Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Lois E. Johnson
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Local veteran recalls time of service


November 9, 2017

Leon Torkelson waves a flag from the bus window as the Desert Storm troops returned to Duluth on Memorial Day 1991.

It has been 26 years since the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Though it was a short war, 700,000 American troops served in the Middle East to free Kuwait from the clutches of Iraq.

American reserve troops were part of the coalition of troops from 35 countries that amassed in Saudi Arabia to free Kuwait. It has been reported it took tremendous effort to move all of those troops, along with their equipment, to the Middle East and then back home again.

According to information on Wikipedia, Kuwait was invaded by Iraqi troops August 2-4, 1990. The coalition forces gathered under Operation Desert Shield, and during Operation Desert Storm, freed Kuwait in a war beginning January 17 and ending February 28, 1991.

Leon Torkelson of Willow River was one of the troops to serve in Operation Desert Storm.

"I served in the Army from 1982 until 1986," he said in a recent interview. "I joined the Army Reserves in May 1987. Our medical unit, the 477th Medical Company, was based in Duluth."

Torkelson said he was trained as a medic. It is similar to training that emergency medical personnel have in civilian life, but if he wanted to be an EMT he would have to retrain, he explained.

Monthly trainings and annual two-week trainings were normal for Torkelson. The unit traveled to Camp Ripley, Fort McCoy, Wisconsin; Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas; and Fort Riley, Kansas, to name a few, for the two-week trainings. After the Gulf War, there were trainings in Hawaii and Panama.

Torkelson was employed by USG in Cloquet when he got called upon.

"My foreman met me when I walked in one day," he said. "He gave me a code word and I knew exactly what was going on. I found out I was activated for Desert Storm.

"I had about four or five days before I had to leave. I went to the Army Reserves Unit in Duluth the day before Thanksgiving 1990."

Torkelson said equipment and paperwork had to be readied for the 100 troops, both men and women.

"We packed up and loaded the ambulances and trucks for three days," he said. "We left early one morning and drove down to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin."

The troops spent time at Fort McCoy painting the ambulances and trucks in desert camouflage colors and then loaded the equipment onto rail cars to be transported to a port in Louisiana to ship to Saudi Arabia.

The troops flew out from a nearby airfield on a direct flight to Saudi Arabia, he said.

Once they arrived, they stayed in apartments until they were moved to their base.

"January 17 is when the air war started targeting Iraqi defenses," he said. "We were still in the apartments when a Scud missile was shot down near us. It had gone over our heads."

Torkelson said the unit was moved to the Kind Kalid Military City (KKMC) in Saudi Arabia a day or two after the Scud incident. They were joined by troops from other units and expanded to 140 members.

"By the time we were done, there were 200 troops in our unit," he said. "We lived in tents."

The ground war started on February 24. A ceasefire was declared after 100 hours. Kuwait had been liberated from the Iraqi forces.

Troops were wounded during the war and patients were transported in converted school buses as well as the ambulances brought from Duluth.

"I supported the airfield at KKMC and transported medical evacuated patients," he said. "We ended up driving 250,000 miles hauling patients. We took the patients off of the aircraft and brought them to five different hospitals and two other medical treatment centers.

"Then we transported patients from the hospitals to the airfield to be sent to hospitals in Germany and the United States. We just transported the patients; I didn't use much of my medical training."

Three weeks after the ground war ended, Torkelson went to Kuwait to man an aid station set up by his unit.

"I was there for about two weeks," he said. "I talked to one man who had laid out his prayer rug and was getting ready to pray. He said he and his family were in hiding while the Iraqis occupied their country. He was glad to be free."

The Iraqi troops set oil wells in Saudi Arabia on fire as they fled.

"We saw the oil wells burning on the horizon," said Torkelson. "The sky looked like it was cloudy, but it was from the smoke in the air. Everything had specks on it. When you looked closer you could see that they were oil specks."

Torkelson said they did not see any actual fighting. There was, however, a second Scud missile shot down nearby.

The 477th Medical Unit returned to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, and then the 477th Medical Unit returned to Superior and Duluth on Memorial Day to a hero's welcome. Crowds lined the streets and welcomed the troops at Bayfront Park.

Torkelson met a young student who had written to him while he was in Saudi Arabia.

"That was pretty neat," said Torkelson. "I met him years later again at Menard's, where he worked, when I had stopped after my weekend reserve duty and was still wearing my uniform. He was in his teens or 20s by then."

As the local soldiers returned to the Moose Lake area, yellow ribbons that had been tied to a tree in the town square were given to each troop member and a little welcome home ceremony was held. Torkelson and others who served from the area were also featured in the Fourth of July parade that year. He spoke to the residents at the Mercy Health Care Center about his service.

"I didn't have any traumatic experiences," Torkelson said. "I didn't see any action other than those two missiles that were shot down overhead. I returned to work at USG, but didn't have a lot of adjustment to go through."

As he looks back on that experience and the purpose of that war, Torkelson said he disagrees with those who think the forces should have removed Saddam Hussein (Iraqi dictator) from power.

"There were 10 objectives and we accomplished all 10," he said. "We got unconditional surrender of the Iraqi forces. But there were troops that were in place, ready to go and take out Saddam Hussein, if the order was given."


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