Transformational time for Aberdeen Proving Ground

The last time Aberdeen Proving Ground ramped up in a big way, the military base was dotted with wooden barracks, temporary homes for soldiers testing artillery and learning how to handle bombs before shipping off to fight in World War II.

This time, the base's expansion involves glassy new office buildings that wouldn't be out of place in a business park, civilians with advanced degrees and thousands of new jobs in technical fields ranging from medical research to software development.

The national base realignment and closure effort, commonly known by the acronym BRAC, is doing more than just adding heft to Harford County's largest employer. It's accelerating APG's shift into a high-tech hub.

As degreed workers move in, many uniformed soldiers are heading out. The Ordnance Center and School, which trained the Army's mechanics and maintenance specialists for years at the proving ground, moved to Virginia last year.

Quite a change for the base dubbed the "Home of Ordnance."

"It's just a major transformation," said Gary Martin, executive deputy to the commanding general at the APG-based Research, Development and Engineering Command. "This place used to be crawling with … students from the ordnance center. They've been sort of the mainstay of Aberdeen, [and] they're all gone. What's replacing them is an extremely technical and professional work force."

The base has always had a core of highly technical staff, people who used the world's first general-purpose electronic computer — shipped there in 1947 — and the country's first supersonic wind tunnel. But a key piece of the technical focus was testing: the "proving" in proving ground. What's really growing under the base realignment changes is research and development.

The base employed about 15,000 in 2005, when the Department of Defense announced that APG would lose its approximately 3,000-student ordnance school and gain large organizations specializing in high-tech work as part of changes to military installations nationwide. By next September, the base is slated to employ about 22,000. And state economic development officials expect thousands more will work as contractors nearby within a few years.

Many of the new employees are coming from Fort Monmouth, N.J., which is shutting its doors next year. Some are leaving bases in other states, while others are local hires. And most employees have security clearances.

Profound changes

Col. Andrew B. Nelson, deputy garrison commander for transformation at APG, said the new types of jobs will change the Harford County community more profoundly than the employment numbers alone would suggest.

Before, the soldiers who came to Aberdeen to attend the ordnance school, many of them fresh from basic training, were just passing through. They didn't spend much time in the region, Nelson said. They lived in barracks. They ate at the mess hall. When they went off base, they took a bus.

Today, the newcomers arriving in Maryland are buying homes, driving on local roads and enrolling their kids in school. State and local officials are grappling with how to make sure can they can handle the challenge.

"It's going to change the face of the community, and I think it's an exciting change," said Maj. Gen. Nick Justice, senior installation commander and commanding general of the Research, Development and Engineering Command.

On base, the buildup is dramatic.

The federal government is pouring $1 billion into new buildings, to be completed by next September, which is creating work for firms in the hard-hit construction sector. Recent additions include the snazzy headquarters for communications and information-technology organizations under an umbrella known as C4ISR — short for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.

Its expansive complex of eight buildings, clustered around a courtyard with a reflecting pool, has cutting-edge features such as geothermal heating, dual-flush toilets and lights that automatically brighten or dim depending on the amount of sunlight filtering in.

"It's a mini-Pentagon," said Barney Michel, who works for Joint Research and Development, an APG contractor.

And it's light years away from what Michel found when he was transferred to the base as a government employee in 1983.

"The installation suffered from the overall lack of funding after the wind-down of the Vietnam War, and it showed throughout the entire installation," said Michel, president of the Army Alliance, a local group that works to support the base. "I don't want to be pejorative, but quite frankly when I came to Aberdeen Proving Ground … it was a bit of a backwater."

Soldiers replaced cows

The proving ground sprang to life with a literal bang during World War I. The military came to Harford County to build munitions-testing facilities in an area close to industrial centers but not cheek-by-jowl with homes. (Munitions tests are boomingly loud.)

The farmers who owned the land, which is hugged by the Chesapeake Bay, didn't want to leave. Congress and President Woodrow Wilson insisted, however, and about 3,000 people and 12,000 animals were relocated by the time construction began in the fall of 1917.

Within a few months, it was the equivalent of a small city. Train tracks wound through the base. Barracks rose to house thousands of soldiers and civilians. Men tested artillery, trench mortars and other weapons around the clock. Soldiers at the nearby Edgewood Arsenal, which later merged with the Aberdeen installation, manufactured mustard agent and other chemical weapons.

Employment peaked during World War II with about 33,000 military and civilian workers at APG and 8,800 more at Edgewood Arsenal. Many stayed only briefly, so the total number of people passing through was even higher. More than 45,000 enlisted men graduated from the ordnance school during that war alone.

When the fighting ended, employment dropped. It rose again during subsequent conflicts but never to the level seen during World War II.

The base also struggled with challenges that left nearby residents anxious about their safety. Unexploded ordnance was buried everywhere. More than 1,600 tons of mustard agent — debilitating and potentially lethal — needed to be safely disposed of. A rocket-fuel ingredient that had been stowed underground polluted the nearby city of Aberdeen's wells.

In 1989, the federal government added Aberdeen to the Superfund's National Priorities List, an effort to clean up the most serious hazardous-waste sites in the country.

Since then, the Environmental Protection Agency says, contaminants have been brought under control in one part of the sprawling base while cleanup work continues elsewhere. The base announced in 2005 that the last of its mustard agent stockpile had been dissolved.

"The waters up here in the north are the cleanest waters of the Chesapeake," said Col. Orlando W. Ortiz, commander of the U.S. Army Garrison at the base, citing a University of Maryland analysis.

Call Mayflower

A new challenge: BRAC. It will take the equivalent of 1,200 moving vans to get everything in C4ISR's headquarters from New Jersey to Harford County, the Army says. One-tenth of the equipment and supplies have been moved so far.

Not all the Fort Monmouth staffers will be relocating along with their employer.

"We expect we will move about 50 percent of the work force," said Maj. Gen. Randolph P. Strong, commanding general of C4ISR's largest organization, the Communications-Electronics Command. "So we have a few thousand people we'll need to hire."

His organization — filled with scientists, engineers, IT specialists and analysts — is heavy with jobs requiring advanced degrees. And nearly 90 percent require security clearances.

Around 2,500 of C4ISR's early movers and new hires are already on base, including Stephanie M. White, 48, who transferred to APG in July from Fort Monmouth. The business development coordinator arrived before her department's new offices were ready, which meant a few months in cramped trailers.

The gleaming building she moved to in October is still fairly empty. But that's one of many things on post that will soon change.

"We're still just pioneers over here, waiting for the rest to come," White said.

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