U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR) recognized the service and sacrifice of Major General (retired) Ron Chastain in ‘Salute to Veterans,’ a series recognizing the military service of Arkansans.
Chastain was born in Paris, Arkansas on October 18, 1950. He enjoyed his childhood in Branch along with his 11 brothers and sisters, two of whom also served in the military. His father was a contract painter and his mother raised Ron and all his siblings while tending to the home. Growing up, the children all helped out with chores around the house and on the family farm.
Chastain attended Arkansas Tech University after high school where he met his future wife, Pam Berry, from Dover. At ATU he was required to join ROTC. During his sophomore year, he received a low draft number and continued participating in the ROTC so he could serve as an officer. Because the Vietnam War was winding down by the time he graduated college, fewer lieutenants were needed so he was given the choice of serving for three months or two years. He opted for the shorter service because he had a job lined up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Unfortunately, while he was training at Fort Benning, Georgia, President Richard Nixon issued a federal hiring freeze, so his position with the USDA was no longer an option.
Chastain changed his plans and started working toward his master’s degree at the University of Arkansas while also being encouraged by a retired major to join the National Guard, so he became a member of the 142nd Field Artillery Group in Fayetteville.
When the federal hiring freeze was lifted, he discontinued pursuing his master’s and took a job with the USDA. It wasn’t long before he joined the 39th Infantry Brigade as a lieutenant in the company in nearby De Queen.
After serving as a platoon leader, he was eventually named company commander.
“It was kind of interesting that my civilian office was just diagonal across the intersection from the National Guard Armory in Mena and so I’d go over and visit with them during break,” he said.
Over the next few years, Chastain served in a number of leadership positions including as company commander in Prescott, a logistics officer and an intelligence officer, and with units in Malvern, Ozark, Clarksville, Little Rock, North Little Rock and Camp Robinson. After moving to Conway, he was most appreciative of being able to come home after drill and spend the night with his family. “I can tell you living in Central Arkansas makes all the difference for officers in the National Guard.”
Chastain assumed leadership of the 25th Rear Area Operations Center and before they had even been through an exercise, he was alerted of their deployment in support of Operation Desert Shield and mobilized at Fort Hood, Texas.
It was supposed to be a quick turnaround. “We only had time for weapons qualification, drawing equipment and getting our protective masks tested,” Chastain said. But he and his troops were “stuck” at Fort Hood while planes were flying other troops to the Middle East.
Chastain flew on a C-5 military transport, and while in the air to Saudi Arabia, the next phase of the Gulf War – Operation Desert Storm – had started.
He and his troops deployed with the 18th Airborne Corps. They were given the mission of setting up a logistics base in Iraq. He remembers the harsh elements like sandstorms, traveling in total blackout, and a close encounter with an Army cobra attack helicopter.
After the land war ended and his troops returned to the base in Saudi Arabia, he said there were a lot of challenges. “That’s when my problems really started as the unit commander, because everybody was in a hurry to get home, and everybody was tense.” Chastain’s teams oversaw finding locations for vehicles to be cleaned and stored before being shipped out, taking care of the air bases for personnel, and clearing the Desert Shield area to the expectations of Saudi Arabia. After his team had done everything to the standard of the 18th Airborne Corps, he and his unit were sent home and demobilized at Fort Hood.
Chastain continued to demonstrate his incredible leadership as he moved up the ranks. In 1995 he became executive officer at the 39th Infantry Brigade. In this role he was selected for the Army War College, which he says was “the hardest two years I think I’ve ever had in my life.”
Chastain later served as the brigade deputy commander before commanding the brigade. While Chastain was preparing for a Joint Readiness Training rotation, he learned he and the rest of the 39th Infantry Brigade would be deploying to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In Iraq, Chastain’s team suffered several casualties early on. “We knew it was going to be a long year.”
He had the largest area of operations of any of the 1st Cavalry Division at Taji Air Base, which came with increased responsibility. “It was dangerous. You could do everything right and still get hurt.” He recalled one incident when a grenade hit directly behind his vehicle and exploded, narrowly missing him.
One of the key tasks was to train the Iraqi Army. “If we were going to use them on a mission, we’d typically not tell them what we were going to do until right before the mission, because they were liable to call the folks we were after,” Chastain said.
For this deployment, Chastain was away from his civilian job at the USDA for 22 months. “I was fortunate working for the Department of Agriculture,” but it was “pretty traumatic for a lot of other folks,” he said.
Chastain remained the 39th Infantry Brigade commander for more than five years as a result of the war. At the end of that extension, he was promoted to Major General and assigned to Wartime Chief of Staff for U.S. Forces – Korea.
Former Governor Mike Huckabee appointed him Adjutant General of the Arkansas National Guard in 2006.
He later served as Deputy Commander, Reserve Component at Forces Command in Atlanta. During this time, he traveled across the country visiting mobilized guard units.
After 38 years of military service commanding units in two different wars, Chastain retired from the Arkansas National Guard. He was recognized for his distinguished service with awards including the Army Distinguished Service Medal, two Legions of Merit and two Bronze Star medals. He was also inducted into the Arkansas Military Veterans’ Hall of Fame in 2014.
“It’s not always the highest rank that you make that is the most fulfilling. The most fulfilling assignment I’ve ever had was as commander of the 39th Brigade,” Chastain said of his time in the military.
Following his distinguished military career and successful career at USDA, he continued his public service as a member of Senator Boozman’s staff where he served as an agriculture liaison. He also taught elementary students across the state about the history and proper care of the American and Arkansas flags.
“Major General Chastain has led a life devoted to his country, state and community. I am thankful for his military service to our nation, and his civil service to Arkansas and his steady guidance during his time on my team. He is an excellent example for all Arkansans and Americans to follow. I am proud of this servant leader and all he has accomplished and am honored to call him a friend,” Boozman said.
Boozman will submit Chastain’s entire interview to the Veterans History Project, an initiative of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center to collect and retain the oral histories of our nation’s veterans.