The pace of the buildup for the Gulf War was unprecedented. Within 5 days after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States began moving troops into the region as part of Operation Desert Shield. By September 15, 1990, the number of American servicemembers reached 150,000 and included nearly 50,000 reservists. Within the next month, another 60,000 troops arrived in the Persian Gulf region; in November, an additional 135,000 reservists and National Guard members were called up. By February 24, 1991, more than 500,000 US troops had been deployed to the Persian Gulf region. In addition to the US troops, a coalition force of 34 member countries was eventually assembled.
The Gulf War reflected many changes from previous wars, particularly in the demographic composition of military personnel and the uncertainty of conditions for many reservists. Of the nearly 700,000 US troops who fought in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, almost 7% were women and about 17% (106,000) were from National Guard and reserve units. Military personnel were, overall, older than those who had participated in previous wars with a mean age of 28 years. Seventy percent of the troops were non-Hispanic/white; 23% were black, and 5% were Hispanic (Joseph, 1997). Rapid mobilization exerted substantial pressure on those who were deployed, disrupting lives, separating families, and, for reserve and National Guard units, creating uncertainty about whether jobs would be available when they returned to civilian life.
Combat troops were crowded into warehouses and tents on arrival in the gulf region and then often moved to isolated desert locations. Most troops lived in tents and slept on cots lined up side by side, affording virtually no privacy or quiet. Sanitation was often primitive, with strains on latrines and communal washing facilities. Hot showers were infrequent, the interval between laundering uniforms was sometimes long, and desert flies were a constant nuisance, as were scorpions and snakes. Military personnel worked long hours and had narrowly restricted outlets for relaxation. Troops were ordered not to fraternize with local people, and alcoholic drinks were prohibited in deference to religious beliefs in the host countries. A mild, traveler’s type of diarrhea affected more than half of the troops in some units. Fresh fruits and vegetables from neighboring countries were identified as the cause and were removed from the diet. Thereafter, the diet consisted mostly of packaged foods and bottled water.
For the first 2 months of troop deployment (August and September 1990) the weather was extremely hot, with air temperatures as high as 115°F and sand temperatures reaching 150°F. Except for coastal regions, the relative humidity was less than 40%. Troops had to drink large quantities of water to prevent dehydration. Although the summers were hot and dry, temperatures in winter (December-March) were low, with wind-chill temperatures at night dropping to well below freezing. Wind and blowing sand made protection of skin and eyes imperative. Goggles and sunglasses helped somewhat, but visibility was often poor.
The most visually dramatic environmental event of the Gulf War was the smoke from more than 750 oil-well fires in Kuwait. Smoke plumes from individual fires rose and combined to form giant plumes that could be seen for hundreds of kilometers. As noted in Volume 4, it has