The Untold Story of Black Women in the Gulf War

Article excerpt

WAR memories do not come easily to Phoebe Jeter. Even now, as the 27-year-old lieutenant recalls the January night when she heard the two words--Scud alert--that forever changed her life, there is still a discernible tightness in her voice. "Hearing the sirens go off, knowing the Scubs were coming to our area," she says, her voice trailing off. "Everybody was scared . . . we didn't know where they were heated."

As she quickly learned, the Scubs were headed toward the base where she commanded a Patriot missile platoon. In her three years in the Army, she'd practiced destroying the deadly missiles countless times. But those were just exercises, war games. This was real. Any number of those Scubs could be carrying chemical warheads. And even if they weren't, even if they just hit their target, they could kill or maim. What if she made a mistake? What if, God forbid, she choked or missed? These and other thoughts raced through her mind as she shouted commands through her gas mask to her tactical control assistant, Spec. Danny Davis.

"I was in charge of the van that is the engagement control center--where we fire [the Patriot missiles] from. I was the commander inside that van. I was in charge of everything that happened inside that van. It was my responsibility," recalls Lt. Jeter.

That night in the desert, her responsibility became her triumph. Before it was over, Lt. Jeter, who headed an all-male platoon, ordered 13 Patriots fired, destroying at least two Scuds. And something else happened to Phoebe Jeter that night in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The young ROTC graduate from Sharon, S.c., who joined the Army "for some adventure," discovered something about herself she never knew but will always retain. "I learned that I could do anything that I want to do," says Jeter, who made history that night in the desert when she became the first and only woman to shoot down a Scud.

Like Lt. Jeter, thousands of Black women earned their place in history when the United States led 25 countries in the largest military alliance since the Korean War. Because the Pentagon has not released total figures, the precise number of Black women who served in the Persian Gulf isn't known. It has been estimated, however, that as many as 40 percent of the 35,000 female soldiers who went to war were Black women, Black women whose stories--and successes--have gone virtually unsung, unknown, uncelebrated.

But little-known or not, Black women were at the very center of the great guts stories of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. There were numerous Black heroines, like Capt. Cynthia Mosley, the 30-year-old commander of Alpha Company, the 24th Support Battalion Forward, 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), who received the Bronze Star for meritorious service in combat. A 1984 summa cum laude graduate of Alabama A&M, mosley spent seven months in the gulf supervising a 100-person unit that supplied tropps with everything from fuel to water to ammunition. In fact, when all of the forward brigades ran out of fuel Mosley's company, which was closest to the front lines, resupplied them all. "We were supporting not only the brigade we were assigned," Mosley recalls, "but everybody forward during hat particular time in the war."

Capt. Mosley is back in the states now at Ft. Stewart, Ga. But sometimes, when she's drifting off to sleep or when she sees a story about sick or deprived children, it's as if she were back in the Gulf, back in her Jeep on Highway 8.

"That was the highway where we actually went into Iraq," she remembers. "All of the bodies I saw--that will stay with me the rest of my life. I've never witnessed such a large amount of dead bodies just . . . scattered everywhere. We came up just six hours after the fighting so we were relatively close behind the maneuver. There were civilians, but most of [the bodies] were Iraqi soldiers. We saw some children and some infants as well that were dismembered, a lot of their body parts . …