By Mr. Mark Schauer (ATEC)December 27, 2017
YUMA PROVING GROUND, Ariz.-- When Julio Dominguez started as a test engineer at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) in 1985, the new employee assumed he would soon return to the field his life and education had prepared him for: mining engineering.
Then life happened.
He and his family liked the Yuma community, and became prominent and respected members of it. Professionally, Dominguez, a proud Marine Corps veteran, thoroughly enjoyed meeting the challenge of testing much of the equipment within the ground combat arsenal to ensure it worked wherever a Soldier or Marine might depend on it, and rose through the civilian ranks to become the proving ground's technical director in 2009.
Now, after a more than 32-year career here, he has announced his retirement effective the first week of January.
"To me it is kind of bittersweet. I'm happy to be entering the next phase of my life, but I am not overjoyed about leaving YPG. It's been a great place to spend a career, more than anything because of the people I have had the privilege of working with. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it, gladly."
A significant portion of Dominguez's time at the proving ground was during the most dire days of combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where Soldiers and Marines saw threats from rockets and mortars, and then from devastating improvised explosive devices. The Department of Defense rapidly tested technologies to defeat these threats and rapidly fielded armored vehicles to mitigate their destructive power: YPG testers and supporting personnel routinely worked 60 and 70-hour work weeks over the years to meet the critically tight schedules.
"We're one big team," he said of the proving ground. "I grasped the true importance and value of that teamwork during the busy war years, from 2003 until a few years ago. Even though I already knew this, this workforce's performance during the conflict demonstrated often that these people will do absolutely anything to support warfighters well. The things that we were asked to do quickly and the rapidity and effectiveness with which we did them were absolutely magnificent."
In one example he cites, when corrosion pitting within the gun tube of a self-propelled howitzer threatened to take a significant part of the fleet out of commission, YPG personnel fired thousands of rounds on a twenty-four hour basis for over two weeks to verify the true state of the guns in the force and to validate potential fixes to the problem.
There are literally thousands of American service members who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and survived their multiple tours--and were more lethal to the enemy--thanks to technologies and improved equipment tested at YPG. To Dominguez, however, this was all in a day's work to the proving ground's dedicated professionals. In his mind, striving to make YPG's procedures the gold standard in test safety and workforce professionalism were his most important accomplishments.
"My proudest achievement has been my role in improving safety. I brought an 'outside eye' for safety to the proving ground because of the places I'd been and the things I'd done before I came here."
While working as a miner prior to entering the university, Dominguez was impressed by the rigorous safety culture that existed in an underground where mine he worked. Employees were encouraged to carry paper "safety grams" on their person or in their lunchboxes, and then fill them out and turn them in whenever they encountered something they felt could be a safety hazard.
"The company promised you two things: that the suspected shortfall would get inspected by a competent individual and fixed if deemed necessary, and that you would get feedback within two days."
Noting that testing munitions was potentially even more inherently dangerous than underground mining, he brought the Safety Gram to YPG. While working as the Director of Ground Combat, he also spearheaded YPG's procedures regarding range incident reporting, RIR.
"I said, 'let's look at every accident and near-miss as a learning opportunity.' The goal of the RIR process is not to punish; it is to learn lessons and determine what we need to do to prevent a similar accident or hazardous situation from occurring again, or at least minimize the effects if it does happen. Through the process, we have fixed hundreds of things, everything from installation of steps and handrails to test procedures for working with explosive items."
Both programs exist to the present day, and Dominguez credits them with contributing to YPG's sterling safety record, but he is quick to state that what truly keeps people out of harm's way is a safety culture, one in which everyone is looking for ways to make processes safer.
Dominguez is also pleased with the results of efforts to professionalize the workforce and create a standard training program for new test officers.
"When I first got here, they didn't have a formal training program or certification like we do today. They assigned you to shadow a person for four to six months, then they would let you go out and start conducting tests."
When Dominguez started, he noticed that there were not enough engineers in the mission area he worked in.
"We had, and still have, very highly qualified technicians, people who really know their test items and the technical aspects of testing them. But we also needed more people with knowledge in technical areas that engineers are trained in."
In the early 1990s, he began to systematically hire more engineers.
"The level of technical competence increased dramatically as we kept our good techs and also hired people who had technical credentials."
His advice to current test officers out on the range?
"Never sacrifice safety for efficiency. Remind everyone on your test that everyone is responsible for looking for potential hazards. And watch out for complacency. If your test is running so smoothly that it seems like it is on automatic, it could very well be on automatic--that's when people start doing things without thinking. Do anything to bust the rhythm and re-focus everyone. Remind your teams that you are not just firing 30 rounds, or running a vehicle for 20 miles. Every round fired and every mile driven can kill someone who is not focusing on the job."
As for the proving ground as a whole, Dominguez is confident the installation's combination of infrastructure, vast range, and institutional knowledge, all coupled with a "can-do" attitude to get the mission done will keep it viable into the distant future.
"Keep pushing safety and quality. YPG gets a lot of work because we have established a reputation as a flexible organization that delivers quality products. That and our cream-of-the-crop workforce is what helps keep YPG thriving."