each Patriot weighed nearly one ton. Each Scud usually required a number of Patriots for a successful intercept. An attack by the Iraqis normally brought a heavy rain of shrapnel, a loud series of explosions, and an extensive cleanup.
Often, the Scud made the Patriots’ job more difficult as the Iraqi missiles tended to break apart – separating the lethal warhead away from the main rocket body. Patriots would target the parts, and the unguided warhead would freefall – often exploding on contact.
During the first Gulf War, Scud warheads, debris and shrapnel rained on Riyadh, as well as other urban areas in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain and Qatar.
I still display part of a Scud on my living room wall as a souvenir of that pivotal time in my life.
I graduated college in Pittsburgh just as the steel industry was collapsing like an imploding relic. Companies weren’t hiring. After stints in free-lance writing and working at a convenience store, I decided to enlist in the Army.
I got a good deal. I entered the Army as an E-3 – private first class. When I completed my initial training—thirteen weeks with cannons at Fort Sill, Oklahoma–I received a $5,000 bonus. Then, after my first few months with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, a promotion to E-4, specialist.
I made rapid progress as an artilleryman, with more training at Jungle School in Panama and then orders to Baumholder, Germany.
Towards the end of my tour in Germany, I asked for and received a transfer to be on the staff of the weekly 8th Infantry Division newspaper, The Champion Times. It was granted. With my notebook and camera, I was out covering soldiers in the field – something my civilian counterparts did not do. I reenlisted and was accepted for training as a 46Q – public affairs specialist, photojournalist.
When I arrived at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) in Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, I discovered I wasn’t the only one who wanted to write for Uncle Sam. My class consisted of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines. All had received superior scores on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam and qualified for security clearances. Most had some type of post-secondary education in English or journalism. Several had bachelor’s degrees, and a couple had done graduate work. That didn’t keep the cadre from failing them if they didn’t know how or couldn’t learn to write.
That made the school challenging, and I enjoyed it. In addition to academics, soldiers there did field exercises and road marches. Guest lecturers during the 10 weeks I attended included Adrian Cronauer of Good Morning, Vietnam fame and journalist Bob Woodward, who wrote All the President’s Men.
The goal of DINFOS was to turn out strong writers, of course. But there was a larger strategic purpose also. Good military journalism could initiate and control the news cycle, therefore funneling information to the public in a way that supported the mission.
“Maximum disclosure, minimum delay” was the motto. It compelled civilian editors to run our stories, which came out first, before those of regular news outlets.
Rapid fire news gathering and writing was demanding, and the drop-outs were many. As the student platoon sergeant for Company B, 2nd Battalion, Troop Brigade, I watched my ranks shrink at every formation. Casualties of misspelled proper names, poor grammar, or bad writing were shifted to other occupations. But I made it. I placed eighth of 24 graduates and was moved on to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
I was assigned as a writer to the United States Army Ordnance Center and School Public Affairs Office. By this time I was married and expecting my first baby. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, little Sarah was just nine months old. I got my orders to leave her in support of Operation Desert Shield.
After getting up to speed with operational security concerns at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida, a one-man unit consisting of me arrived in Riyadh and reported for duty.
Scud cartoon by Sgt. Michael P. Mauer during Operation Desert Storm (Courtesy of Michael P. Mauer)
Although nearly two-and-a-half million people lived in Riyadh when Kuwait was invaded by Iraq, the population had plummeted during the six months leading up to the first Scud attacks. I saw the human exodus daily on rounds from my quarters in Eskan Village to the United States military and civilian media offices at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, about 12 miles away.
At first, the change was gradual. With thousands of troops arriving each day by October 1990, Riyadh was a bustling place. It was difficult to tell with all the military activity just how many civilians might be leaving or staying. But as the number of uniformed people grew, the gleaming, modern office buildings under the cloudless desert sky became office space for coalition forces. The displaced civilian population was moving somewhere else.
Before the Scuds came, the Saudi city was like a jewel in the desert. With its abundance of greenery, sleek highways, many automobiles and shops, Riyadh seemed quite cosmopolitan but not European or American. When I first arrived in country, many of us travelled around the city when not on duty and got to know it well. We were astounded to find that it had many of the modern chain restaurants that were popular in the United States. Pizza, ice cream, hamburgers and fried chicken were plentiful and easy to buy. The more adventuresome of us would try the shawarmas offered by local vendors, and haggle with shopkeepers in the large markets, or souks.
It was during such a trip that I was able to buy an Aladdin-style brass lamp and two small wooden camel figurines to send home to my wife and daughter. After several emotional outbursts and wild gesticulations, I was able to negotiate an initial 50 riyal price done to 10. No small accomplishment.
Later, between writing assignments and other duties, trips around Riyadh provided a needed diversion, and were remarkably safe. We didn’t always have to be in uniform, and shuttle busses were available to help us move around. But as always with the military in deployment mode, there were some extra regulations to help us adhere to the status of forces agreement penned by the coalition hierarchy.
First, there was a strict prohibition against the consumption of alcohol. Any personnel visiting public areas were forbidden to mix military uniform apparel with civilian clothes. Eating in restaurants or shopping while in uniform was not allowed, but exceptions were made for those just picking up take out. Clothes were required to be loose-fitting and conservative. Shorts, gym outfits and tank tops could not be worn in public areas. This was considered to be anywhere outside of a United States military controlled compound.
As a nod to our host nation, servicemembers were told to avoid wearing traditional Arab attire such as thobes (ankle-length robes) and ghutrahs (headdresses). Female personnel could not wear bright-colored clothing and had to keep their upper arms and shoulders covered at all times while in public. Abayas (loose over-garments) were not required, but women in the United States military who wished to wear them received instruction on how to fit the garment correctly.
All shirts were required to have collars and sleeves. Male military personnel could not wear earrings. Any religious jewelry had to be worn out of sight – usually inside troops’ shirts. I personally solved this issue by placing a small silver cross handed to me by a chaplain at Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall Airport on my dog tag chain. It hung next to my P-38 can opener.
Most importantly, we were required to keep a low profile and not call attention to ourselves. We were on guard not to offend our host nation or attract notice of potential terrorists. So long as we kept our M-16 rifles broken down and carried in military-issue laundry bags, we were free to move around the city. For the most part, we minded regulations and things went smoothly. Many of the rules that could quickly land you in trouble, however, were particularly onerous to military photojournalists.
For example, one of the biggest scares other than the persistent terrorist threat was running afoul of the Mutaween, or religious police from the country’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Proper attire, respect for the local culture, customs and laws were drummed into us. Breaking the rules regarding gender separation, fraternization and photography got several into hot water with the local authorities. And many rules designed to reduce cultural friction were also filtered down through the chain of command.
A press release issued through the United States Central Command’s Joint Information Bureau reminded female servicemembers that its September 20, 1990, policy regarding driving had not changed. Female Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines were prohibited from driving any civilian vehicles, to include rental vans, trucks, sports utility vehicles and staff cars. This edict included trips that could be considered as official duties. Women could drive military vehicles, but only under specific conditions. They had to be in complete military uniform to include desert camouflage shirts and headgear.
For those whose military occupational specialties required using cameras, such as mine, the rules were arguably more restrictive. American troops were advised through the CENTCOM News Service that they should use extreme caution when taking photographs in Riyadh, as well as throughout Saudi Arabia. The photography of military installations, holy places and local women was strictly prohibited. Also forbidden were pictures of strategic resources like civilian airports, oil fields and refineries. Palace gates – as well as public executions and mosques – were also banned from curious shutter bugs.
Not that some military personnel didn’t try. Violating these rules did get a few into trouble with local police. In at least one instance, a coalition military officer took a seemingly innocent photo of a crowded downtown street. On his way home, he was confronted by local police and apprehended. His camera and film were both confiscated.
As Desert Shield and Desert Storm took place just before the rapid spread of cell phones and digital photography, we quickly noticed that the Saudis took their photography restrictions seriously. These rules impacted our duty assignments. We had difficulty finding local outlets to develop our film or sell the chemicals needed to develop it ourselves. Fortunately, many of the mobile public affairs detachments brought their own film processing equipment and materials. I had the privilege of going out on assignment with one of the best – the 14th Public Affairs Detachment out of Fort Carson, Colorado.
With the 14th PAD, I was able to travel out into the desert and cover troops that were newly arrived in country. I filed a story in early November 1990 about Co. D, 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 197th Infantry Brigade out of Fort Benning, for Army Central Public Affairs. Sweltering in the desert heat, the unit was conducting nuclear, biological and chemical training. This required wearing hot, bulky protective outfits, as well as M-17 gas masks. They also rehearsed the steps needed to decontaminate their vehicles and other equipment.
While in the field, I enjoyed my missions immensely. It felt good to be among fellow Soldiers telling their stories. And as a combat trained Soldier myself, I understood what they were experiencing.
Sgt. Michael P. Mauer’s access badge used during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. (Courtesy of Michael P. Mauer)
My heart went out to these troops in the desert. Like the pictures taken by my Canon AE-1 35mm camera, my time with them was just a snapshot. I could take advantage of a hot shower, decent food and soft quarters when I wrote my articles and disseminated my media products back to the United States, Europe and in theater. They could not. As a former artilleryman, I knew all too well what it was like to be roasting hot – saddled with heavy equipment – and serving the whims of a weapons system that would also be my chariot home once the exercise was over.
Things moved quickly during Desert Shield, and personnel were rapidly shifted according to need. That included me. Following my time with the 14th PAD, I was assigned as the Noncommissioned Officer In Charge of Command Information, United States Central Command. There, my main duty was supervising a group of fellow military journalists and editing a small newsletter.
Although as industrious and creative as the writers I headed while in college, these military journalists had far fewer distractions and were much more disciplined. I regularly drew cartoons to help keep up morale, but the effort wasn’t really needed. The enlisted personnel and officers above us were very focused.
We were a busy group working in our offices and covering assignments in and around Riyadh. Without smart phones or much other digital equipment, we gathered information the old school way – interviews with pencil, notepad and telephone. Our bulky keyboards clacked incessantly as the press materials we wrote flowed onto our monochrome white-on-blue or white-on-green computer screens.
Since DINFOS was a joint school for all branches of the military, we’d all received the same journalistic training. If you graduated the school, you knew what you were doing. The learning curve was quite small. All of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines were superb writers and produced a large amount of media materials in a short period of time.
The CENTCOM New Service was up and running on December 1, 1990. By the end of the first week in February 1991, the USCENTCOM Command Information Program had produced and distributed 301 print and 74 broadcast releases. Although a few of these releases were spiked for operational security reasons, the majority went out the door without any difficulty.
Also during this time, a dozen issues of the newsletter had been produced. Combined, they contained 136 news and feature articles. Each was mailed and faxed to 51 public affairs offices in the theater of operations, and 10 headquarters public affairs elements in the continental United States and in Europe.
Both military and civilian publications would reprint and disseminate our media products. Stars and Stripes were a regular customer, as well as USA Today. But most of our material went out to the troops via unit-produced newspapers and newsletters. There were more than two dozen of them, such as the weekly 8-12 page, gloss-stock, offset printed Desert Dragon that served the XVIII Airborne Corps, and the bi-weekly, eight page Screaming Eagle that was produced by my old division, the 101st.
The CENTCOM New Service also had a robust broadcasting operation for radio and television, but being a print guy, I was not directly involved with that effort. I do know from what I saw on television and heard on radio that their personnel were doing fantastic work with regular three-and five-minute Desert Storm updates.
A few computers had modems back in the early 1990s. We would also distribute press materials using what would later be known popularly as the internet. This method was the most favored as print products could be sent at 1,200 to 2,400 baud speed, and reach scores of media outlets after a few seconds or minutes of upload time.
If there were high-speed networks back then, we didn’t have access to them. The distinct acoustical noise that accompanied the handshaking of two computers communicating with each other meant that our digital signals would be converted to analog, then back again. Eager editors at the other end of the network could now simply cut and paste our releases, and insert them into their publications.
The digital cameras we were given to work with at that time could not produce print-quality photographs. My unit briefly experimented with electronic photography and passed. What pictures we did send out were mostly done through the mail — developed from film negatives to image paper. A few of these were scanned and sent digitally, but these weren’t much desired by the units we served. They were too grainy and blurry.
Bob Hope, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and entourage in Eskan Village near Riyadh (Courtesy of Michael P. Mauer)
By the time Bob Hope arrived in Eskan Village around Christmas 1990 with an entourage that included baseball great Johnny Bench, CENTCOM New Service was running smoothly. But at the end of the comedian’s show, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, U.S. Central Command commander-in-chief, took the stage to wish the service members a Merry Christmas, then ordered us to avoid all market areas in Riyadh because the terrorist threat alert had been raised.
Things were now getting serious. In fact, less than a month after Hope’s visit, more than a dozen Scud missiles would be destroyed by Patriot batteries within 20 miles of the stage at Eskan Village. United States troop strength would swell to more than 500,000, and Operation Desert Shield would turn into Operation Desert Storm.
On January 17, 1991, the balloon went up. Our shop immediately went from an 18-hour operational day to 24-hours. Coalition forces began pounding Iraqi positions from the air — degrading that country’s military. One of the more elusive targets proved to be Saddam Hussein’s mobile Scud launchers.
This became evident to us in Riyadh when within a 12-hour period during the night of January 21 – 22, at least six Iraqi Scud missiles were launched at Saudi Arabia. The first one came at about 10:30 p.m. local time. It landed in the water well away from us — somewhere northwest of Jubial. Some of the ones in my shop with combat arms training thought this one might be a feint to test our ability to react and defend ourselves.
Unfortunately, we were right.
Early on January 22 at 3:45 a.m. local time, at least two Scud missiles were launched toward Riyadh. One of these was intercepted and destroyed by a Patriot missile crew assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery. The second Scud impacted in a civilian neighborhood near a coalition air base. Later at around 7:30 a.m., three more Scuds were launched at Saudi Arabia’s eastern province. One missile was intercepted and destroyed. The other two impacted in unpopulated areas.
Iraq’s first Scud attacks during Desert Storm on Saudi Arabia began a day earlier Jan. 20 when three of the missiles were launched at Dhahran. Army Patriot crews from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery claimed to have bagged these.
All of the warheads from Scuds used during Operation Desert Storm were thought to have been conventional. Chemical detectors would occasionally react and go off following Scud explosions, but retesting showed these to be false positives.
At least five of the Scuds that impacted in Riyadh delivered warheads that detonated and caused damage. As a trained artilleryman, I could tell whether the explosions were airbursts or had impacted. As most of the civilian population had moved, casualties reported across Saudi Arabia were light – approximately one killed and six dozen injured. Buildings damaged by Iraqi Scuds during Operation Desert Storm in Riyadh included those on the Islamic University campus, a girls’ school and the Saudi Department of Interior. Thankfully, all of these areas were a few miles from where I was.
Not so fortunate were those who were killed by an Iraqi Scud missile attack that hit an Army barracks in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, on February 25, 1991. Twenty-eight United States personnel were killed, including more than a dozen reserve soldiers from the 14th Quartermaster Detachment based in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. This gave Pennsylvania the distinction of losing more service members during the first Gulf War than any other state. Approximately 100 more soldiers were wounded during this attack where the Patriot systems failed to intercept the incoming Scud.
Shortly afterward, the Scuds stopped falling.
Things in Riyadh began to return to normal although a significant United States military presence remained. An armistice was signed, prisoners were exchanged, and on March 15, 1991, I received orders to head back to Aberdeen Proving Ground.
My unit of one rotated back to the United States, courtesy of an Air Force C-141 Starlifter. Less than one year later, on March 1992, my second daughter, Rachel, was born.
Desert Shield and Desert Storm slipped into history. But it remains a defining chapter of my life.