With Pluck and Courage, Americans Flee Across the Desert to Escape from Kuwait

updated 08/27/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Though roughly 2,500 Americans remained in Kuwait two weeks after the Iraqi invasion, an estimated 500 managed to escape. For those who did get out, there was often a mixture of joy and anxiety. Many who worked in Kuwait, like those whose stories follow, fled with little more than the sand in their boots and now must rebuild their lives.

The ringing of the telephone at 6 A.M. shattered the blissful existence that Benny and Marjorie Whitaker had come to enjoy during their eight months in Kuwait. On the line was a friend who asked if they had heard of an Iraqi invasion. Minutes later a neighbor called to say that a telephone tower two miles away from their apartment complex had just been bombed. Opening a window, Benny, 53, a drilling supervisor who worked for a Kuwaiti oil company, could hear the faint thump of explosions. "I was in shock," says Benny. "But I wasn't scared." Fortunately, after 30 years of living around the world, the Whitakers were no innocents abroad. "I started to get us ready for whatever we had to do," says Marjorie, 49, who began filling water jugs and packing a few clothes.

The next morning the Whitakers decided to make a dash for the Saudi border, which lay just over an hour away. Leaving behind the entire contents of their four-bedroom apartment—except two suitcases and their 5-year-old cocker spaniel, Clancy—they headed south in a caravan of seven cars.

At one point they encountered an Iraqi military column. "There were tanks as far as you could see, parked out there on the desert and crossing the freeway." says Marjorie. After a quick detour, the only other potential trouble came at the Saudi border. An American diplomat on hand told Marjorie that since Saudis and many other Muslims abhor dogs (they are considered unclean), she might have to destroy Clancy. "I almost lost it there," says Marjorie. "For the first time, I started crying." To their relief, though, Saudi officials waved them through with a smile.

At home in Abilene, Texas, the Whitakers are living for now with their son, Reppy, 29, a tile-store manager. "I'm so grateful that I had the good sense to get out of there," says Marjorie, who has read with horror the accounts of rape and plunder carried out by the Iraqi occupiers. They still say they'd go back to Kuwait if they had the chance.

At first, Steven Betts wasn't particularly alarmed by the Iraqi invasion. As fierce fighting erupted outside his apartment in Kuwait City, Betts, an American swimming coach who had been hired to train the Kuwaiti national team, sat serenely on his balcony, watching the action and taking photographs. "A lot of it is the way I look at things," says Betts, 35. "I don't believe I'm going to be harmed." Over the next four days Betts went out to shop for groceries and spent his evenings watching videos with his upstairs neighbors, Jim and Phyllis Calvin. Betts's wife, Dawn, who had returned on vacation to Salem, Ore., with their son, Braden, 2, the week before the attack, watched news of the invasion with growing apprehension.

Finally Betts started to worry when Saddam Hussein issued a veiled threat against foreign nationals still in Kuwait. He packed a bag, filled a cooler with eight cans of Diet Pepsi and set off with the Calvins and their three poodles in two cars. Driving much of the way through a sandstorm and in 120°F heat, the tiny convoy came to an Iraqi checkpoint 20 miles short of the Saudi border. There a teenage sentry with cracked, blistered lips approached the car and made a drinking gesture. Betts handed the boy a cold soda, which was accepted gratefully, and sped from the scene. Bett's escape earned him an interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw and a free plane ride from Washington, D.C., to his home in Santa Fe, courtesy of PepsiCo. But Betts expressed little interest in the possibility of turning his experience into a soft-drink commercial. For him, being safe and reunited with his family was enough.

—Bill Hewitt, Kent Demaret in Abilene and Michael Haederle in Santa Fe

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