A small collection of photographs and a threadbare, begrimed American flag serve as the treasured keepsakes of retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bob Lehtonen’s experience of the Gulf War.
Lehtonen is far removed from combat, working as the senior military operations analyst contracted to support the 100th Missile Defense Brigade (Ground-based Midcourse Defense) in Colorado Springs, but his memories of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm remain, 30 years later.
Late in 1990, then-Sgt. Lehtonen received the alert that he was mobilizing to Saudi Arabia to fight in Operation Desert Shield.
Lehtonen was stationed in Baumholder, Germany, as a Howitzer gunner with Charlie Battery, 2nd Battalion, 29th Field Artillery, 8th Infantry Division, and said he remembers the overwhelming feeling that he and his fellow troops were ready to fight.
“Being in Germany at the time, the (Berlin) Wall had just fallen and we were prepared,” said Lehtonen. “That’s what our life was – preparing to go to war. I’ll never forget once we got the alert, as we were loading all of our gear in the motor pool, the battalion commander came to us and said, ‘I bet you guys think this is real now.’
“I remember thinking, ‘I always knew this was real,’” Lehtonen said. “That’s the mentality we had there. It was combat readiness at a very high level at that time.”
Only recently he traded his fatigues for khakis, retiring from the Army in 2017 as the command sergeant major of the Field Artillery – the senior enlisted leader to thousands of Field Artillery Soldiers – following a 32-year career.
He served in many roles throughout his career across the globe and on multiple combat deployments, but cited his experience in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm as foundational to his life and Army career.
Operation Desert Shield was the effort of a coalition of 35 nations to defend Saudi Arabia from Iraqi aggression. In the months to follow, Desert Shield transitioned to Operation Desert Storm — the combat phase of the Gulf War in which the allied coalition forces, led by the United States, liberated Kuwait.
Desert Storm began in the air in January 1991 with the relentless bombing of targets in and around Baghdad. The subsequent ground offensive lasted a mere 100 hours from the start of the assault Feb. 24, 1991, until a cease-fire ended the fighting on Feb. 28. It was a conclusive victory for the U.S.-led coalition.
“When the ground war kicked off, it was violent, loud and decisive,” said Lehtonen. “There was a lot of artillery firing and moving at night. You’re with your section and the battery you’ve been training with. It was the culmination of years of hard training.”
He left a wife and young son back home, and remembers the quiet moments when his mind would wander, but credits his leaders for keeping him focused on the mission.
“There are times when you think of the worst, but I had great leadership,” said Lehtonen. “My section chief, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Miller, then a staff sergeant, told us to give ourselves credit. Instead of thinking something bad can happen to us, he encouraged us to know it was the other guys who should be worried.
“This is a fight,” Lehtonen said. “We were bad. I’m telling you we were bad. And we proved that.”
Lehtonen and his battery were part of the “left hook” ordered by Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf to cut off Iraqi retreat and confront the Republican Guard forces in Kuwait. During Desert Shield, Lehtonen said that U.S. military personnel were ordered not to fly the American flag. That quickly changed at the onset of Desert Storm.
“We were not an occupying force,” he said. “We were told not to display the U.S. flag at first, but when the ground war kicked off, there were American flags going up everywhere. There was an incredible sense of pride, power and unity, not only with Americans, but also our allied forces.”
Lehtonen affixed a small flag to the M109A2 self-propelled Howitzer he was assigned, where it flapped as his battery traversed hundreds of miles of barren desert framed by a blackened sky, blotted out by Iraqi military forces setting fire to Kuwaiti oil wells. He preserves it to this day in a sealed Ziploc bag, frayed, but no less cherished.
“This was before we wore the American flag on our uniforms,” he said. “Seeing the flag over there was a reminder that I was a part of something bigger than myself. To be able to look at this flag today and touch it is amazing to me. All the memories come flooding back when I hold it. I feel like I am part of the American flag and it is part of who I am”
Many of the senior military leaders at the time were Vietnam veterans, which Lehtonen believes helped shape the battle and also the sentiment among Americans back home.
“I’ll never forget the first time I heard the National Anthem when we got back; ‘The rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air.’ I lived that. I was delivering that. And it was coming back at us. It was like, ‘Now I get it.’”
Lehtonen said he gained immense trust and respect for military and civilian leaders during the Gulf War that lives with him to this day.
“We’re in the middle of the desert,” he said. “We didn’t have a return date set, but we were told we wouldn’t be there any longer than we needed to be. Sure enough, we did our job and didn’t spend an additional day there before we were sent home.”
Though he briefly considered leaving the Army following his return from the Gulf in the summer of 1991, Lehtonen said the feeling was short lived.
“I could have gotten out soon after we redeployed back to Germany,” he said. “But I couldn’t bring myself to walk away. It was the people. The Soldiers, leaders and civilians who inspired me to stay. How can you not want to be part of this organization?”