Forecasting the Storm

Michael Nations of Durand, who served in the U.S. Marines for 21 years, including during Operation Desert Storm, stands Tuesday in the Baker College of Owosso campus security office where he works as an officer.

DURAND — Michael Nations, of Bancroft, had been in the Marine Corps for 14 years when he was deployed to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield, arriving on Christmas Day 1990, less than a month before the ground war (Desert Storm) began on Jan. 17.

As a Marines-trained meteorologist, Nations provided vital information to commanders in charge of flying U.S. troops and equipment into battle to force out Saddam Hussein’s army, which had invaded Kuwait months earlier.

“I think (stopping Hussein) was necessary. It would have been devastating to the future of our country and the world economy if he had taken over the oilfields,” said Nations, now 61 and living in Durand. “You train for 14 years, you’ve been in long enough. I was ready. Let’s do this.”

His 700-member unit, the Marines Wings Support Squadron 273, was stationed in Al Jubail, located along the Persian Gulf in Saudia Arabia. The squadron’s job was to support U.N.-backed aviation forces with fuel, food, weather information and whatever else they needed to perform their job, transporting infantry troops and equipment.

Nations was then moved about 150 miles north to the Ras Al Mishab Airport. He had been tapped to serve as the platoon commander over about 40 military police officers providing security for a desalination point, where salt water from the Persian Gulf was processed into drinking water.

“(The Iraqis) were launching rockets at the desalination point, to knock it out,” Nations said. “It gave you a pretty bad feeling, but we got used to it.”

The first time a Scud missile hit, Nations was lying on a cot in his tent, two light bulbs hanging overhead. The concussion was so strong the lights went out and Nations was thrown off the cot.

As he was trained to do, given the possibility that Hussein might unleash chemical weapons, he put on a gas mask before rushing out of the tent.

“We immediately dug a fallout shelter with shovels, scavaging wood for a roof,” he said.

The troops hunkered down in the shelter for about a week, until Marine aircraft knocked out the two rocket launchers used by the Iraqi forces, Nations said.

Just before the ground war began, his squadron moved to a new expeditionary airfield called Lonesome Dove, located at the Saudia Arabia/Kuwait border, west of a large military support base in Al Khanjar.

A huge pit, 15 feet deep, was dug across the flat desert landscape. Tents, set up inside the pit, their tops reaching up to ground level, served as accommodations for Nations and the other troops.

“It was like a little city,” he said, “out in the middle of nowhere. The hardest part was the uncertainty at first, and the unknown.”

Missiles came flying again, hitting as close as a mile away. Part of Nations’ job was to operate the defense meteorological satellite program, which was then top secret, through which he could print overhead photographs of the area in real time.

Another aspect of his work was to inform commanders about weather conditions.

“Over history, weather is a battlefield commander’s top concern,” Nations said. “In aviation, it’s even more critical. You’d tell aircraft commanders about winds and visibility.”

Impairing visibility along the border was thick black smoke rising from the oil wells Hussein’s men had torched.

The ground war was supposed to start Jan. 16, but got postponed until the 17th — Nations’ day on the rotation for weather forecasting. It fell to him to bring the two aircraft group commanders staying at Lonesome Dove the data they needed to help decide the best routes to fly out troops and supplies.

His forecast was critical to the mission.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of deal,” Nations said.

He remembers grabbing a satellite photo, only 30 minutes old, and running down to the commanders’ tent to brief them, displaying the picture on an X-ray viewer.

“I was confident in what I was doing, and I really felt like I was contributing to something big,” he said. “It was a team effort, and it was successful.”

Nations remembered one of the colonels, who later made general, telling him, “Son, you’re a patriot.”

The ground war lasted only four days, but Nations and the Marines in his squadron stuck around for another six months, following as the aircraft they supported advanced to new bases.

One of his fellow weather forecasters was Tim Lecureux from Vernon. The pair remain friends.

“It’s a different kind of bond you get with someone when you go through an event like that together,” Nations said.

Flying out of Al Jubail, Marines Wings Support Squadron 273 returned to its base in Beaufort, South Carolina, on May 16, 1991. It was a good time to leave the desert. By then, temperatures were routinely reaching 119 degrees.

“Initially, being there was very exciting,” Nations said. “The young (Marines he worked with) motivated me. I was a big brother to probably 30 of them.”

But near the end, the heat became challenging, he said, especially since they had to sport heavy biochemical suits with black leather boots all the time — even when sleeping, in case they were called into immediate action.

Showers were few and far between. Mostly, Nations and crew would wash up using wet wipes sent from home in care packages, or water in a steel bowl heated on a portable stove.

But overall, Operation Desert Storm was a highlight in a career full of highlights. During his long military tenure, Nations served at bases in Italy and across Asia, including Japan, China, South Korea and the Philippines.

He enlisted at 18, after graduating from Durand High School in 1977. He’d been inspired by an uncle he’d visited during his freshman year, a Marine stationed in Oahu.

“I noticed a lot of camaraderie, a lot of pride and esprit de corps,” Nations said.

Today, he lives in Durand with his wife, Michele (Plashek) Nations, whom he’d first met in high school. He works as a security officer at Baker.

He retired from the Marines in 1991 after 21 years, but is still involved with veterans. He is a life member of the VFW and serves on the county veterans affair committee, for two years as chairman. He praised the current county board of commissioners for supporting area veterans.

One of the committee’s accomplishments was purchasing a new van to transport area veterans to medical appointments. The van, with its chair lift and oxygen, is Americans with Disabilities Act-certified.

Helping veterans means a lot to Nations.

“I’m always going to be a Marine,” he said. “Veterans are near and dear to me. I may have retired, but I’m still a Marine.”

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