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Desert Storm veterans reunite, celebrate heritage at 2022 Shaw Air & Space Expo

  • Published
  • By Ninth Air Force (Air Forces Central) Public Affairs
  • Ninth Air Force (Air Forces Central)

In August of 1990 two squadrons assigned to the then-363rd Tactical Fighter Wing from Shaw Air Force base left Sumter, South Carolina and made it to their final destination of Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, in support of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Fast forward 32 years, these veterans reunited for the first time in the place where it all began for camaraderie at the Shaw Air Force Base Air & Space Expo, April 1, 2022.

Among the over 50 Desert Storm veterans who attended the event was Lt. Col. (Ret.) Harold Gonzales, a Sumter local and former F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot assigned to the formerly known 33rd Tactical Fighter Squadron. Right before the war, Gonzales had just switched fighter squadrons from the 17th TFS to the 33rd TFS. As he drove onto base in the morning, he noticed the airplanes of the 17th TFS were equipped with bombs and were gearing up for deployment.

“I get to the 33rd and I’m walking in and [the director of operations] says ‘what’s the matter’ and I said, ‘you mean to tell me I just moved from the 17th and they’re going to war and I’m not?’” said Gonzales. “And then I looked out the window and all of our airplanes had three tanks on them so within 24 hours the 17th left and 24 hours after, we followed.”

Gonzales was a Lt. Col. at the time when the then-Ninth Air Force (Air Forces Central) commander Gen. Charles Horner put the 363rd Tactical Fighter Wing on alert to deploy to the AFCENT area of responsibility with the objective of driving out Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

“We went in August; the war started January 17th so we were there about six months before the war started,” said Gonzales. “The whole time we were in country we were learning because the desert was sort of a different animal to fly over than South Carolina.”

Just a few weeks after the war began, U.S. military to include the AFCENT airpower offensive, was effective in accomplishing its objectives and the war was over by early March—but the relationships built during that time were much longer lasting.

“When you go to a war together, especially a war that in many respects will never happen again because it was so compressed, it’s pretty intense,” said Gonzales. “You build a much different bond.”

The veterans celebrated that bond and unique heritage with several events and gatherings throughout the Air Expo, including a wreath laying ceremony at Sumter Veterans Memorial Park in honor of Capt. Dale Cormier, a fellow pilot who died during Desert Storm. Later, the group kicked off the air show at the 77th Fighter Squadron’s heritage room, where Desert Storm photos and memorabilia lined the walls.

“We were honored to host veterans from Desert Storm,” said Capt. Tyler Olson, a 77th FS F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot. “We took great pride in sharing our building with previous aviators and maintainers who were successful in what they did downrange. Their tactics, techniques and procedures continue on to this day. They have enabled us to continue doing our job, doing our job well and doing our job safely, even 30 years later.”

Shaw and AFCENT members past and present relished in the shared values and pride as they exchanged stories in the heritage room. One of these members was 9 AF (AFCENT) staff historian and 77th FS spouse Caeden Brynie, who reiterated the significance of the veterans’ experiences.

“Desert Storm was the first major combat operation the Air Force had undertaken since Vietnam,” said Brynie. “There were a lot of things that needed to go right, and they did. I’m so glad I could attend this event and I really enjoyed talking to these veterans. When I talked to the flight leads and wingmen from Desert Storm, they spoke with the same attention to detail, purpose, and pride as the pilots of this generation. That pride and professionalism is a universality within the community and is something that deserves to be celebrated.”

This was the first time these Desert Storm veterans have reunited in Sumter. Gonzales specifically recalled how the community responded when the fighter squadrons returned from the war.

 “Oh it was great, the Sumter community really supported us,” said Gonzales. “When we came home there was a victory parade through Sumter…it was full of people welcoming us home and it felt good. I didn’t go to Vietnam, but I can remember how people felt coming back from Vietnam and this was a totally different feeling.”

As the Air Force continues to accelerate change and look toward the future fight, the Desert Storm reunion offered veterans, active-duty members, military families and friends to instead look back and reflect on the significance of preserving history.

“There have been 32 years off and on of conflict in the [area of operations] and everyone that has deployed to the region has done so at great personal cost,” said Brynie. “The people who are deployed today will be the Desert Storm-era veterans of tomorrow. When the time comes I hope current 9 AF (AFCENT) Airmen are given the chance to look back on their accomplishments and take pride in their service. Every single veteran and their contributions deserve to be recognized. ”