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New commander at Md.'s Aberdeen Proving Ground

Wednesday - 9/5/2012, 12:59pm  ET

MELODY SIMMONS
The Daily Record of Baltimore

ABERDEEN, Md. - Good things come in small packages.

That's the mantra of Major Gen. Robert S. Ferrell, the new commanding general of Aberdeen Proving Ground, whose leadership, six months into his latest assignment with the U.S. Army, comes at a time when the suburban base has just completed a historic expansion under the Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, process.

At 5-feet-6-inches today, Ferrell recalled that he barely made it into the Army in 1977 when he was a 99-pound teenager, even though his family's legacy in the service prompted him to apply as an 11th grader in Newark, N.J.

"I went to basic training and was told twice, `We're going to send you home because we didn't think you're cut out for the military," he said recently during a wide-ranging interview at The Daily Record about his new assignment and his goals at APG.

"At that time I told my drill sergeant, `I have a father that served in the Korean War, Vietnam War, a brother in the 82nd _ how would I look as an Army reject?'"

Today, his chest decorated with bars and stars and other badges of high recognition _ most notably the Bronze Star, the Defense Superior Service Medal and the Legion of Merit _ Ferrell leads the Army's CECOM, or Communications- Electronics Command, which oversees management of the Army's battlefield-related communication systems worldwide.

Ferrell said his early challenges have motivated him through the years to advance in the military's ranks. He has served in several units in the U.S. as well as in Korea and Europe, and was deployed to Iraq.

He tells a life story using the acronyms and bureaucratic lingo of military speak, but taken as a whole, it shows an evolution into the top gun's office at APG on Feb. 9, months after 20,000 employees had set up shop on base following two years of BRAC moves. Many outside of Harford County are unaware of the total impact of BRAC on the region, he acknowledges.

Ferrell, 54, is an optimist, and he says that helps as he spends time monitoring Pentagon budget cuts as a way to stay nimble from a military standpoint to "be ready and positioned for the next conflict."

He is looking to boost opportunities for returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan and establish links with the community outside the base to help recruit a new generation of civilian and enlisted workers at APG. He is also dedicated to developing the next generation of military leaders through training.

"What we're trying to do is reduce the gap of misunderstanding and provide more streamlining if you need something done on the installation," he said. "My first snapshot of Aberdeen was `wow,' because this is a great place to be. You've got a community that strongly supports the families and their workforce."

Ferrell said that APG is "viewed as the keystone" for the U.S. Department of Defense in five areas _ the public health command, the Army test and evaluation command, the research and development command, the chemical and biological command, and the massive new cyber intelligence post, known in military speak as C-4ISR.

"With those five areas we said, OK, how do you stay relevant?" Ferrell said. "We are looking at programs in all of the areas, like in the medical command _ we want to know how to prevent the spread of disease amongst the workforce. In test and evaluation, we are looking at off-the-shelf technology for the next conflict. We want to see how to test and evaluate those to put the best and the brightest equipment in the hands of our men and women."

Several private defense contractors who have located offices inside and outside the APG gate over the past couple of years have set up research and development links with APG to cash in on BRAC-related technological development. Such alliances are also on Ferrell's radar screen as he works to help keep the inventions _ which range from tiny robotic devices to cyber spying tools _ flowing under the newly established programs.

"We call it the Enhance, Use or Lease Program, or EUL," Ferrell said, of the "tenant units" that total 80 at APG.

"There are 416 acres on APG that we have set aside in this EUL to where they are going to build out eventually over time a corporation-type headquarters on the installation. Right now there is the GATE community (located at the APG main gate, owned by St. John Properties Inc.) that has tenants from Boeing to Raytheon to SAIC. They're on base, they're with us, they're embedded.

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