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

June 13, 1991|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Evening Sun Staff

"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.

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