When the former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait returned home in December, he carried with him the American flag flown over the embassy in Kuwait City and gave it to his successor. It now flies outside the embassy once again as a sort of tribute to American resiliency.
W. Nathaniel Howell, 51, wasn't supposed to be in Kuwait City when Iraq invaded it in August. He and a "hard core" group of Americans spent the next 133 days confined in the U.S. Embassy compound.Although Howell described the experience in a telephone interview Tuesday as "not pleasant," he said he learned "how strong and resilient the human spirit is; how many things you can overcome if you have the right outlook."
The former ambassador, known as "Nat" to friends, will be in Utah later this month for America's Freedom Festival at Provo. Howell will receive a Freedom Award at the awards gala June 28. He will speak at a patriotic service June 29.
After serving as ambassador for 31/2 years, Howell was "packed up and waiting" to get back to Virginia in early August. His wife, Margie, had already left. Congress was in the process of confirming his replacement, Edward "Skip" Gnehm.
Gnehm's confirmation came Aug. 4, two days after Saddam Hussein directed his army to take over Kuwait.
"I was holding the fort. Of course, tensions built up a bit," Howell said.
The nervous twitching outside the embassy eventually erupted into full-scale war.
Howell went home when the State Department finally closed the embassy Dec. 13, about a month before U.S. bombings of Iraq began.
Howell said minor border skirmishes between Iraq and Kuwait occurred on occasion, but the Saddam regime had never lay claim to its Persian Gulf neighbor.
"The extent of that use of force surprised all of us," he said. Howell, awakened in the early morning of Aug. 2, was the first official to contact the State Department about the invasion. Some 180 Americans initially took refuge at the embassy.
The Iraqis allowed government employees and their families to leave occupied Kuwait Aug. 23. Eight foreign service employees and 16 others stayed behind. That number eventually dwindled to five.
Some have called him a hero for the way he managed the crisis.
"It's my job. I can't walk off and leave private citizens in that situation," he said.
Howell took charge of the group remaining at the embassy. He organized a Halloween party and activities like pool and tennis tournaments to ease the tense atmosphere. During a talent show, he recited poetry and led group singing dressed in a coat, tie and swimming suit. Under Howell's direction, the group built a bomb shelter, dug a well and planted a garden.
"It became a very close group," he said. "All of us on the compound came to respect and, in a sense, love one another."
Still, it wasn't easy to be trapped under constant surveillance in the compound. Iraqi troops cut off water, electricity and telephone lines.
"We expected the Iraqis to pull us out by gun point," Howell said. "We were blessed in that we didn't lose anybody that I'm aware of. We could have and everybody knew it."
Howell did lose 34 pounds living mostly on canned tuna fish and beans. "It was a boring diet," he said.
Some members of the group were able to repair the phone lines, allowing periodic communication with Washington. Howell said the embassy was also able to relay messages from those hiding in Kuwait City to loved ones in the states.