Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait in August 1990 led to the formation of a U.S.-led coalition of Arab and western states in the Persian Gulf War (Operation Desert Shield-Desert Storm). In September 1990, the first mobilized U.S. Army Reserve unit arrived at Fort Benjamin Harrison from Ohio for service in the war, which would last over half a year. The local affiliates of the three major television networks, CNN, radio stations, the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News, and weekly papers filmed or reported the arrival, an early indication of Marion County’s support of the conflict. Ultimately, the fort processed 2,725 Reserve or National Guard soldiers in 25 units, mostly from the Midwest, 2,384 of whom were deployed to Saudi Arabia.

Two Reserve units from Indianapolis mobilized at Fort Harrison; the 425th Adjutant General Company and the 21st Theater Army Area Company, each headquartered at the Robert M. Moore Reserve Center on Kessler Boulevard. Both deployed to Saudi Arabia. Five other city Reserve units mobilized either at Fort Harrison or in other states but never deployed to the Saudi Arabian desert.

The community soon involved itself in the mobilization. Military units brought their transportation with them—tractor-trailers, pickups, cranes, petroleum tankers, and bulldozers, all appropriately painted green for a European or jungle war but not for a war in the sand. Thus, the federal government purchased 2,000 gallons of desert tan paint for $50,000 and hired nine body shops for $300,000 to spray 1,000 vehicles.

Rail lines also became involved. Army truck drivers drove the vehicles (tanks, 5-ton pickup trucks, tank retrievers) to Conrail’s Hawthorne Yards on South Emerson Avenue for transport to the East Coast for shipment to the desert. CSX Transportation Company also moved heavy vehicles by rail from the Belmont Yard on North Belmont Avenue. Too heavy even for the rails and denied passage by Ohio officials through that state, one 54-ton tank retriever was driven from Camp Atterbury through the city around I-465 and to Grissom Air Force Base for shipment overseas. It may have been the oddest vehicle ever seen on I-465.

Although the city’s residents did not support the war unanimously, enthusiasm soared before and after deployment to the desert. Civilian volunteers painted the homes of departed soldiers. Family-support groups offered moral support to spouses left behind, and the wives of the Indiana Pacers professional basketball team catered to the support groups. The Indiana Pacers and other professional teams, such as the Indianapolis Indians and the former Indiana Ice, as well as the sponsors of an all-star professional basketball game, the zoo, and the symphony, gave away $114,506 worth of tickets. After the announcement of the accelerated departure of one unit, Taco Bell served 600 tacos to soldiers in the 3rd Battalion in their very act of leaving the fort on buses. Upon the return of one unit, Monarch Brewery gave away 100 cases of beer. Ultimately, city businesses offered $138,006 in products, services, and cash donations to the Directorate of Personnel and Community Activities at Fort Harrison for soldiers and their families.

Patriotism was at a high in Indianapolis during this time. At I-465 and Washington Street on the eastside, Wibc Radio erected the “World’s Largest Greeting Card,” an 8-by-14-foot billboard inscribed “A Show of Hands in Support of Our Troops” and “signed” with at least 5,000 handprints; including that of Governor Evan Bayh. AT&T provided military families with “Desert FAX.” Students called Fort Harrison to obtain soldiers’ names, “adopted” the soldiers, and wrote thousands of letters addressed to “Any Soldier.” (“Any Soldier” temporarily broke down the military postal service in Saudi Arabia.) Community groups mailed soldiers canned meat, cookies, cakes, fly swatters, and bug spray. Representatives from Pepsi-Cola and the Salvation Army met at Fort Harrison every unit arriving home from the desert, except the first two.

Largess from outside the city also flowed into Indianapolis. In nearby Carmel, the American Legion invited 5,000 soldiers and family members to a gigantic pig roast prior to deployment. The Mars Candy Bar Company of Ohio sent 20,000 pieces of candy to Fort Harrison. Charles O. Finley, a former owner of a professional baseball team, personally delivered 120 footballs, with yellow markings to glow at night, to the 1015th Postal Company.

In 1991, sponsors of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race invited General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander-in-chief of the U.S. and allied forces during the war, to participate in the pre-race ceremonies. Ending the celebration on July 4, Indianapolis and Lawrence hosted a “Hoosier Hero Homecoming” parade.

Only one resident of Indianapolis died as a result of the mobilization: Otha B. Squires, a 23-year-old National Guardsman, expired of cardiac arrest in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, three months after the conflict ended. His body was returned and buried in the city.

Revised April 2021

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