By Mr. Chuck C Wullenjohn (ATEC)March 5, 2018
YUMA PROVING GROUND, Ariz.-- U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground celebrated its 75th birthday in style -- a party attended by nearly 13,000 well-wishers from throughout Yuma County, nearby areas and even further.
In the planning stage for months, the birthday began early Saturday Feb. 3 and concluded after darkness fell that evening with a stupendous aerial fireworks display. Events included a massive, fun-filled kid-zone that attracted huge crowds of the younger set, a large display of the most spic and span military weapon systems you'll ever come across, lots of vendors, great food, parachutists, antique cars, and a slate of tuneful live musicians offering musical entertainment covering standards from the 1940s to today.
Thousands of vehicles crowded the roads leading to YPG for hours, leading to congestion that stretched several miles, causing some frustrated drivers to turn around and go home. Yuma County Area Transit (YCAT) buses arrived at YPG crammed with riders, leaving some stranded behind at the bus stops. Despite these hurdles, the vast majority persisted and were rewarded with an exciting day.
"The takeaway from the huge crowds is that Yuma supports our military, but, specifically, the military in our community," said Yuma Mayor Doug Nicholls.
There is little to see of Yuma Proving Ground as people drive along highway 95, which helped create interest in the event.
"Most people know YPG is there, but they don't understand what goes on," said Nicholls. "Today was a great day to address that and communicate the magic behind YPG."
Col. Ross Poppenberger, commander, spent the entire day at the event, visiting all booths and exhibits, including talking with staff. As he surveyed the crowd enjoying musical entertainment from the main stage, he brimmed over with good things to say.
"I absolutely believe that the staff of Yuma Proving Ground hit this event out of the park," he enthused. "People manning our displays were asked good, challenging questions by people who were really interested. This was a great way to showcase what we do and to share our mission with the community."
A wide variety of people from a number of YPG organizations were involved in planning the event, from the Department of Emergency Services (DES), the Directorate of Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation (DFMWR), to the Department of Public Works, (DPW), as well as a great many more.
"People at YPG, including volunteers, came together as a team, and I'm really proud of the hard work I've seen," said Rick Bessett, Director of DFMWR. "The only real problem I came across was the clogged traffic on Highway 95 that caused some to turn around and go home. This was a disappointing development we'll discuss in the after action review."
The interaction between members of the public and YPG subject matter experts was remarkable to see. People closely inspected military systems, crawling inside and climbing atop armored vehicles. Questions came fast and furious, with test officers responding as quickly as they came.
Combat Systems Test Officer Charles Frost, an eight year YPG veteran, spent the day supervising activities around an M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tank, which proved a popular attraction. Many had only seen the tank on television or in movies, so were impressed to view the steel behemoth in person. They peppered Frost with questions.
"They wanted to know how fast is goes, how large the crew is and questions like that, but they also asked about what takes place at YPG regarding testing," he said. "People were extremely interested. Many said this was the first time they had ever had the opportunity to see these items up close."
YPG's workforce is used to working with military hardware as part of the job and it is easy to forget that the public does not have this access. Seeing it and touching it at YPG's anniversary gala was special.
"The public has few chances to see some of these platforms, so it was rewarding all around," said Frost. He had more to say, but was forced to quickly conclude when several families walked toward the M1 and began climbing aboard. Taking his work seriously, Frost moved toward them, maintaining a close watch to ensure safety.
Many people worked behind the scenes performing chores crucial to the event. Billy Taylor, engineering technician in the Department of Public Works, worked the entire day and spent an intense two weeks beforehand. DPW contributions included installing fencing, making provisions for 40 portable toilets, arranging for generators to produce electricity, numerous power extensions, and much more.
"There were many challenges, but the YPG team was positive, knowing this event was definitely going to happen," said Taylor. "We just worked through the issues one by one and experienced many successes along the way."
He felt a personal sense of satisfaction as the day wound down. "People around me were predicting an attendance of 3000, a number exceeded early in the day," he said. "When I saw the parking lots filling up, the presence on Cox Field, all the traffic, I knew we would exceed that number handily. Our challenge was to sustain our high level of performance all day long."
Taylor's job was to coordinate FSI contractors providing electricians, grounds people, trash pick-up and many more services. "These guys were great," he said during the event, "with a great spirit of cooperation. Like me, many of them probably won't be going home until midnight."
Taylor and his crew worked six hours the day after, too.
Though supporting the event diverted him and those he works with from the day-to-day test mission, he feels it was worth it.
"The positive public relations we created was great, but the spirit of comradery I felt with the entire team made me proud," said Taylor. "This has been a great experience."
One of the interesting aspects of the event was that it brought three past Yuma Proving Ground commanders back for a day. They were Col. Robert Filbey (ret) who commanded the proving ground between 1996 and 2000, Col. Steve Kreider (ret.) who commanded between 2003 and 2006, and Col. Reed Young (ret.) who commanded between 2011 and 2014.
Kreider says serving as proving ground commander was the highlight of his military career. "YPG performs a critical mission that doubled in size while I was commander," he said, "but it was the people who really stand out. Today was a great opportunity to return to see many old friends and thank them for their efforts each day."
The YPG Heritage Center Museum directly benefited from the influx of people. The museum set an all-time visitation record by welcoming 2,089 visitors in a single day. The previous record was 752.
"We attracted constant crowds throughout the day," said Heritage Center curator Bill Heidner. "The museum was packed."
There was no single point of interest in the museum. Veterans from the 1960s hovered around the Vietnam War exhibit. Others were fascinated by YPG's role in the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS.) The training of military working dogs at YPG attracted others. Some relaxed while watching the film "Sands of War" about the California-Arizona Maneuver Area training camps of World War II, of which YPG's Camp Laguna was one.
"It was a crazy day at the museum, but in a good way," said Heidner.
Local media played a key role in the weeks prior to the gala event in providing information to the public. For a while, it seemed like YPG was appearing on television and discussed on radio every hour. As the event took place, multiple media outlets spent hours at YPG making numerous news stories that were broadcast live.
KBLU radio broadcast its morning talk program for three hours each of the two days prior to the event, interviewing 11 different people in the process, including two past proving ground commanders. Radio host Russ Clark reported that he was happy with each interview and received outstanding comments from listeners. He estimates that over 60,000 people tuned in each morning.
YPG's impressive 75th anniversary gala is now history and everyone involved dubbed it an unqualified success. If you played a role in setting it up or staffing a booth or exhibit, you richly deserve thanks for doing a great job and a hearty pat on the back. It was the largest public event in the proving ground's history -- YPG's workforce should look back on it with pride.