Gulf War veterans preparing for another war with Iraq

LIVING SUPPORT AREA 7, Kuwait -- The four comrades-in-arms, tested under fire during the Gulf War, never expected to return to the Kuwaiti desert or to face off against Iraqi soldiers again.

But on the 12th anniversary of Kuwait's liberation, the men stood together under an American flag Wednesday, preparing for another war -- a little older, a little wiser, but no less willing to go "over the berm" to disarm Saddam Hussein.

Gunnery Sgt. Angel Estala, of Tucson, Ariz., will never forget the first night of the 1991 Gulf War, driving his Humvee through a breach blown in the huge sand berm that marks the border between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. He was barely into Kuwait when he drove over an anti-tank mine that blew his two-ton vehicle into the air.

"There was a big blast, the vehicle picks up into the air and I saw the tire flying through the air, then we hit the ground," Estala said. "We had sandbags on the floorboard, so I survived."

All five Marines in the vehicle walked away from the blast, which blew the front end of the Humvee completely off the chassis. But as they climbed out, the unit came under Iraqi mortar and artillery fire, Estala said.

"I just wanted to get out of there, I'm just thankful I made it back alive," Estala said. He climbed out of the wreckage and took over his squad leader's Humvee and continued to fight.

Twelve years later, Estala is again assigned to the 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, and again in the Kuwaiti desert preparing to face Saddam's troops.

"We're fighting the same person, but it's different this time," the 19-year veteran said. "We're taking him out this time."

Estala, 41, finds comfort from the friends in his unit who were with him the night he hit the mine. The 7th Marines' top enlisted man, Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Lucas, of Newark, N.J., a 22-year Marine veteran, helped unload Estala's equipment from the destroyed Humvee that night.

While Marines are renowned for their steely resolve, Lance Cpl. Byron Woods, 31, of Rialto, Calif., had no trouble admitting Wednesday he was frightened when he climbed over the berm in 1991 as an infantryman, with Estala's platoon providing heavy weapons support.

"It was frightful, we walked through a mine field," said Woods, who recently re-enlisted after a nine-year stint as an insurance salesman. "I had heard gunfire growing up in south-central LA (Los Angeles), but nothing like this."

Staff Sgt. Matthew Pogue, a weapons platoon commander for the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, remembers driving past Estala's destroyed vehicle the night of Feb. 24, 1991.

"I remember seeing his vehicle after passing the breach and the front half was gone," said Pogue, of Troy, Mich. "It was scary because I had friends in that vehicle."

The veterans said they never imagined they would return to the desert and would rather not go to war, but it now appears inevitable.

"It's nothing I would have wanted to do again," Pogue, 31, said. "But it's our job and it's what we have to do."