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Medford native shares story in Gulf War combat decades later

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Michael Holmes, of Ashland, helped defend Israel during the Gulf War.
Ashland resident Michael Holmes talks about his part in a mission to defend Israel from Saddam Hussein’s scud missiles

In 1991, Michael Holmes was a fresh-faced 21-year-old Army private from Medford sent to Israel to fend off Iraqi scud missiles.

Back then, in a mission called Joint Task Force Patriot Defender, the location of where exactly in Israel Holmes guarded U.S. missiles was undisclosed, according to a Mail Tribune article written at the time.

Holmes was not interviewed for that story. But 31 years later, he contacted the Mail Tribune - a publication he says his parents have subscribed to for 50 years - and asked to be interviewed about his experience.

“It was really a super cool ... mission,” Holmes said in a phone interview from his home in Ashland, just days before the 31st anniversary of the start of Operation Desert Storm.

One thing that has irked him for years is the lack of publicity his mission in Haifa received.

“I had to vomit on that day when I found out no history had been written about that,” Holmes said. “So I took it upon myself.”

Holmes has written and talked about his war experience on social media and even contacted the military to get their response.

“No one gets killed; all we did was save lives. There should be movies made of this (mission),” Holmes said.

Going to Haifa

Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces fired scud missiles into Tel Aviv and Haifa, Israel, during the 1991 Gulf War, both as a way to provoke the Jewish state and to disrupt the U.S. armed forces coalition into the dictator’s country.

In response to Iraq’s actions against Israel, the President George H.W. Bush Administration made an agreement with the Jewish state to send three U.S. Patriot Missile batteries to aid Israel.

“The mission was known as ‘Joint Patriot Task Defender’ under the canopy of the United States Navy 6th Fleet,” Holmes said.

Holmes, stationed in Germany in early 1991, heard about his deployment while he was taking a shower.

“My wife calls after me and says, ‘Hey, you’ve got to take this phone,’” said Holmes, thinking it was no big deal. “I got out of the shower (and) she said, ‘You’re going to war.’”

Once they got orders from their commanders, Holmes and his fellow troops made the brief trip down to Rhein-Main Air Base, which had a plane waiting to take them and the missiles to Israel — but they didn’t know that at the time.

But before they could get to the Jewish state, there was trouble — one of the plane’s engines blew out mid flight.

“I thought we were dead,” Holmes said. “I thought how ironic it was that an airplane full of anti-aircraft missiles was going down by an accident.”

But a Texas National Guard deployment was able to help.

“In their Texas drawl, they said, ‘Well, we’ve just lost our starboard engine … but we’re at our highest point, so we’re just going to drift on down and we’ll make it,’” Holmes said. “We’re like, ‘yeah, right.’ But we did.”

Patriot Defender mission

Once they landed and offloaded the missiles, Holmes and his fellow troops took Israel’s Highway 1 to Mount Carmel. The Israelis relied on the U.S. Patriot Defenders to fire missiles, while Holmes’ job was to guard them.

“I assumed there would be some kind of ground offensive when everyone else was underground (in a bunker),” he said. “It would be nearly impossible for them to climb up that mountain and wait, but we never left anything out of possibility.”

Once he began his mission on the mountain, it was only a short time until he nearly lost all of his front teeth.

“I ended up landing on my M-16 and busting my mouth,” Holmes said.

His unit fought on the mountain in Haifa for three months, according to Holmes, and there were successes.

“Not one Iraqi soldier was harmed in this action,” Holmes said. “The only victims in this action were unsuspecting innocent Israelis who died before we got there to eradicate the airborne menace out back.”

Watching from back home

Diane Holmes, the young Army private’s mother, watched coverage of Operation Desert Storm from her home in Medford.

“We were just hoping to get any kind of tidbit of goings on,” said Diane, who attended Gulf War support group meetings in downtown Medford.

“We always went,” Diane said. “That was an important part of our day. We felt that we were contributing some type of emotion or moral support for not just our son, but for all the other men and women who were involved. We just wanted our son to be safe and the world to be safe because it was such a scary time.”

Diane wrote to her son a lot but doesn’t remember getting a response from him.

“I had the feeling he probably couldn’t say a lot,” she said.

It worried Diane not knowing where her son was.

“I knew he must have been fighting somewhere or doing something with the Army group that he was in,” she said. “I can remember how worried we were for him.”

Now that she knows where Michael was, Diane said it only makes some of her “nervous fears pop up” from the time of the war.

“Even in retrospect, it’s frightening,” she said.

Diane is proud of who her son is today and what he has overcome.

“He thinks of others before himself,” she said. “I think he’s always had a servant attitude. He has wanted to be in the Army ever since he was a little boy.”

End of the mission

Holmes described where he was in Israel when he learned his mission had ended. He was at a finishing school for college girls as part of the U.S. military’s efforts to make Israel more comfortable with its presence there.

“They would send us out on diplomatic missions, and this was one of those missions where we were at this school,” Holmes said. “We played basketball with these girls — and they killed us.”

The young women also taught the troops a dance, which is when an announcement was made in Hebrew over the facility’s intercom.

“All of the girls burst into cheers. … They just all fell about themselves,” Holmes said. “We didn’t know what was going on.”

A woman walked up to Holmes and told him, “You’ve just won your war,” and she asked him what he was going to do.

When Holmes said he didn’t know, the woman asked if she could kiss him.

“She grabbed me and she kissed me,” he said. “We fell in love. I was with her every day after that.”

That was perhaps a symbolic end for Holmes, who says his marriage had dissolved even before the war.

The Patriot Defenders had been a success. In an Associated Press article from 1991, a U.S. commander overseeing the mission described the partnership with Israeli forces as “perhaps equaled but never surpassed in the history of allied warfare.”

The Israelis, too, heralded the U.S. military support, sending them off in a farewell ceremony with folk music, according to the same news article. Israel’s air force commander dubbed them “the scud busters,” which got the attention of a pop artist from the Jewish state who recorded a song parody to the tune of “Ghostbusters.”

Holmes was not at that particular ceremony, but he did get a “VIP tour” of the Jewish state with his fellow troops.

“We became like The Beatles everywhere we went,” Holmes said.

During his time in Israel, he also considered himself “an ambassador of Southern Oregon.”

“I couldn’t even tell you how many people said, ‘Wow! Southern Oregon,’ and I’d say, ‘We’re from God’s country,’” Holmes said, “and they’d say, ‘no, this is God’s country’ and I’d be like, ‘there can be two God’s countries.’”

Reflecting on Haifa

The Israelis seemed to love the American forces as Patriot Defender wrapped. And although military commanders took credit for it at the time, Holmes has not heard a lot of talk about it from fellow military men or the Israeli government.

“I’ve contacted the Israeli government and they don’t even accept the fact that we were in Haifa,” he said.

That hasn’t stopped Holmes from asking the Israelis if he can return to the site of his mission, but he has not received a substantive response.

“It’s living history for me, and I want to be able to talk to the current Israeli defense forces,” he said.

Holmes’ message to the public right decades after combat is, “Yes, we were in Haifa and we saved the world.”

“It’s not bragging; it’s just a fact,” Holmes said.

He also sees a link between the Patriot Defenders’ mission in Haifa and movements in the U.S. such as Black Lives Matter.

“Every religion and every race came together for the world and did something good,” Holmes said. “Especially with the racial strife that’s going on in the country, I think that’s the message to get out: We all came together.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to edit out a number of claims Mr. Holmes made in the story that was originally published in the Jan. 22 of the Mail Tribune and its website. The US mission in Haifa was not classified; it is not clear whether Israel is a nuclear power, according to sources the newspaper has reached out to; Mr. Holmes said he was not “thrown 20 feet” while protecting the Patriot missiles; he said “my marriage died” before the war.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.