The self-proclaimed “photo sniper” has kept the images in secondhand drawers for three decades. Sgt. Kirby Lee Vaughn recently pinned the photos from his time in the Gulf War to his wall in his Las Vegas apartment as he works on a photography book to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the victorious missions.
Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm ran from Aug. 2, 1990, to Feb. 28, 1991.
And on Veterans Day this year, they’re an extra reminder of exactly what he endured and documented during both deployments.
“I’m tired of sitting here, looking at them, like I’m brooding,” he said.
So he decided to share some of the photos he took with the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
“It’s all about closure, and it’s all about promoting pride in military service. It’s about photography,” he said. “It’s about duty, honor. It’s about being proud of America.”
The 55-year-old remembers the chain of events clearly: On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait.
The world responded with a coalition of nations to stop President Saddam Hussein’s brutal aggression. Operation Desert Shield led to the buildup of troops and defense of Saudi Arabia. Desert Storm was the combat phase.
It ended with a ground assault on Feb. 24, 1991, when ground troops began sweeping through Kuwait in blitzkrieg fashion.
In a mere 100 hours, Iraqi soldiers surrendered by the thousands. Kuwait was free again.
On Aug, 3, 1990, Vaughn was a sergeant at the Army’s Fort Bragg base in North Carolina. He had been there for a year and a half when he was called up to serve in the Gulf.
“I want to photograph this deployment for posterity,” he told his chain of command.
And so the paratrooper deployed with his Canon T-70 in tow, a lens and a footlocker full of film. He watched how fast the desert filled up with American troops.
He mailed each roll of film to New York City to be processed, but he didn’t see a single print until he came back to the States.
“I saw the countryside up high behind the wheel of a 5-ton dump truck with a heavy tool trailer and seven soldiers in the bed. I drove that rig everywhere. Rain or shine,” Vaughn said.
I don’t want my soldiering to take a back seat to my photographyFORMER SGT. KIRBY LEE VAUGHN
But one thing remains clear, he said: Desert Shield and Storm were the culmination of five years of self-taught photography and earning his sergeant stripes.
“I don’t want my soldiering to take a back seat to my photography,” he said. “I wouldn’t have one without the other.”
This is the Gulf War, as seen through Vaughn’s lens:
Vaughn calls one photo taken near Rafha, Saudi Arabia, on Feb. 23, 1991, “Puma Fist Pump.’
In preparation for the ground assault in Operation Desert Storm, a French Puma helicopter lowered in midflight behind U.S. troops.
“I’d been watching these guys fly around for six months. They were always hot dogs; they were always flying low, fast, showing off,” Vaughn recalled.
Vaughn’s battalion was airborne, so they carried light weapons. They didn’t have much armor or big guns. The French took the lead with 20 monster cannons, he said.
“That way if anybody wants to come down, we’re meeting them, we’re going to fight them,” Vaughn said.
As one Puma lowered, a soldier raised his fist as the troops moved to the border of Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Vaughn steadied his camera and got the shot.
“And I saw them coming and snap, I really didn’t have much time to think,” he said proudly. “That fist pump, that moment, that you can’t replicate.”
Inside the third of five base camps, Vaughn spent Christmas Eve 1990 in northern Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield.
Vaughn and his comrades put up a small Christmas tree and turned on the lights.
He turned a sandbag into a tripod and turned his lens on Specialist Allen Rodgers as he worked radio night watch duty.
Christmas Day 1990 was Vaughn’s third overseas.
This Christmas, he and other soldiers in the Bravo Company of the 27th Engineer Battalion put on their maroon berets.
They walked through the desert in formation for a holiday ceremony.
During the Christmas Day ceremony in 1990, 1st Sgt. Alfred “Fred” Ferryerra turned to his right at the exact moment Vaughn snapped a shot from his spot in the formation.
They were in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield.
“The depth of field really helped out with that photo,” Vaughn said.
We’re at the end of the day, and this guy is standing on a truck, and I see the perfect lighting.FORMER SGT. KIRBY LEE VAUGHN
Vaughn calls one picture of Cpl. Andrew Hodnik “The Stormtrooper.”
On Feb. 19, 1991 — before the ground assault of Desert Storm — Hodnik had stood covered in dust during a pause in a training exchange with the French Foreign Legion.
He had a grenade launcher and a loaded rifle.
“These guys are hardened,” Vaughn remembered.
The dust was everywhere: in their teeth, in their ears, in their hair.
“We’re at the end of the day, and this guy is standing on a truck, and I see the perfect lighting,” Vaughn said. “This is golden hour in Saudi Arabia.”
A convoy of French and American troops slept on the Main Supply Route (MSR) Texas for “as far as the eye can see,” Vaughn said.
During Operation Desert Storm, Vaughn had his Canon out to capture the troops pushing north near Rafha.
They went into Iraq wearing chemical suits with pounds of other gear.
For Vaughn, it was important to capture the soldiers’ everyday life.
On Thanksgiving, he took a photo of one soldier holding his completed puzzle of a castle in Germany. He showed troops eagerly taking in mail and getting haircuts. He watched for the desert sunrises and sunsets.
In this photo on Jan. 19, 1991, Pfc. Rocky McKenzie collected laundry after a long day of chores at a camp near King Khalid Military City in Saudi Arabia.
“It’s not all peaches and cream, you know. There were some really just miserable times. And I chose to photograph the positives. This is what soldiers did,” Vaughn said.
It’s not all peaches and cream, you know. There were some really just miserable times. And I chose to photograph the positives. This is what soldiers did.FORMER SGT. KIRBY LEE VAUGHN
One mission was to take an airbase in Iraq so they could drop other supplies in place and have a more tactical position.
After a few days on the MSR Texas, they got to the airbase. They had to clear unexploded ordnances that were dropped from U.S. planes and everywhere else. While some men were clearing an area, there was an explosion.
“They exploded and killed them all. In a flash. Boom, gone. Powerful stuff,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn was standing away, but he came upon the horrific scene. Six soldiers died. The force of the impact disintegrated the toughest of body armor and helmets.
After the war ended, Vaughn’s unit came back and set up a memorial.
One soldier, who was wounded in the explosion, saluted the men he lost: symbolized by six weapons, helmets and boots.
“They died, and we had to honor them,” he said, pointing at the photo. “This was one soldier, and those are his guys.”