NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, August 25th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the anniversary of the start of Operation Desert Shield.
It was 30 years ago this month that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered an invasion of tiny Kuwait—Iraq’s oil rich neighbor to the south.
It sparked a U.S.-led global response. It also marked the beginning of American engagement in the Middle East that has continued to this day.
EICHER: In a moment we’ll meet one of the earliest fighter pilots to arrive in the region, and hear the story of how an accident in the buildup to the Gulf War changed his life. Paul Butler has his story.
PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: In 1990, Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein controlled the world’s fourth largest standing army. He used that force to invade Kuwait on August 2nd.
NEWS CLIP: By mid-morning, thousands of troops swarmed into the capital, commando units came in by air…
Hussein quickly took control of Kuwait’s oil fields and refineries. The United States and its allies worried that he was preparing to launch a focused attack on Saudi Arabia. If he did, he could conceivably control most of the world’s oil reserves.
BUSH: With more than 100,000 troops, along with tanks, artillery, and surface-to-surface missiles, Iraq now occupies Kuwait. There is no justification whatsoever for this outrageous and brutal act of aggression…
So President George H. W. Bush responds. He sends U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia as a deterrent and builds an international coalition involving 39 countries. The military action is named: Operation Desert Shield.
BUSH: At my direction, elements of the 82nd Airborne Division as well as key units of the United States Air Force are arriving today to take up defensive positions in Saudi Arabia…
One of those Air Force pilots is Lieutenant Richie Setser:
RICHIE SETSER: We climbed in our jets, took off, and flew over to the Middle East. Found out en route where we were going to go when we landed there. Happened to be stationed Abu Dhabi, UAE…
Setser’s part of the 363rd Tactical Fighter Wing from Shaw Airforce Base in Sumpter, South Carolina.
SETSER: For me as a young lieutenant, having been through all this training on one hand, it was an exhilarating thought to actually get to go do what you’re trained to do. But on the other hand, I was scared to death.
Two squadrons of F-16 fighter planes fly non-stop to the Middle East. Once there, Setser and his fellow airmen are on “ground close-air support alert.” So for two weeks they’re “locked and loaded”—ready to be called into action on a moment’s notice.
Once enough other military assets are in place, the F-16 squadrons can begin training sorties—preparing for the inevitable war with Iraq. Setser is glad to be back in the air.
SETSER: On my second sortie, we took off. There’s not a lot of air constraints for the airspace. So we could literally just take off, go to 500 feet, push the throttle up 600 knots going across the desert, you know, four airplanes, just screaming, having a great time…
At 3:51 p.m. Saudi time, Richie Setser’s engine comes apart. The turbine throws a blade…
SETSER: And it was a catastrophic fire. It was just a fireball basically. And so I went from doing, you know, nearly 600 miles an hour down at three or 400 feet, pull the nose up, get away from the ground.
The flight leader to Setser’s right tells him he’s on fire. His vice-wing commander to the left says the same thing. He has little time to react.
SETSER: And so I immediately reached between my legs and put my feet where they’re supposed to go and my head back, close my eyes and pull the handle. And so big bang, big flash and huge kick in the pants.
Richie Setser’s trained for this scenario. He’s gone over it hundreds of times in his mind. But he says nothing prepared him for the reality of it…
SETSER: And this all took 20 seconds. I mean, from the time I’m sitting there having a great time flying an airplane again, till I’m hanging in a parachute was 20 seconds.
It is the first allied loss in Operation Desert Shield. Setser’s plane is a complete loss. In Tokyo, the Nikkei index dives amid speculation that the Iraqi army might have shot down the plane.
But for Setser, the meaning of the crash was much more personal.
SETSER: So I basically had two seconds to live is what it means. So had I delayed any, you know, I wouldn’t have survived it. And I just, the Lord just protected me, I guess…
Setser was born in a Christian family. His parents were devout Baptists.
SETSER: I had professed the gospel and been baptized as a child, but in my time as a high school kid and then a college student, and even into my young fighter pilot days, swaggering around, thought I had the cat by the tail and lived in the world for several years.
When he arrived in the Middle East, Setser was beginning to reconsider his life choices.
SETSER: Three days before the flight that I’m describing, I reached a point where I just couldn’t take the pressure anymore. And my mom had given me a little New Testament to take with me. She knew I wasn’t right with the Lord. And she prayed for me constantly. And I reached a point where I just basically was crushed spiritually and I pulled out that little New Testament.
He didn’t know quite where to begin, but his mother had planned ahead…
SETSER: I was reading scriptures that she had underlined that I actually had memorized. I knew the truth, you know, at least enough to know the way of salvation was through Christ. And I cried out to the Lord that I know I’m not right with you.
Richie Setzer was 7,000 miles away from home, on constant alert, and very aware that he might not make it back. He begins praying in his quarters:
SETSER: And I’m sorry for my sin. I want to be right with you and I want to live for you. And, again, just this big old, strong swagger and cocky fighter pilot, just humbled, literally to my knees. And so the Lord saved me three days before my ejection. The aftereffect was, I was a changed man and my buddies knew it.
Setser was back in the air four days later. A little bruised, but back in the saddle. The training sorties paid off. Setser and the 33rd tactical squadron got to lead the first daylight raids into Iraq once the war started in 1991:
SETSER: You know, I didn’t do anything that heroic. Honestly, I didn’t, but I flew with some guys that were. I guess I had my days, but just a tremendous group of men. You know what I mean? There’s just something about that experience. And especially together that it just—the camaraderie, the respect, the admiration, the appreciation, it just can’t be replaced anywhere.
Today, Richie Setser is a pilot with United Airlines and serves as an elder in his church. His time in Iraq has given him a platform to share his testimony with many people—including his buddies in the unit.
SETSER: Interesting thing in our, that at the 25-year anniversary, I sat down and wrote out a one-page letter. And I just noted that we’re all getting older and we’re approaching death. And that, you know, I was convinced of the truth of the scriptures and the reality of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and that my prayer for all of them and hope was that they would turn to him. So yeah, it has been a bit of a platform. So, the Lord used it mightily in my life.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Paul Butler.