Robert “Bobby” Rumbaugh checks equipment in living quarters in Somalia. (Rumbaugh Family/Submitted)

Every paver at the Anthem Veterans Memorial tells a veteran’s story. Some stories are about heroism, some of courage, and some of sadness. This veteran’s story is about all of these things, and more.

Robert “Bobby” Rumbaugh joined the U.S. Army in 1990, while in high school. He had three dreams for his life: graduate high school, serve his country and become a truck driver. 

The Army promised he would drive trucks. His childhood was unsettling. At age 6 he was put up for adoption. He was adopted for a few years, but then became a ward of the state and entered the foster system. Like so many foster children, he moved from family to family, never attended the same school for long and didn’t have a sense of home. By middle school, Rumbaugh had learned to navigate a difficult and lonely world.

At a gathering of past and present foster children, he learned about a friend’s adopted family. They had adopted seven other children and the friend thought they may be a good fit for him. The family adopted Rumbaugh at age 14. He was finally able to stay at the same school, participate in activities and finish high school with a family who cared about him. 

After graduation, the Army sent him to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for basic training and advanced individual training. It was there he learned about navigating Army life and how to drive trucks. He was well on his way to completing his dreams.  

On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Five days later, President George H.W. Bush announced a military response, Operation Desert Shield, an organized coalition of 39 nations to defend Saudi Arabia and eventually to liberate Kuwait.  

Fortunately, in 1986, then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William J. Crowe anticipated a need for enhanced transportation methods. He had organized a steering committee to begin planning for a unified transportation command. One year later, President Ronald Reagan ordered the establishment command named The United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), “to provide global air, sea and land transportation to meet national security needs.” 

During peacetime, USTRANSCOM performed the day-to-day operations. The command also invested billions of dollars into equipment. The Army’s investments in ships, Abrams tanks, Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, Bradley vehicles and the Patriot missile system were justified in 1991. 

In December 1990, Rumbaugh was sent to the oldest continuously operating airfield of the U.S. Army, Fort Sill, Oklahoma. In two weeks, his training was tested in Operation Desert Shield, and he joined the new transportation model established for this reason.

“It’s one thing to polish boots, tidy barracks and learn how to drive various vehicles at an Army base,” Rumbaugh said.

“It’s another thing to get on a plane with no idea of where you are going and end up building a tent encampment in the desert.”

Desert Shield and Desert Storm were the first operations to prove USTRANSCOM’s capabilities as the deployment for these operations ranks among the largest in history. A Transcom report noted the area of responsibility initially included 504,000 passengers, 3.6 million tons of dry cargo and 6.1 million tons of petroleum products. The cargo included artillery, tanks, jeeps and semi-trucks. Rumbaugh was a part of history.

Ship after ship — with every possible piece of equipment a war might need — entered the Port of Jubail. After the equipment was unloaded, Rumbaugh helped transport the heavy equipment on semi-trucks to the various staging areas for the ground troops.

“A sea of equipment was offloaded from ships, waiting for our transport,” he said.

“We traveled in convoys, often driving with coalition team members, to get the equipment to the forward bases. The roads were rough, the work grueling and the days and nights began to blur together. We slept outside on the trucks and trailers, ate MREs (meals ready to eat) three times a day and logged a lot of miles. Luckily nobody in my company got hurt.”

The ground war

The airstrikes began Jan. 17, 1991, and Desert Shield became Desert Storm. On Jan. 24, the ground war began. 

Thrown into Operation Desert Shield, Rumbaugh and his fellow personnel had to quickly learn to drive civilian trucks with manual transmissions secured from Mack Truck and sent to the gulf. The Army trained them on automatic transmissions.

“If it hadn’t been for a few of the soldiers in my unit who had been civilian truck drivers, we wouldn’t have known how to operate these trucks. You should have seen us 19-year-old kids learning how to shift the brand-new day cabs driving up and down the port roads until we felt comfortable to head out through the desert,” Rumbaugh said.

Rumbaugh’s company moved out of the tent encampment to Khobar Towers, south of the city of Dammam, Saudi Arabia. The complex was acquired for coalition housing during Operation Desert Storm and subsequent years. The same towers were attacked June 25, 1996, killing 19 U.S. Air Force personnel and wounding 498 of many nationalities.

About 100 hours after the ground war began and after the three largest tank battles in American military history, Kuwait was liberated, and a ceasefire called. Notably, more than 730,000 U.S. military personnel were among those who participated in these operations. The U.S. Naval Institute noted “Desert Shield/Desert Storm was one of the most dramatic military operations in recent history and the first U.S. war fought after World War II outside the context of the Cold War struggle. It also was the first major modern campaign fought by an all-volunteer U.S. force.” 

After the war, Operation Desert Farewell began. Rumbaugh and his company drove to take the troops and useable equipment back to the ports to return to the United States. Even this operation brings back memories for him.

Along the two roads between Kuwait and Iraqi border 1,400 vehicles and other equipment were left burned or abandoned by drivers. Western journalists named these the “Highway of Death.”

“These images were surreal,” Rumbaugh said. “The horrific smells of fire, oil and death, the heat from burning vehicle fires and burning oil fields, the number of dead on the sides of the road are things that are tattooed into my brain. 

“We were conflicted. After the war, we worked 12-hour shifts day and night. We were driving and cleaning equipment six days a week for five months to get the job done, unable to process what we witnessed.

“The military is a different world. We all come from different backgrounds and walks of life. We really don’t share much except, perhaps, a hobby. Even that is strained as every other part of our lives are so different.  I always felt like an odd ball. Yet when we had to, we came together, we formed a company, we fulfilled our duties and completed our missions seamlessly.” 

By the end of 1991, Rumbaugh returned to Fort Sill. He left a war in a desert to relearn how to be a soldier on a base, with shoes and floors polished, uniforms pressed, daily inspections and formations.

“It was the dog-and-pony show, and we had to get squared away,” Rumbaugh said with a smile. “Eventually, our lives returned to a more normal routine. I started to adjust and began skateboarding again, hanging out with friends off base who shared that interest.”

In December 1992, Rumbaugh’s life changed again with orders to head to Somalia for Operation Restore Hope. 

“It didn’t appear there was hope to restore there. That deployment changed my life forever, and not in a good way,” Rumbaugh said.

“People didn’t want us or the allied nation coalition to be there. The relentless anger, the burning roadblocks, our vehicles under attack with rocks thrown by entire villages as we tried to avoid getting killed by furious mobs are images I can’t forget. We were in fear for our lives far too many times than not.

“I heard about the humanitarian efforts, and I know that is what made the news in the states. But honestly, I never saw any of that activity. I would have liked to have at least been a part of something positive there. All I saw was escalating anger and violence against us. I have never been the same after experiencing that.”

A darkness

After three months in the country, Rumbaugh was sent home before the end of Operation Restore Hope. A bleeding ulcer required medical attention stateside and truck driving affected his performance. He returned to Oklahoma before the company, and a new darkness overcame him. 

“It is difficult to process trying to help the people who wanted to kill us. It is even more difficult to live with the guilt of leaving your company before the task is complete. I wanted to be there, and I knew I should have been there. To this day, I have deep regrets about coming back before my company,” Rumbaugh said.

“I will never forget the faces of the returning soldiers. Since I was part of the deployment, I was told to wear my desert uniform to welcome them home. The cold shoulders and their looks left another scratch in my soul; my soul is scarred in many ways.”

Like so many veterans, Rumbaugh suffers the invisible wounds of war. The therapists and doctors at the VA come and go far too frequently, so consistency is lost from one year to the next. Now, over 30 years later, only a little peace exists within him.

His second dream of becoming a truck driver was first fulfilled in the Army and again upon his return. But, after 30 years of driving short and long hauls, “the loneliness and stress had taken its toll,” he said.  

Rumbaugh recently changed jobs for less than what he was making but is doing something he enjoys in Anthem. He is a woodworker, making shelves to ship nationwide. “I really like this job and the people there and I love being home every night.

“I know I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for my wife and kids. My wife is my best friend and the only person in the world who understands me. She has helped me more than anyone. I never thought I would make it this long.

“My son is a staff sergeant in the Army Airborne Infantry. He has served for about 12 years now and serves as proudly as I did. My daughter is married and works and lives in the Valley. I am blessed to have these amazing children who bring me happiness.”

Rumbaugh’s service was one of heroism, courage, sadness and deep pride. After fulfilling his three life dreams, Rumbaugh shares two more dreams.

“I don’t want people to forget about Desert Shield, Desert Storm or Somalia. I also want them to know that while veterans have participated in significant wars, we also participated in lesser-known operations with lasting physical and mental effects, even 30 years later — if we make it that long. I take it one day at a time.”

Veteran Mental Health Resources

The Veterans and their Families Crisis Line: Dial 988 and press 1 or text 838255. 

Arizona’s Crisis Services: 1-866-429-9397

Arizona Maricopa County Behavioral Health Services Hotlines: 1-800-631-1314

Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386

Veterans First: 602-841-7663