Proving ground has new urgency

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When you're the commanding general of the military's premier research and testing installation, and its chemical and biological defense command, the aftermath of the nation's worst terrorist attack has a way of coming to rest squarely on your desk.

But the events of Sept. 11 have had a deeper impact on Maj. Gen. John C. Doesburg, head of Aberdeen Proving Ground and a 31-year Army veteran. "They've threatened Americans. It's something you take personally."

These days, Doesburg's "chem-bio" expertise takes him frequently to the Pentagon, where he has become an important resource on homeland defense.

"I guess adviser is an accurate portrayal," he said, adding that he does not necessarily foresee working closely with Tom Ridge, the new homeland security secretary. "Primarily, what I'm doing is for Department of Defense folks, to share the full range of [defense] possibilities."

The pace of work has picked up markedly at the 72,516-acre Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County since the September attacks. Development of high-technology field equipment is being put on the fast track. New generations of weapons are undergoing extensive testing. And training for military doctors and other health workers is being speeded up, with a focus on chemical warfare casualties.

Each day brings a briefing on additional funds coming in. "I'm losing track," said Doesburg.

A paratrooper by training, Doesburg, 54, was born in Milwaukee and grew up in an Army family. An expert on chemical weapons, he has testified before Congress and state legislatures on germ warfare and related issues.

What sets the current conflict apart for him is how closely it hits home. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he said, were carried out by "folks ... whose goal is to take as many lives as possible."

His goal, he says, is not "to allow them the opportunity to cause our nation not to be free."

Doesburg, who seems relaxed despite the harried pace around him, said some of the proving ground's 59 tenant organizations, military and civilian, have "capabilities [that] are one-of-a-kind in the United States - in some cases, the world. They become critical in a war on terrorism."

Among tenants moving to a faster track is the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command, APG's parent command, which Doesburg leads. Its missions include outfitting soldiers with the latest gear, researching protective measures against chemical and biological threats, and training the people who handle chemical, biological and nuclear incidents.

The command's Homeland Defense program trains the military as well as firefighters, police and emergency workers. Teams from Harford, Kent, Cecil and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City are among the localities that have trained with the command and take part in disaster-response drills several times a year. Doesburg said that because of the September attacks, "we're looking at doing them more frequently, just to keep our edge."

Another command project pushed harder these days is the Land Warrior program, which is carried out at Natick Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts, one of 14 command facilities in the nation.

The Land Warrior system puts a "digital envelope" over the field soldier, Doesburg said, to give him a technological edge on the battlefield. A scope flips down from his combat helmet and connects to a powerful, lightweight computer that provides access to 18 hours of global positioning data, maps, and thermal and infrared images.

Before Sept. 11, he said, the project's completion was set for about 2006. Now, he said, chuckling, "I suspect I'm on a much shorter time frame than that."

Doesburg said research partnerships between the military and companies would only be strengthened and expanded as a result of the current climate.

"What [Soldier and Biological Chemical Command] does is of national interest and will continue to be so," he said. "I think you're going to see that Aberdeen Proving Ground is really an impetus for high-tech in the surrounding counties, because we can't do it alone."

Elsewhere on the base, the Army Research Lab is conducting weapons tests, while the Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, run by the Army Medical Department, is stepping up training of military doctors and health personnel to treat chemical casualties, said spokesman Lloyd Roberts. A satellite version of the program, which could certify tens of thousands of participants, will be offered in the United States next month, he said.

At the Developmental Test Command, based at the proving ground, spokesman Gary Holloway said: "We haven't gotten any special work as of yet." He noted, however, that the test command's nine sites around the country have received high-priority assignments during past conflicts. During Desert Storm, for example, testers upgraded Patriot missile software so the missile could intercept Iraqi Scud missiles.

Aberdeen Proving Ground, as a developmental research center, has tested everything a soldier has used in the field since 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson called for placing the installation on the swampy shores of the Chesapeake Bay. The bazooka was invented here, as was the first digital computer.

The installation's Ordnance Center and Schools teach soldiers to fix vehicles and weapons.

"One of the missions here is the training of ordnance soldiers," said William Atwater, director of the Ordnance Museum. "Ordnance soldiers make sure stuff works. They are a very, very important element of the Army."

Soldiers will also pass through Aberdeen Proving Ground on their way to missions. Since World War II, Atwater said, the area has served as a processing center to help soldiers get papers in order and receive immunizations.

About 5,800 military and civilian personnel passed through the proving ground during Desert Storm, said George Mercer, chief of public affairs for the base. In the past few weeks, a National Guard company and platoon - about 175 soldiers - have trickled in before deployment in the United States and overseas, Doesburg said. He expects to see more.

Protecting this wide range of sites and services, as well as the installation's aging chemical weapons stockpile, has taken on even greater urgency for Doesburg, who has been the commanding general of Aberdeen Proving Ground for three years.

"The 11th of September told us that we were probably looking at terrorists wrong," he said. "It's obvious [now] ... that they have no moral code."

As a result, the base, which six weeks ago gave hunters, anglers, golfers and other civilians easy access to some areas, is now tightly secured.

"Security was already pretty high," Doesburg said, "but it's been increased because of the events of Sept. 11."

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