March 17, 2003: US Special Forces soldiers are not an unfamiliar sight to the Kurdish residents of Northern Iraq. In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, when the Kurdish uprising was suppressed by Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, between one and three million Kurds fled to the north and were caught in the mountainous Turkish border region in cold weather with no food or shelter. By mid-April 1991, an estimated 800-1000 Kurdish children and elderly were dying each day.
In response, the U.S. launched Operation Provide Comfort. In addition to the northern no-fly zone, which remains in effect today, the U.S., NATO allies, and international NGOs moved to provide humanitarian aid to thousands of Kurdish refugees.
The most difficult aspect of the operation was convincing the Kurds to return home. This role fell to the “Peace Corps with guns,” the Special Forces. Unlike civilian aid agencies, the Green Berets were not afraid to move south and, usually by presence alone, convince the Republican Guard to stand down. U.S. Special Forces, Civil Affairs, and Marines constructed refugee camps, clothed refugees, and provided essential medical care, stemming the tide of suffering.
Special Forces stood out from the NGOs (Non Government Organizations) mostly for their resourcefulness and willingness to take risks. With some of the best of helicopter pilots in the world at their beck and call, Green Berets moved needed supplies to remote locations and evacuated the sick to medical facilities in dangerous weather. More than one American medic played midwife to a Kurdish mother. Even more saved the lives of small children with vaccinations, food, and emergency care. Legend has it that many Kurdish twelve-year-olds have first names like Collins, Jones, and Bush.
While the uprising ended poorly for the Kurds, they did retain some autonomy. The help provided by the Special Forces during those refugee days has not been forgotten. As Sheikh Jafar Mustapha, a leader in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) said in the Christian Science Monitor, “America is the best friend of the Kurdish people. If America attacks Saddam … we can help the US achieve success in that battle.” -A.J. Wagner