Veterans Park Volunteer:
Desert Storm Gave Army Reservist a New Perspective
By Keysha Drexel
Having worked as a nurse for several years before she joined the U.S. Army Reserves, Ginger Branson of Cahaba Heights said she thought she had seen some of the worst life has to offer.
But that perspective changed drastically during the six months Branson served in Operation Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia in 1990 and 1991.
“After being over there and seeing how Saddam Hussein treated those people, and even his own people, I know we were right for being there,” Branson said. “Some of the worst things, the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever witnessed in my life happened during those six months, and I think all of us felt right about what we were fighting for there.”
Branson, who served in the Army Reserves from 1973 until 2002, is now a volunteer at the Alabama Veterans Memorial Park, located off Interstate 459 at the Liberty Park exit. She said she plans to honor what veterans of all wars have fought for during the sixth annual Patriotic Tribute at the park on Nov. 10.
“I grew up in a military family. My dad was a Navy pilot in the South Pacific in World War II, and my brother, Bob, also retired from the Navy,” she said. “So honoring veterans and recognizing them was always important to me. Now that I have been in a combat situation, I feel even more strongly about it.”
Branson grew up in Woodlawn and was a creative child who excelled in music and theatre. She played cello in a youth symphony and was selected for All-State Orchestra when she was in high school.
Branson didn’t have the money to go to college after graduating from high school, and so she took a job as an admissions clerk at what was then called the South Highlands Infirmary on 11th Avenue South in Birmingham.
“I was trying to save money to go to school because I wanted to be a teacher. The administrator at the infirmary where I worked told me I should go to school to be a nurse, but I told him I didn’t want to be a nurse. He said the hospital would help pay my way to school if I studied nursing and then after I got my nursing degree, I could go back and get my teaching degree. So I started nursing school at Jeff State,” she said.
After graduating from Jefferson State Community College, Branson attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in education.
But instead of heading to the classroom, Branson headed to the battlefield.
“A friend of mine was an Army recruiter and told me I should join because the benefits were great,” she said. “I didn’t like the idea at first because, well, I had a life. I was really involved in civic theatre and I knew what military life was like from my father and brother. I was a patriotic person, but I was reluctant to join, at first.”
But in 1973, Branson decided to continue her family’s military legacy and joined the U.S. Army Reserves.
“And God, did I love it,” she said. “I never expected I would like it so much. I loved the people, the whole patriotism feeling, and I loved the hard work. Turned out, I was suited to military life.”
From 1973 until 1989, Branson volunteered for several deployments to provide medical support for American troops in South America. She served in El Salvador and Paraguay.
Also during that time, Branson and others in her medical unit participated in war games exercises at different Army bases across the country.
“The Special Forces would come in and act as the aggressors in a war game, and we would run the field hospitals–literally tents set up in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “We were out there with no running water, using latrines and bathing with water we caught in our helmets. It really tested us and made sure we were ready for a combat situation.”
It wouldn’t be long before that training would come in handy as Branson found herself more than 7,000 miles away from home in a real war zone.
“I was deployed with Operation Desert Storm to Saudi Arabia in December 1990,” she said. “At that time, I was a wife and mother with two little boys to take care of. The youngest was in kindergarten, and his brother was in the third grade.”
Instead of wrapping Christmas presents for her children that year, Branson prepared to go to war.
“I was a little nervous because it was my first combat situation, but the toughest part was leaving my kids so close to Christmas,” she said.
But once Branson got to Saudi Arabia, she realized her children were lucky to be safe back in America.
Because Iraq had invaded Kuwait, Saudi Arabia was overrun with refugees trying to flee Saddam Hussein’s deadly Republican Guard by the time Branson arrived in the Middle East.
Branson and her unit were stationed at a Saudi military post that also housed the refugees.
“They fed them and we gave them medical care, but every day, the Saudi soldiers would take these big buses, like school buses, and put as many of the women and children on them as they could to take them back to Kuwait,” she said. “The women would cry and wail as they made their way to the back of the bus and then they’d throw their babies out the back windows of the bus to other refugees waiting to catch them. The women knew they would die when they were returned to Kuwait, and they were trying to save their children any way they could. The Saudi soldiers didn’t catch on to what the women were doing, thank God. It was just heartbreaking.”
Some of the refugees would even hide their older children in the latrines on the Saudi military post, Branson said.
“I realized then how awful life must be for them because they had to live in that constant fear,” she said. “I knew I would get to go home in a few months, but they couldn’t leave the nightmare. When people start talking about why we were over there during the Gulf War, I tell them that’s why.”
It wasn’t just the plight of the Kuwaiti refugees that convinced Branson and others in her unit that U.S. intervention was needed.
“Our soldiers would bring in guys from Hussein’s Republican Army who had just stood in front of their tanks and surrendered so that they could get something to eat and medical care. They were all malnourished and in horrible shape. Even though they were our enemies in the war, I felt sorry for them,” she said.
Branson said her experiences in Saudi Arabia taught her that war is fought by human beings who are essentially all the same, no matter what side they are fighting on.
“I guess it’s kind of like the Dalai Lama says, that when you get right down to it, we’re all the same person. We all have the same emotions. We all want to be cared for and respected and for our families to be taken care of and safe,” she said.
Branson said her time in Saudi Arabia wasn’t all bad and that she attended one of the most beautiful Easter services she’s ever seen right in the middle of the desert.
“The chaplains got some of those school buses the Saudis used to transport the refugees and loaded up everyone who wanted to go to a sunrise service on Easter Sunday. It was out in the middle of the desert, just the middle of nowhere,” she said. “I opened my eyes from praying and looked out at the hill to watch the sun come up, and there was this Saudi shepherd standing there on the top of the hill, holding his crook with the sun behind him, and he just put up his hand and waved. All you could really see was his silhouette, and it just gave me the chills it was so beautiful.”
But after six months of sleeping in a gas mask in case Hussein’s troops used chemical weapons and watching Scud missiles explode perilously close to her base camp, Branson was ready to come back home.
“I knew we were doing good things there, but I also knew I missed my husband and my children desperately. I missed being able to kiss my boys good night and say their prayers with them,” she said. “Being over there was one of those experiences that I don’t want to do again, but I wouldn’t take anything for it.”
Branson said she will never forget the camaraderie she experienced with the other troops while serving in Desert Storm and that her military experience made her rethink an old Army slogan.
“We’re not really an Army of one, like the old saying used to go. We’re an Army of many that works together as one for what we believe in,” she said. “That’s what I want to celebrate on Veterans Day.”
Branson will be on hand to greet visitors and give them a tour at the Alabama Veterans Memorial Park’s Veterans Day program on Nov. 10.
This year’s event, which runs from 1-4 p.m., will honor the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I and will focus on Alabama’s involvement in the war. Descendants of World War I veterans will be recognized, and Della Fancher, the park’s founder, will give a presentation on the history of the park.
Also at the park’s patriotic ceremony, Col. Robert Lewis Howard will be honored posthumously with a Medal of Honor plaque that will be placed on the column in the park’s Memorial Plaza.
During a brief intermission, visitors to the park can visit the Hall of Honor to view the names of the more than 11,0000 Alabamians who lost their lives in service to their country in the last two centuries.
After intermission, those attending will reassemble at 2:45 p.m. at the American Flag Plaza for the StepStone Ceremony. Members of the Alabama Veterans Memorial Foundation will dedicate StepStones to honored veterans.
The event at the park is free. Golf carts will be available for transportation down the Memorial Trail.
For more information, visit www.alabamaveterans.org or call 912-2019.