General of a gadget command


A standing joke around the well-appointed office suite of U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John C. Doesburg is that he was 4 inches taller when he enlisted 35 years ago.

Considering the general's 350 parachute jumps - and the cumulative shock to his body meeting Earth - it is easy to see that the humor contains a large measure of admiration.

Doesburg, commander of the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, will retire today from the military.

At 57, he takes with him the satisfaction of forming and directing a unit that dreamed up and built a new generation of war gadgetry - and of working to better shield American troops in Humvees in Iraq.

"He is totally devoted to the soldier," said Maj. Victoria Kost, who has known Doesburg 15 years. "His interaction with troops, his trained ear, all of that went into his passion for upgrading the Humvee."

Research and development

Doesburg, a soft-spoken man, has been at APG for six years, helping to speed up research and development of new weapons and equipment, and taking charge of the research and engineering commands that were combined into the present Aberdeen unit.

Aberdeen specializes in research, development and testing of weapons and other equipment, from boots to helmets, for the Pentagon.

Doesburg has commanded 30,000 military and civilian personnel, managing an annual budget of $3.5 billion. His command includes eight high-tech laboratories around the country that are augmented by other research, development and engineering centers.

To this end, Doesburg has dispatched teams of scientists and soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan to listen to infantry soldiers tell what they need most.

One issue familiar to Doesburg is the continuing controversy over the Humvee, a vehicle that, critics say, has led to the deaths of many soldiers because it lacked adequate armor and was difficult to maintain in the brutal heat and landscape of Iraq.

President Bush has been criticized by Democratic Sen. John Kerry for sending inadequately armored vehicles to Iraq.

Armor kit for Humvees

Early in the war, Doesburg initiated a project in which a team of specialists designed and produced in 30 days an armored door and side kit for the vehicles.

Last year, his soldiers and civilians invented a protective vest for soldiers that can deflect automatic weapons fire and shrapnel more efficiently than a heavier predecessor.

And while a corporate CEO might measure product reliability from a focus group, Doesburg schedules a jump with paratroopers to ask them about equipment.

More gravity than rank

In the dynamic of military parachuting, the general finds a common bond with enlisted personnel.

"The situation erases rank. We're all depending on the equipment and each other," he said. "To me, being in situations like that is very important. I learn a lot from them."

Kost said she was a captain training new second lieutenants in Alabama in 1994 when the phone on her desk rang.

"It was the then-Brigadier General Doesburg asking me for permission to run with my lieutenants," said Kost, a 1989 West Point graduate who considers Doesburg both a friend and mentor. "He's playful, yet he's a visionary."

Doesburg lives on the sprawling APG installation with Denise, his wife of 32 years. The couple has two grown sons.

Benjamin B. Santos, a former Army Ranger working as a civilian in Doesburg's office, said the general is not one to stand on formality.

"When I first saw him, he was out there mowing his lawn, not something you see a general officer do every day," Santos said. "And when he and his wife entertain, the general is in the kitchen putting away the dishes."

Military from birth

Born in Milwaukee to an Army family, Doesburg lived in Pennsylvania, Texas, Germany, Oklahoma and Arkansas as a child and teenager. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1970 with a degree in chemistry.

In addition to commanding the Army's research and development arm, he is also the Army's top chemical officer. In another, top-secret section of Aberdeen, the Army tests defenses against chemical and biological weapons.

While he says he enjoyed serving several tours with the 82nd Airborne Division, Doesburg said he also "enjoyed the engineering and sciences, the technical end of the Army."

"Sometimes it is incredibly challenging to think out of the box," he said, "but that's where a lot of important answers are."

And the general likes to talk about those answers.


Among the more important inventions he has seen are a new anti-tank weapon that features less noise and "blowback" and a longer-lasting, more powerful zinc-air battery for soldiers who carry as many as 11 batteries for everything from night vision goggles to radios.

Aberdeen's research team also produced a tracked robot that checks under vehicles to detect explosives, keeping soldiers at a safe distance, and a "well cam," a 300-foot-long device that provides a 360-degree capability to searchers of caves and wells.

The Army is also awaiting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a device that, when connected to a Humvee exhaust system, can convert exhaust into drinkable water, Doesburg said. Other strides include a power bar called "Hooah" and a flameless ration heater for Meals Ready to Eat.

While at Aberdeen, Doesburg learned that the new Aberdeen High School was attempting to create a science and math academy.

"With the general's connections - and he knows tons of people - the academy became reality," said Aberdeen Mayor Douglas S. Wilson.

Upon retirement from the Army, Doesburg is to be replaced at the research command by Brig. Gen. Roger A. Nadeau.

Doesburg said he wants to land a job in the defense field: "I'd like to stay in R and D, in the chem-bio arena."

And will he continue jumping out of airplanes?

"Probably not," the general said with a smile.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad