Retiring Aberdeen chief sets sights on family life Gen. Akin led changes at proving ground.


"At 3,000 meters, we were firing through the berms and knocking the damn turrets off," Maj. Gen. George H. Akin says to his top aides, describing how sophisticated American M1 tanks knocked off dug-in Iraqi tanks.

That's a war story, hot from the Persian Gulf, told over morning coffee. The lopsided tank battles with the Iraqis are good fodder for the brass.

"You're getting these strident calls from every bleeding heart liberal in the world, 'Cut the defense budget by half and give it all to the poor.' Ha!"

That's Akin, fighting his final administrative battles over a shrinking pot of military money after the Cold War.

"How many of you have grandchildren?" Akin, 57, asks during a recent chat with some of his civilian subordinates. "It's a great feeling when they load their britches and you hand 'em back."

That's Akin doing his turtle act -- hard on the outside, soft inside -- talking about his family again. He has four children and five grandchildren.

Akin, commander of Aberdeen Proving Ground, retires from the Army at the end of this month after nearly 35 years. For Akin, the Army has been a great job -- even an adventure -- but family is where his heart is.

A tall man with a firm handshake and a hint of a John Wayne gait, he could have graduated from the H. Norman Schwarzkopf School for Imposing Soldiers.

By all accounts, he has been a strong leader who worked to unify the Harford County military installation composed of dozens of separate organizations. He also has been praised for forcing change in how the proving ground approaches its complex environmental problems.

"I think we recognize that we have to live with our neighbors," Akin says.

Brig. Gen. Ronald V. Hite, 48, commander of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, has been named as Akin's replacement. White Sands is one of a number of test ranges from Alaska to Panama associated with the proving ground, which also houses the headquarters of the Army's Test and Evaluation Command, or TECOM. Akin, as Hite will, also serves as TECOM commander.

"He's a much quieter individual than I am," Akin says of Hite. "But there's no question the emphasis on [environmental issues] will still be there," he says.

One of the biggest environmental challenges in the coming years will be handling the public's opposition to a plan to incinerate obsolete mustard agent at the proving ground.

The 72,000-acre proving ground, with a work force of 14,300, is Harford's largest employer and pumps more than $600 million into the region's economy each year.

It is a hodgepodge of everything Army, from young soldiers jogging in formation before dawn to Ph.D.'s doing top-secret laboratory work in heavily fortified buildings. Its features range from golf courses and landscaped living areas for officers to weapons ranges set among vast tracts of marshes and woods harboring bald eagles, deer, beavers and ducks.

Known as the "Home of Army Ordnance," Aberdeen Proving Ground is heard more than seen by its neighbors. Windows and nerves on both sides of Chesapeake Bay have been rattled by the millions of rounds of ammunition that have been fired there.

It is a place where conventional weapons -- ranging from the bazooka to the M1 tank -- were developed. Nerve agents and other horrific chemical weapons also were developed there.

Over the years, the proving ground's research into weaponry has resulted in accomplishments that are not widely known.

The world's first electronic computer was assembled there in 1947, to make calculations for firing artillery. The proving ground also played a key role in developing the World War II-era Jeep.

The Edgewood area of the proving ground, formerly a separate installation called Edgewood Arsenal, houses the Army's lead chemical warfare center, which not only developed weapons but also the masks and other protective clothing worn by American soldiers in the Persian Gulf war.

Some impressive brainpower occupies many of the more than 2,000 buildings there.

Harry Salem, chief of toxicology at the Chemical Research, Development and Engineering Center, began working at the proving ground in 1984 after helping to develop the popular cold medicines NyQuil and Contac, as well as continuous-wear soft contact lenses.

William Dee, a scientist who also works at the chemical warfare center, is called the father of the Army's binary chemical weapons program. He has worked for several decades on the weapons, which use two non-lethal chemicals that form a deadly nerve agent when combined after being fired.

Army officials credit the weapons, designed to be safer for soldiers handling them, with helping to force the Soviets to negotiate the end of the chemical arms race.

As a top weapons-testing site and research facility since it was carved from prime farmland and duck-hunting grounds in 1917, the proving ground has seen the environmental implications of its mission result in costly problems. The climax came in 1989 when three of its top civilian managers were convicted in federal court of committing environmental crimes.

Akin is praised by regulators for taking charge of a messy situation.

"I almost call him the Schwarzkopf of the environment up there," says Richard F. Pecora, an assistant secretary for the Maryland Department of the Environment. Previous state administrations met only frustration in trying to deal with the Army over Aberdeen's environmental record.

Pecora has been a regular participant in monthly public briefings on environmental issues that Akin started soon after he took command in April 1988. The criminal case stemmed from environmental violations that occurred between 1983 and 1986.

"He's what I call a top-of-the-table guy. There's no hidden agenda," Pecora says.

The proving ground occupies the largest single tract of land in Maryland along Chesapeake Bay, Pecora says. Regulators must watch the proving ground closely, he says, to make sure its activities do not pollute the surrounding shallow waters that harbor a host of fish, birds and other wildlife.

Akin acknowledges that some of the problems, mainly the hundreds of old waste dumps requiring multimillion-dollar cleanup, are far from resolved. But he is quick to add that the proving ground has more than doubled its staff of environmental managers to 25 and given it more authority.

It also has spent more than $60 million on environmental programs in the past four years. Much of that money has gone for studying the extent of the contamination caused by the old dumps. Also, an effort is under way to use computers to track waste from generation to disposal.

Disposal areas are scattered throughout the entire proving ground, containing pesticides, chemical munitions and other waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has added the entire 13,000-acre Edgewood area to its Superfund list of the nation's most dangerous toxic dump sites. Manufacture and testing of chemical warfare agents have occurred there since World War I.

Regulators say they have found no indication that the contamination is fouling drinking water off the proving ground, but they add that monitoring will be necessary for decades.

Akin's handling of the environmental problems, which have received much media attention in recent years, caught the attention of the Pentagon brass.

Akin's approach "is a model for the rest of the Army to follow," says Lewis D. Walker, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and occupational health.

The 1989 trial involving the proving ground managers had a tremendous influence on forcing changes at the proving ground as well as other federal installations across the country, Walker says.

Dee, the chemical weapons scientist, was one of the three civilian managers convicted of environmental crimes.

One philosophy that emerged from the trial is that every worker is responsible for preventing pollution or responding quickly to problems. In that vein, Akin publicly recognizes workers who excel and admonishes those who do not.

"He's put the fear of God in some of them," acknowledges Francis Gurtner, president of a labor unit that represents civilian professionals in the proving ground's Edgewood area.

Akin was not above personally enforcing speed limits on proving ground roads -- or even golf etiquette. Once, he radioed from his perch in a helicopter to report a golfer who had failed to rake a sand trap after hitting from the bunker below.

He says he has no grand plans for retirement after he and his wife, Evelyn, leave Quarters One, the large stone commander's residence at the proving ground. He bought a house in Fort Worth, Texas, not far from his hometown of Henrietta. He wants to look after his elderly mother and father.

Says the general and family man, "I'm just going to quietly transition into civilian life."

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