Sunday, February 25, 2001

Desert storm

A message for Saddam

        Ten years ago today, Todd Mayer sat in the hatch of a 1,500 horsepower Abrams M1A1 tank, charging across the border into Iraq with the lives of 85 men on his shoulders. He was 28.

        “We were the first tank unit on the ground,” he recalled. “In our first action we assaulted battle position 102, Iraqi commandos and artillery. It was a cavalryman's dream. We got 'em from the flank, totally unexpected, so quick, so fast it was devastating.”

        Just like the Gulf War.

        Within days, the captain of Charlie Company, 464th Armor, 24th Infantry Division, was also the tank commander closest to Baghdad.

        Some resume. Madisonville. Purcell High. Xavier University. That-close to parking 63 tons of tank on Saddam's porch.

        “There was nothing stopping us,” said Mr. Mayer, who is now national account manager for U.S. Playing Card in Cincinnati. “We kept saying, "The fastest way home is through Baghdad.' You experienced everything. Fear, jubilation, sadness.”

        But no regrets about not finishing off Saddam.

        “I still agree with what President Bush said at the time. We set our goals to expel them from Kuwait and destroy their offensive capability. I didn't want to lose any of my guys in urban fighting. It wasn't worth it. I didn't want to write any letters home.”

        Mr. Mayer thinks we've forgotten most of the history and we're rewriting the rest. So he called to set the record straight.

        “I've been reading lots of articles and a lot of them don't ring true. A lot of people don't think the Iraqis were fighting back, like it was a cakewalk. Their commandos were fanatical, charging tanks with AKs (rifles).”

        Mr. Mayer was wounded and was decorated with a Purple Heart and a commendation for leadership. He has something shared by veterans of all wars: He knows the price of freedom.

        “If Ronald Reagan had not made the initial investment in the M1 tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and the Apache helicopter, I can guarantee you that war would have taken a lot longer than 100 hours,” he said.

        That's something to think about. Our military today is depleted and neglected, spread thin by beat-walking “peace-keeping” missions.

        “It's pretty obvious that the last eight years have caused morale problems with what (President Clinton) did,” said Mr. Mayer, who still serves as a major in the Ohio National Guard. “Any Army captain who did what he did would be booted out. And Somalia, with 18 soldiers dead because he was scared to put tanks on the ground — as far as I'm concerned, he still has blood on his sleeve from Somalia.”

        Military morale has improved since President Bush was elected, with a team of Gulf War leaders Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, Mr. Mayer said.

        This weekend, he will remember the yellow ribbons, his tank crew and the war. Even now, 10 years later, the words come hard and emotions well up.

        “People ask, "Were you scared?' I was scared of screwing up. I thought of the neighborhood I grew up in. One of our neighbors had fought in the Pacific. One was wounded by a Tiger tank in Italy. My dad was with the Army Air Corps in Burma.

        “As corny as it is, I just sat there and thought of those guys . . . I didn't want to let them down.”

        He didn't. Capt. Mayer and others like him did something astounding 10 years ago. Something the rest of us should remember.

        “I want to get these stories out,” he said. “People just don't realize what these young kids are doing today and what they did in the past, in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm.”

        Iraq had a recent reminder, too. “The message to Saddam was sent last Friday,” Mr. Mayer said of the Feb. 16 airstrikes. It was the same message Capt. Mayer heard from Gen. Barry McCaffrey before he came home: “Those people better hope we never come this way again.”

        Contact Enquirer Associate Editor Peter Bronson at 768-8301; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: Cincinnati.Com keyword: Bronson.


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