WASHINGTON — In the summer of 1990, then-Staff Sgt. Jim Gill stood in a hotel lobby and listened to President George H.W. Bush announce on television that the U.S. would send troops to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi control and prevent a possible invasion of Saudi Arabia.
Gill, a 25-year old infantry Soldier at the time, had just flown in to report to his new assignment at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
In the weeks that followed, the Blackshear native and members of 2nd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 24th Infantry Division faced a daunting challenge, one that they would execute with precision, first in the setup of a forward assembly center during Operation Desert Shield and then during the assault on Iraqi forces during Desert Storm.
Gill, a 57-year old executive vice president of Cornerstone OnDemand and general manager of software company SumTotal Systems Inc., reflected on his time during the Gulf War in advance of Desert Storm’s 32nd anniversary. As a member of 2nd Squadron, one of the first units to deploy, Gill joined about 500,000 U.S. troops that travelled to Saudi Arabia.
“I think it was a pivotal moment, as I look back on my 20 years in the Army to have a substantial deployed time period where you were actually in a position to execute what you've trained for,” Gill said. “And you had the opportunity to execute against all that rehearsal, all of that training. For me, as a Soldier, that was the pivotal point of achievement at the small unit level.”
Desert Storm began on Jan. 17, 1991 when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein refused to withdraw Iraqi forces that invaded Kuwait.
Fortunately for Gill, his experience during the end of the Cold War prepared him for the conflict. He spent time as a cavalry scout patrolling along the East and West German border and had grown accustomed to shifting to other missions on short notice. He had also trained in jungle operations in Panama and completed Air Assault School at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Gill served as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the tactical operations center during invasion. The 2nd Squadron fought as part of a 31-country coalition force comprised of U.S. troops and forces from the Middle East and Europe. With little established infrastructure and without the use of GPS, Soldiers during the 1991 operation navigated with maps and field intelligence.
For the first five months before Desert Storm, Gill and 2nd Squadron members lived in makeshift living quarters. They built latrines and burn pits by hand while enduring sweltering desert heat.
After 2nd Squadron crossed into Iraq on a February night in 1991, Gill’s role quickly changed. A Bradley Fighting Vehicle broke down during the ground assault of Iraqi forces and fell behind his unit.
Gill assumed command of the Bradley to help navigate the vehicle through enemy territory in a darkened desert. After about eight hours, the Bradley eventually reunited the rest of 2nd Squadron.
“It was challenging because I knew that the mission depended on me rejoining the main force,” Gill said. “And I was responsible for the lives and welfare of that crew. I had a great crew, I had a great driver and a great gunner.”
Weary after weeks of walking through burning Iraqi oilfields in thick protective gear, the radio announcement of the cease fire on Feb. 28, 1991 brought much needed relief to Gill and fellow coalition troops.
“You haven't had sleep for days, so you had the feeling of calm and the chaos, and then you had a pause of this chaos that you've been under,” Gill said. “But even the stress of all those months leading up to it, there's a feeling of not just relaxation, but just having chance to breathe. Then that quickly goes away, because you still have enemy forces out there.”
The feelings of euphoria subsided as Gill reflected on the 219 U.S. troops that did not survive, including members of the 24th Infantry Division that Gill fought alongside.
“We lost some great Americans,” he said.
During Desert Storm, U.S. forces and 40 allied nations engaged in more than 18,000 air deployment missions, attacking the Iraqi military with over 116,000 combat sorties and more than 88,000 bombs. The U.S. followed the six-week air assault campaign with 100 hours of ground fighting.
For the first time, American forces used the MIM-104 Patriot missile system to intercept and destroy Scud missiles, theater-range weapons developed by the Soviets and used by the Iraqis. The Raytheon Company developed the Patriot as a surface-surface air missile system. The U.S. and allied forces ended the Gulf War relatively quickly due to strong leadership from President Bush and Army leaders as well as an organized and prepared force, Gill said.
“[Desert Storm] showed a moment in time where we needed a unified resolve as a nation to confront an after state in Iraq that was invading a sovereign country,” Gill said. “It showed … as a nation when we come together, we can accomplish anything. When you have that type of support as a country, then it enables the Army to actually do what it's good at; seizing land and land power and winning decisive victories. And you had senior leaders in the Army that responded with a ready force.”
Gill also credited the U.S. victory from lessons learned during the Vietnam War. Several older Soldiers from that conflict contributed to the coalition forces’ success.
Gill’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. Glynn Pope and Sgt. Maj. Jean Soucey both served in Vietnam. Soucey, a Special Forces veteran, taught members of the 2nd Squadron about the importance of small unit leadership and helped prepare them for the battle against Iraq.
“He had seen combat and he was a very instrumental leader for our squadron,” Gill said.
Gill said both Soldiers taught his unit the importance of preparation for contingencies, adaptation to field conditions and building trust at the small unit level. In Desert Storm, the U.S. military brought a mostly all-volunteer force, compared to rapidly-built units by a military draft for Vietnam.
“The lesson they imposed on us is be prepared for the unexpected,” Gill said. “When you get punched in the mouth … things are going to change and it’s going to be very chaotic. Go back to your training and if everybody practices and executes their own job then you will achieve mission success and you will take care of people.”
Gill spent the last eight years of his career as a recruiter before retiring in 2003. He still keeps in touch with Soldiers he served alongside during Desert Storm, including members of his Bradley crew. Gill and retired Lt. Col. Joe Barto started a Hampton Roads, Virginia-based organization called TMG Government that helps veterans transition from the military to civilian life.
Gill said the skills he learned in the Army remain with him today. Now he volunteers his time to speak at local American Legion veterans’ events. He also promotes diversity and inclusion and creates opportunities for veterans, women and disadvantaged people at Cornerstone, a software provider and learning technology company.
“Leadership is the fundamental ability to have empathy for people, and to influence a group of people to accomplish a mission of taking those lessons,” Gill said. “Trust is the most critical currency of any organization; the ability to build trust, and to apply those values we learned in the Army, which are selfless service, respect, dignity … those types of things are fundamental in any organization you go into, whether it's a military or a civilian organization.”