Some call the Korean War “the forgotten war”, but for US Army veteran Harry Franco, the Gulf War also qualifies.
The Bakersfield resident and North High graduate served in that short, intense war that, in 1991, drove Saddam Hussein’s invading Iraqi forces from neighboring Kuwait.
But this war would not be Franco’s last.
A dozen years later, in 2003, Franco was again called up for service in a war zone – this time as an army reservist in the post-9/11 Iraq war.
He served four deployments in all.
Today, the 57-year-old is fighting his longest war to date: service-related illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
“I wouldn’t say I was enthusiastic,” he said of his time in the military. “But I was within the rules. I was trying to excel, to do everything right.”
“I was always on the pitch,” he recalls. “I was still training.”
“The sun was like the moon”
Born in San Diego, young Harry grew up in Bakersfield and attended local schools.
After graduating from North High in 1983, he tried to attend Bakersfield College and work. Work won out.
At the age of 22, after working a series of paid jobs, but no more, he joined the army in February 1988.
He couldn’t have known that war, or more accurately, wars, were in his future.
“I was in the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment,” he recalls. “We led VII Corps in Iraq.”
Franco recalled the long buildup of US and coalition forces and equipment in Saudi Arabia, just across the border from Iraq. The buildup began after the invasion of Iraq and attempted to annex oil-rich Kuwait in late summer 1990.
Bulldozers were brought in to dig a path through the berm, a barrier that snaked through the desert along the border.
The regiment was armed with M1A1 Abrams tanks and Bradley tank-like fighting vehicles. Franco was originally designated as “air defense”, an operator of Stinger missiles, shoulder-fired surface-to-air weapons. But the coalition forces owned the sky, and it turned out there was no need to use the Stingers.
“The air force took care of all the (enemy) planes,” he said. “We more or less ended up being, like, scouts, spotters.”
He was riding in an unarmoured Humvee, and their regiment moved so fast, he recalls, that they may have passed an invisible Iraqi unit.
As Iraqi forces retreated from Kuwait, they left a devastating environmental disaster in their wake.
According to data captured in 1991 by NASA’s Landsat satellites, Iraqi forces set fire to more than 650 oil wells and damaged nearly 75 others, which spewed crude oil across the desert and into the Persian Gulf.
The fires burned for 10 months.
“The sun was like the moon,” Franco recalls of the black oil smoke that nearly obliterated the sun as more than a billion barrels of crude burned or spilled into Gulf waters.
U.S. Army veteran Enrique “Rick” Gonzalez Jr. served with Franco in the 2nd Armored Cavalry during the Gulf War and in Germany before the war. But the men only knew each other much more recently.
“I work at the veterans clinic here in town,” Gonzalez said. “When we met there, I thought he was familiar to me.”
But it took weeks before they finally discovered their connection.
“Now he’s one of my closest friends,” Gonzalez said.
“Besides being my brother in arms, he’s just a great guy. Loyal, reliable. He’s just there for me.”
Back to Iraq
After the Gulf War, Franco returned to Germany. He would later be involved in Operation Desert Falcon, which was related to the enforcement of the no-fly zone in Iraq.
“I was involuntarily extended to go to that one,” he recalled.
After returning to the United States, Franco trained as a combat engineer at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. More training came to Fort Lewis, Washington.
“I was at Fort Lewis, Washington, from 1994 to 1996. In February 1996, after completing eight years, I left active duty.”
By March he was in the Army Reserve, living and working in Bakersfield and serving part-time with the 736th Transportation Company headquartered on Chester Avenue.
Married with children, Franco was worried about seeing reserve units called up to prepare for the war in Iraq. But he and more than 30 other members of his unit had no choice when orders arrived for members of the 736th to reinforce the 348th Transportation Company out of Phoenix.
“A few days later I was in Phoenix,” he said. “They didn’t really give us much time.”
The training was also cut short, and in the winter of 2003 he landed in Kuwait.
“About a week before the start of the ground war, we attached ourselves to the 3rd Infantry Division to transport fuel for them.”
He had become a weekend warrior with the Army Reserve, but now the Army needed his service again, so he found himself halfway around the world on Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Before returning home later that year, he had just missed being involved in a roadside bombing of a fuel convoy. One of his comrades, James Miller, was killed in this attack.
“When I came back in 2003, my mother said I was different,” he recalls.
He was fired again in 2005. The following year his marriage broke down.
In 2006, Franco definitively leaves the army. He was battling his PTSD. Major surgery in 2013 to remove a precancerous mass from his intestines further undermined his physical health.
He can no longer hold a regular job. He receives a disability award through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But he is married again and focuses much of his energy on pieces of wood arts and crafts inspired by his service and that of others to their country.
Many of his coins go to his former comrades-in-arms as gifts.
“I like doing that. I like playing with that stuff,” he said. “I can’t work anymore, and that gives me something for my brain to do.”
He calls the small operation run by his garage Army Doggs Creations.
It’s therapeutic, he says.
Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.