After serving five months in Saudi Arabia, Air Force Sgt. Steven D. Houck knew that the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi troops to pull out of Kuwait was drawing close. He was prepared to go to war and do his part to preserve world order.
About the last place he expected to be Jan. 15 was Columbia.
But on Jan. 10, with a PCS -- permanent change of station -- assignment, Houck boarded a plane to come home. He will transfer to an Air Force base in Turkey in early March.
"I knew I had a PCS coming up around this time," the security police specialist said. "Although (Operation Desert Shield) was a serious situation, the Air Force and the other military branches continued to operate as usual, following routine procedures. I tried not to get too hyped up about leaving, because you never knew what was going to happen just around the bend."
The 29-year-old will be spending the next month with his mother, Sue Houck, in her home in Thunder Hill in Columbia.
"Part of me isglad to be here with my family and friends," he said. "But there's another part of me who feels sort of weird for not being there side byside with my fellow serviceman when war actually broke.
"We were like a big family. Everyone looked out for one another."
Houck, a member of the Langley A.F.B. softball team, got the call to go overseas during a championship softball game in a nearby city recreational league in Virginia. "We were trouncing the other team, 9-3, when I saw a woman in my squadron coming toward my teammates and I. We were told to prepare our gear and were moved out within 24 hours."
The troops arrived in the Persian Gulf the first week of August, even before the deployment was called Operation Desert Shield.
"We were informed of the name several weeks later," he said.
Houck, a 1979 graduate of Oakland Mills High, said that the desert climate and intense heat took a little getting used to. "The sun and the wind were excruciating. It was like someone was holding a hair dryer to your face andblowing warm air your way constantly. We were ordered to keep our shirts on to prevent from getting windburn. I'd easily drink 3 gallons of water a day.
"Since we were the first ones to arrive, we luckedout and got pretty decent dorms," he said. "Nothing elaborate, though. Ours was a big, empty room that 23 or so of us shared. We had showers and bathroom stalls. The basics."
As a member of the 1st Security Police Squadron, his responsibilities involved protecting civilians, military resources and personnel around the base. He performed security checks on visiting dignitaries, aircrafts and vehicles as wellas general surveillance.
"I guess the biggest part of my job was to look for things slightly off the norm," Houck said. "If there was a package or bag out of place, we'd evacuate the immediate area and call in the bomb-sniffing dogs. We had to treat every situation as a possible safety threat."
He recalls one particular day when the airmen were informed that the Iraqis were firing tests of Scud missiles overhead. "Except we didn't know initially that they were only tests.You always had to be alert and on guard," he said.
"We were prepared for the worst -- especially chemical warfare. If chemical bombs were used, you just had to pray your gas masks worked. And you hoped that your body was healthy enough to fight off the poisonous gas. Others would probably agree with me when I say I'd rather be shot than face unknown chemicals."
While overseas, Houck got dozens of lettersand packages from relatives, friends and pen pals. He received letters and drawings from concerned elementary-school children in West Virginia and Ohio. In return, he sent them thank-you notes that includedriyals, small Saudi coins.
"The kids and teachers would write howproud they were of all the soldiers and me. That made me feel real good. It is I who should be thanking them for taking time to write a complete stranger and brighten my day," Houck said.
Things were pretty boring and uneventful in his five months in the gulf, he said, mostly because of the difference in Muslim and Western cultures. But hedid get a week's rest and recreation over Christmas, aboard a cruiseship especially sent over for servicemen.
"Americans are a much louder and rowdier bunch than the Saudis. We tried our best to stay inline and respect their traditions and customs. But it wasn't easy. On the other hand, our being there caused them some uneasy situations as well. They weren't too keen on dealing with our women officers on any level," he said.
Now that he is home visiting his family -- mother, Sue, 22-year-old sister, Becky, and 21-year-old brother, Greg -- he can appreciate how concerned they were about him.
A younger brother, 28-year-old Michael, is a staff sergeant instructor at LoweryA.F.B. in Colorado. Meanwhile, Air Force Sgt. Bruce Eakins, a close friend of both Becky and Steve Houck, remains in the Persian Gulf with the 71st Aircraft Maintenance Unit.
"Watching the events unfold on TV has started to make me feel worried for my fellow airmen," he said. "When I was there, everything seemed normal. We didn't particularly want to be overseas, but everyone understood the circumstances and did their jobs. There wasn't a whole lot going on back then. Now that I'm so far removed from the situation, I can see how loved ones could get so scared."
The one place Houck has enjoyed little sympathy is his auto insurer.
During the rush of being shipped to the Middle East last August, his payment lagged. Now the company considers him a high risk and won't renew.
For now, Houck will stay glued to the television set, eager to learn more about the events in the Persian Gulf and hoping the war will end soon.
"I'm sure the guys are saying to themselves, 'All right. Something's finally happened. But how long will it take before we come back home?' "