Proving ground 'partnership' nurtured

September 13, 1992|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

One would think Aberdeen Proving Ground, which pumps nearly $1.5 billion into the region's economy each year, and Harford County, host of the huge Army installation, have been bosom buddies for decades.

Not so, says Warren T. Hartenstine, a well-known Harford businessman who also heads a county economic-development advisory board.

Until recent years, Mr. Hartenstine says, "we were cloistered societies. That has changed dramatically."

As a new commanding general takes charge of the 75-year-old, 72,000-acre Army weapons-testing and research center tomorrow, county government leaders and businesses will try to nurture what they now call a "partnership."

The new-found cooperation covers everything from the establishment of a joint Red Cross unit a year ago to a far more open discussion of the proving ground's long-standing environmental problems.

Increased cooperation -- which also covers education, trash disposal and water use -- began in the mid- to late 1980s, Mr. Hartenstine and others said. It grew under the two most recent commanders, Maj. Gen. George H. Akin, now retired, and Maj. Gen. Ronald V. Hite, who recently was reassigned to the Pentagon after 14 months at Aberdeen.

Brig. Gen. Richard Walter Tragemann, 49, a well-traveled soldier whose experience spans the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, takes the helm at a critical time for the proving ground, Harford's largest employer, and the county.

"It's a massive job," says General Tragemann, who has has never commanded an Army installation. "I've been preparing myself for the last 27 years."

About 8,800 civilians work at the proving ground, and about 5,400 military personnel are assigned there.

As the post-Cold War military cutbacks trickle down to the proving ground, the partnership between the proving ground and the county gains significance.

General Tragemann, whose last assignment was in the Army's Training and Doctrine Analysis Command at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., acknowledges that the economic outlook for all military installations is uncertain.

"That will be one of my biggest challenges -- to manage that downsizing," General Tragemann says.

Union officials at the proving ground were told recently that as many as 300 jobs at the weapons-testing unit could be eliminated over the next five years, and additional cuts are expected.

Proving ground officials, along with business and government leaders in Harford, say they have been trying to cushion the effects of the cutbacks by beefing up the installation's work in development of high-tech weapons and equipment of the kind that became so visible during the gulf war.

A recent success was the announcement that 300 civilian jobs associated with an Army lab unit and scattered among three states would move to APG by 1996.

The proving ground and its associated testing centers around the country will play a vital role "in making sure that the smaller Army will have very reliable equipment," General Tragemann says.

The changing relationship between the proving ground and the county has been attributed to many factors. The county grew rapidly in the 1980s, and proving ground activities, including noisy tests of artillery and other weapons, prompted more complaints and more efforts to resolve them.

A high-profile criminal trial in 1989 involving charges of improper handling of hazardous waste by three civilian executives of the Army's chemical weapons research unit at the proving ground spotlighted the installation's environmental problems, including dozens of old waste dumps. Local leaders and other citizens have involved themselves in a cleanup aimed at preventing problems at the proving ground from extending beyond its borders.

A plan to incinerate tons of obsolete mustard agent, part of the U.S. arsenal of chemical weapons, continues to cause tension.

And county leaders realized how important it was for them to push to ensure a healthy economic future for the proving ground.

The commander of the proving ground also is head of the Army's Test and Evaluation Command, which oversees testing of weapons and equipment at Aberdeen and seven other installations from Alaska to Panama.

General Tragemann, a native of Philadelphia and a 1965 graduate of West Point, has spent much of his military career as a field artillery officer. He received a Bronze Star for valor in 1970 for his actions in defending a fire-support base in Vietnam.

"I don't remember doing anything other than my job," General Tragemann says.

In the fall of 1990, he oversaw the deployment of 7,000 soldiers from the 18th Corps artillery units at Fort Bragg, N.C., to the Persian Gulf. In late November of that year, before the ground offensive to liberate Kuwait, he was assigned to Fort Leavenworth.

"That was the hardest thing I ever had to do -- to leave those soldiers," General Tragemann says.

The proving ground's commander usually stays for two or three years.

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