In early August of 1990, Capt. Joseph P. DeAntona, commander of B Battery, 2nd Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery, was busily preparing his unit to test the precision and lethality of the Patriot missile, which had only been used in anti-aircraft situations until then. Instead, he was informed the testing of the system would be conducted in real-life scenarios in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
By Aug. 13, just 11 days after Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, DeAntona and his Soldiers landed in Saudi Arabia.
Having never tested the capabilities of the system, DeAntona spent the flight huddled with Raytheon contractors, reading through a 5-inch-thick manual and learning how the Patriot was expected to react in a ballistic missile threat.
"Everyone pulled together," DeAntona remembered. "Normally there is a slight competition between Soldiers and contractors, but we became a team. It was discovery learning."
In addition to the normal anxieties of deployment, the unit had to deal with the fear of the unknown. All the other units deploying to the desert were from bases in Europe and were cutting-edge, considering they were coming off the tail end of the Cold War. DeAntona remembered units based in the continental U.S. functioned more like Reserve units, focusing more on training and doctrine.
They expected to disembark on the front lines, DeAntona said. The Soldiers flew with their weapons ready, extra ammunition and live grenades on their chests, ready to fight Iraqi soldiers as soon as the plane doors opened.
Instead of the firefight they were expecting, when the C5 landed and the doors opened they were caught in what DeAntona assumed was the backdraft from the airplane's engines.
"It felt like we were shoved in a furnace," DeAntona said. Instead, he quickly learned, it was just a typical August evening in Saudi Arabia.
With no previous education of the culture and climate, the Soldiers faced several unanticipated challenges. Introducing female Soldiers to the climate was difficult.
"A Soldier is a Soldier," DeAntona said. "The same rules apply for a female and a male Soldier."
Females in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to show skin; therefore, female U.S. Soldiers had to wear long sleeves at all times and because the female Soldiers had to, so did the males. Incidentally, this turned out to be a benefit to all Soldiers in dealing with the strong desert sun.
"We had to be careful," DeAntona said. "But Soldiers excel at separating personal beliefs from professional conduct."
DeAntona and his Soldiers served in theater for eight months and did much to further the American Soldier's understanding of Middle Eastern culture and what is needed to fight there.
"We understood Europe. We had been there for years," DeAntona said. "We understood Asia; we had been there for 50 years. But we didn't understand this part of the world. I didn't even know where Saudi Arabia was before I deployed."
Of all the challenges faced and successes achieved by DeAntona and his Soldiers, the most memorable part of it all was the operational mission, he said. Their mission was to validate the precision and lethality of the Patriot to counter tactical ballistic missiles, and they not only succeeded in their mission but spent six months training and keeping the system operable in conditions it was not built for.
"Only one guy pushed the button," DeAntona said. "But the whole battery, battalion, brigade - even the whole Army - celebrated it and felt the victory."
As soon as the unit finished their mission they were on their way back, just like they had been told. They were the first to head to Saudi Arabia and they were the first to return as combat veterans since Vietnam.
More than 10,000 people greeted their plane when the unit arrived. DeAntona mentioned to his wife that the first thing he wanted on his return was to eat Pizza Hut. The restaurant found out and treated the entire unit to free pizza the day after they got back.
"We were celebrities," DeAntona said. "The nation rallied in support for Soldiers. This was their first opportunity to appreciate Soldiers. It was an emotional celebration; the nation's recovery from Vietnam."
From the entire deployment experience, DeAntona said he learned to always be ready to go and he passes that on to his Soldiers. They need to be ready to go to war every day - mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, he said.
DeAntona was eligible for retirement five years ago but said he stays because he harbors a love and passion for missile defense and loves to work with the new generation of Soldiers.
"Serving your nation while at war is the most humble and patriotic thing an American can do," DeAntona said. "I am proud of my military career, but the kids in the military today are so much more selfless. They say a volunteer force can't support long term, but here we are in a prolonged war for more than seven years and we are still at 100 percent."