After 30 years, Maj. Gen. Bob Harter still remembers how it felt to step off the plane in Saudi Arabia in June 1991.
“I always remember getting off that plane for the first time,” Harter, Army Materiel Command’s chief of staff, said. “Every time I land in that region now, that memory comes back to me.”
Harter was a first lieutenant serving as a platoon leader in a howitzer battery in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Bad Hersfeld, Germany, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading to Operation Desert Shield and subsequently Operation Desert Storm.
One of the memories that sticks out to him is when the operation started. When the air strike began, Harter remembers being in Grafenwoehr.
“We went on full alert,” he said. “We stopped everything we were doing in Grafenwoehr. We all got in our vehicles and road marched the 200 kilometers back to Bad Hersfeld and went into a defensive posture. I remember thinking holy cow, this is the real deal.”
Four months later, his unit was alerted to deploy to Saudi Arabia. While the fighting had stopped by that point, his unit moved from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait, establishing the border to ensure the Iraqi forces did not penetrate their defense. Navigating this path presented challenges.
“In Germany, we had no GPS,” Harter said. “We had no navigation by satellite system. We were doing everything by map, which is easy to do in Germany where you have forests and roads, and everything is well-marked. You get out into that Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti desert, there is nothing.”
Harter said his unit was issued Precision Lightweight GPS Receivers, commonly known as “pluggers.” This system only worked when the satellites were perfectly aligned. He said when the system went down, the unit would navigate by compass. He would direct one vehicle to drive about 200 meters, while talking to the driver to make sure the vehicle was lined up on the right azimuth. Then, the rest of the unit would move forward.
“Then you would kick it out again, as far as you could see, get it aligned and you were just leap frogging, because there were no terrain features in the middle of the desert,” he said. “You had no clue where you were (while) looking at a map.”
Thirty years later, Harter still uses lessons he learned as a first lieutenant serving in Desert Storm. He said his experience taught him how combat arms Soldiers think, as well as what it takes to support maneuver formations. Serving as a field artillery officer and an ordnance officer early in his career has helped him better understand what Soldiers need.
When he deployed in 2016 while serving as the commander of the 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, he delivered units 155 millimeter rounds similar to how he delivered munitions as an ordnance officer years ago.
“I understood exactly what they were doing with those rounds once they got them, I understand how badly they needed them and what it took to get them there,” he said.
He also learned important lessons about readiness. When he served in Germany, the Berlin Wall had just fallen and the Soviet Union was still viewed as a threat. All of a sudden, the Army responded to threats from the Middle East. He remembers this shift from the Cold War to the need for worldwide readiness.
“It taught me that you have to be ready no matter what. You never know where the threat is and who’s going to be called,” he said.
Although much has changed, from technology to the composition of units, he said Soldiers haven’t changed.
“You had kids from Queens and kids from Arkansas and they all came together to form this cohesive unit. We were all together, didn’t know what we were going to face once we got into the Middle East,” Harter said. “Those same young men I was with as a young lieutenant, they are cut from the same metal and cloth as the young kids we have today.”