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From Fighter to Farmer: Chief Master Sergeant Bob Huttes

In June 2011, the son of an Illinois construction worker began a journey that took him to a remote corner of the world: Paktia Province, Afghanistan. For the next year, Chief Master Sergeant Bob Huttes, appropriately nicknamed Farmer Bob, taught Afghan farmers how to improve production methods.

While Huttes volunteered for the mission, the forces that brought him to Afghanistan were much bigger than his personal desire to bring beneficial change to the region. Ironically, one of the first catalysts for the Afghanistan mission was the desire of a dictator to destroy the very freedoms that Huttes would eventually serve to protect.

1930 to 1946

The events leading up to the 1930s created the perfect set of conditions for a dictator like Adolf Hitler to come to power.

Germany’s defeat in World War I not only humiliated the German people but also crippled the economy by requiring enormous reparations. The New York stock market crash confounded the situation by sparking a worldwide economic crisis. By 1932, 6 million Germans were unemployed.

Despite his frightening rhetoric against Jews, Hitler’s promise to return Germany to greatness was incredibly appealing to the German people. This hopeful promise, alongside great shows of force against all enemies, led to Hitler becoming the Fuhrer. Under this self-proclaimed title, Hitler embarked on a war with two fronts. One was to destroy the Jewish people and create an Aryan race. The other was to recapture land lost in World War I and eventually expand the German empire.

These actions, by a man who in many eras would be labeled a madman, had enormous ripple effects. An estimated 50 to 80 million people lost their lives because of World War II, including 6 million Jews. Despite the U.S. being a latecomer to World War II, 16 million Americans served, and roughly 400,000 died.

Those who were lucky enough to make it home did not return as the same bright-eyed soldiers who went into battle. The physical and mental scars forever changed this generation of young men.

One of those young men was John Huttes (Bob Huttes' father).

The 22-year-old from Illinois served as an Army medic in France and Germany. When the European theater ended, John Huttes and his comrades boarded a troop carrier, but they weren’t going home. They were headed to the Pacific through the Panama Canal.

While en route, the news came that President Truman had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

“He spoke of how many rifles were thrown overboard in celebration,” recalls Bob Huttes about his father. “The soldiers had been through hell and believed they were going to a worse place, if that was possible.”

Instead, the ship was diverted to North Carolina.

While stationed at Fort Bragg, John Huttes met Margaret Bissett, who was working as a waitress at the base. It must have been love at first sight because the two were married in less than two months.

“Dropping the bomb formed our family. If his ship hadn’t gone to North Carolina, he never would have met my mother,” says Bob Huttes, about his parents, who are both deceased now.

In a time dominated by hatred, pain, suffering, and loss, there was also love. As John and Margaret proved, not all of the ripple effects were negative. In fact, one small but powerful one created after the war would better the lives of a people who desperately needed it.

1979 to 1991

bob basic training
Bob at basic training.
After graduating from high school in 1979, Bob Huttes decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and enlist in the military. He selected the Illinois Air National Guard because the complex equipment used in the Air Force intrigued him.

Throughout his childhood, Huttes helped his father run a small concrete and construction business in Pana, Illinois. This started a lifelong love of tinkering, which he eventually turned into a career.

Huttes' first full-time job, following a two-year degree, was as an aerospace ground equipment mechanic. “I worked on everything that plugged into planes, including air compressors, hydraulic units, turbines, gas engines, and diesel engines,” he says. “I had a wide range of mechanical skills.”

These skills would also serve Huttes well in the next chapter of his life.

One cold night in January 1984, Huttes went out with friends after work. That evening he met Marilyn Mitchell.

Marilyn says it was Bob’s personality that drew her to him. “He’s so outgoing, loving, and caring,” she says. “He would do anything for anybody.”

Huttes was equally smitten. In September 1985, the two were married in Marilyn’s hometown of Sprague, Nebraska.

Babies were next. Morgan was born in 1988, and Zane followed two years later.

Bob and Marilyn
Marilyn and Bob.
After their second son was born, the couple made the decision to move to Sprague and join the family farming operation. “I had a great life growing up on a farm and wanted my kids to have the same,” says Marilyn.

Marilyn’s father, Don, and her brother, Mike, taught Huttes how to farm. The partnership was far from a one-way street.

“He’s a jack-of-all-trades, so he helped immensely on the farm with his mechanical skills and ability to grasp knowledge quickly,” says Marilyn.

“Everyone has different skills, and we use those to the best of our advantage,” adds Huttes.

Huttes' new focus on farming did not deter his dedication to the National Guard. “I loved the military and my role,” he says. So he transferred from the Illinois to the Nebraska Air National Guard, even though he had to take a reduction in rank to do so.

During the Gulf War, Huttes' unit deployed overseas to France and Turkey, where airplanes would refuel other military aircraft for the war effort. After completing required maintenance on the equipment, the mechanics could explore the surrounding area. While Huttes appreciated this chance to see a new part of the world, his best deployment was yet to come.

Bob and family
Farm partners include (from left to right) wife Marilyn, Bob, daughter-in-law Emily, son Zane, mother-in-law Maggie Mitchell, and father-in-law Don Mitchell.

2011 to 2012

In 1869, Henry Mitchell homesteaded 160 acres of land by Sprague, Nebraska, about 20 minutes south of Lincoln. His son, Clyde, passed the land on to his son, Glen, who passed the land on to Marilyn’s father, Don.

This is a typical transition not only for American farmers but also for farmers across the globe. Farmland and agriculture practices are passed down from generation to generation.

This was also true in Afghanistan. Traditional knowledge about local agriculture, including how to use the country’s ancient irrigation system, was passed down from father to son. Despite living in an arid desert, Afghan farmers earned a reputation for their ability to grow almonds, pomegranates, and pistachios.

Then, three decades of conflict destroyed this tradition.

"What happened is that there was fighting for 27 years. That’s a whole generation," says Gary Kuhn, the president of Roots of Peace, an NGO that focuses on sustainable agriculture in postconflict countries. "The typical scenario was the father had been killed and now the son was there trying to get the vineyard going. He was maybe 5 years old when he was running around the vineyards before the fighting started, and now he is trying to recollect what his father did. So, he kind of knew he had to do certain things, but they were a little bit off on everything."

Roots of Peace is one of a number of organizations, including the USDA, that has worked to strengthen Afghanistan’s agricultural sector.

“Generally in third-world countries like Afghanistan, the USDA sends in a team to teach farmers better ways to grow crops and raise livestock,” explains Marilyn.

However, some situations are deemed too dangerous for the USDA. With a resurgent Taliban and an increase in the number of civilian deaths, this was the case in Afghanistan in 2011.

Instead, the Nebraska National Guard put together a 58-person agriculture development team (shown below). Bob Huttes volunteered and was selected as a crop specialist with a livestock background. As the only farmer in the group, Huttesb quickly earned the nickname “Farmer Bob.”

Bob nebraska team

“Zane stepped up and took my place on the farm, which allowed me to leave for the year-long deployment,” says Huttes.

In June 2011, after a year of training, the task force arrived in Afghanistan.

While some areas of Afghanistan are fairly modern, Paktia Province, located in the mountains on the eastern edge, is “the most backwards area of Afghanistan,” according to Huttes. “They farm more like people did in Jesus’ time.”

Some small tractors could be found along the countryside. For the most part, work was done by hand with shovels and hoes. “A farmer might have a quarter-acre plot that he farmed,” says Huttes.

“They would harvest corn and put it on their flat-top, mud roof to dry. Their crop would be a little pile on top of the roof,” he continues.

Corn yields were low because most Afghan farmers broadcast seed, so Huttes taught classes on an agronomy basic: planting corn in rows.

“Every foot, poke a hole with a stick 2 inches deep, drop in a kernel, and step on it,” Huttes explained to the farmers who had never heard of planting in rows before. Each Afghan farmer who went to the class also received a bag of hybrid seed.

Bob mission
Bob on a mission in Afghanistan.
One of those farmers brought in two ears to the team that followed Huttes’ group. “The ear from the corn that was planted in a row looked fantastic. The broadcasted ear was tiny in comparison,” says Huttes “I hope some of those changes take hold. That’s the most basic thing, but that can change their lives immediately.”

The Afghan people were ready for this change, he says. “They were very receptive to these ideas. I’d go into a town and my interpreter would call to have the farmers gather around, and I’d have a herd around me,” says Huttes. “They just want to feed their family like I do and like you do.”

When he interacted with the Afghan farmers, Huttes had to watch what he said – but not for the reason you might guess.

“If you said you liked their shirt or jacket, they’d try to give it to you,” he explains. “They are a kind and giving people. They just live in a bad area.”


Bob and Morgan
Today, the family farm in Nebraska is going strong with 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans. Huttes and son Zane, 26, farm alongside Don and Mike. Son Morgan, 28, followed his father’s lead and joined the Nebraska Air National Guard, was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force, and is currently stationed in Georgia. (Bob and Morgan Huttes are shown at right.)

Like most farmers, Huttes is concerned with the low commodity prices. “We are trying to keep costs as low as we can just to survive,” he says. “We run older equipment and keep our buildings and equipment up in the off-season.”

Adapting Military Equipment: Bob Huttes uses his mechanical skills and knowledge of military equipment to get some heavy-duty, affordable equipment for the farm.

When he isn’t busy fixing machinery or adapting military equipment for a second life on the farm, Huttes gives back to the community.

“He’s very involved and puts his whole heart into everything,” says Marilyn about her husband of 31 years.

Since 1997, Huttes has been on the local fire district board. He currently serves as the president, overseeing three fire stations.

He puts his mechanical and construction skills to good use, spending hours fixing up the local community center so neighborhood kids have a place to play baseball and basketball.

As if that weren’t enough, Huttes is also on the board of trustees for the Sprague Community Church. “This little church and my faith are important to me,” he says.

Huttes did let go of one major commitment: He retired from the National Guard in 2013. “It was time to step away,” he says. “I had done what I needed to do and advanced as high as I could.”

However, he still dreams about going back to Afghanistan. “I’d go back in a minute,” he says. “I love my family, but it was a great, great year of my life. It was very enjoyable – if you could get past the dangerous part of it, and I was able to do that.

“There are good people all over the world. I was fortunate that God put my soul in central Illinois,” he continues. “The Afghans are also good people. It was great to go over there and try to help them.”

Going Back to Afghanistan: If given the chance, Huttes and a few members of his team would love the opportunity to go back to Afghanistan.

Read the stories of the other Fighter to Farmer winners here.

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