Some personal notes on the 'perfect American'

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I first heard the news that the Iraqi military had rolled into Kuwait on Aug. 3, 1990, the day after the invasion. I can’t forget that moment. I was watching over 9- and 10-year-old boys at the Camp Hayden Marks swimming hole, on the Fresh Air Fund’s 2,000-acre Sharpe Reservation in upstate Fishkill. A lifeguard, worried, told me what had happened.

There was whispered talk of war, maybe another Vietnam, among the young counselors. At 22, I was one of the oldest — and right at the optimal draft age. It was a rude awakening to the so-called adult world. It was then that I realized that your life could be upended at a moment’s notice.

I soon learned that my cousin, who had enlisted in the Marines in a previous year, would ship off to the Persian Gulf war. A terrible sense of unease befell my family. My cousin was married and had two children. What would happen to them if he were wounded or killed?

News of President George H.W. Bush’s death last Friday instantly brought me back to those terrible and terrifying days.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sent 300,000 troops into Kuwait, a nation of 2 million at the time, to the south of the significantly larger Iraq. Suddenly the world was on edge. What might Hussein, a seeming madman, do next? Might he strike other countries, nearby Saudi Arabia in particular? Would he ignite a regional conflagration?

We can be thankful that we had the first President Bush to organize 35 nations in an international coalition, with Saudi Arabia as one of its chief funders, to decimate Iraqi forces in short order.

The campaign, Operation Desert Shield, began Jan. 16, 1991. International forces struck the Iraqis that day in a continual bombing campaign, followed by a short ground attack. By Feb. 28, Kuwait was free, but not before Iraqi troops had wreaked havoc there and at one point even invaded a small area of Saudi Arabia. One hundred forty-nine Americans died in battle.

The world breathed a sigh of relief after the conflict ended quickly. My cousin, who dismantled land mines, survived the war, the U.S.’s first since Vietnam. Bush refused to send troops into Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, to capture or kill Hussein, as many war hawks demanded. He believed the cost in American troops would be too great, and that doing so could engage the U.S. in a protracted conflict. He was right, and for that I’m grateful to him. I might have disagreed with him on various issues, but he was a wise and skilled commander in chief who occupied the Oval Office at precisely the moment that the U.S. needed one.

My cousin returned from war physically, but not psychically, unscathed. He didn’t speak of the horrors he witnessed during his time in the gulf.

Only months before the war broke out, I had applied to the Peace Corps and was awaiting a country assignment to ship out for two years of volunteer service. After the invasion of Kuwait, I was told, all Peace Corps assignments to Africa, where I had intended to serve, were suspended until further notice, so I substitute-taught at Westbury Middle School, hoping for an expeditious resolution to the hostilities.

At that point, my Peace Corps application dropped to the bottom of the pile. Eventually I reconnected with the corps’ Washington office. I was told that I would have to wait up to a year, maybe more, to serve in Africa — or I could ship out to Eastern Europe within three months. I jumped at the chance.

I served in Bulgaria, a former communist country of 9 million to the north of Greece, from 1991 to 1993. There I met my wife, who was born and raised in Bulgaria. We’ve been married 27 years and have two teenage children and a house in Merrick. She teaches English as a New Language.

I think often about how fate took me to Bulgaria and altered the course of my life. If not for Bush’s deft handling of the crisis in Kuwait, the conflict might have gone a very different way. It might have lasted significantly longer. Many more young American men might have died. And I might never have landed in Bulgaria.

So, I feel a deep sense of gratitude to our 41st president on more than one front. He had his quirks and blunders, for sure, but he was a brave and competent international leader when it counted most. And he was, certainly, of a kinder, gentler generation — a World War II hero in the truest sense who clearly believed in service to his country.

I miss his style of leadership — of quiet, often unspoken fortitude. As so many across the country have, I offer the entire Bush family my condolences and wishes for peace. President Bush was, no doubt, “ a perfect American,” as Gen. Colin Powell described him.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.