YUMA PROVING GROUND, Ariz.-- When then-Lt. James Corcoran arrived at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) in May 1982, the biggest test he worked on involved bed sheets.
Bed sheet material being studied for possible use in cargo parachute canopies, that is.
“The idea behind this was the parachute material they were using was expensive and difficult to get,” he explained. “They were looking at alternatives to have air drop parachutes be less expensive and made out of more common material.”
The project was large enough that the Air Movements and Special Projects Branch, which had 12 civilian engineers, four parachute riggers who were all commissioned officers, an Air Force Master Sgt. who coordinated air assets like the C-130s they used for drops, and an administrative assistant, needed to bring in additional support.
“We brought in riggers from different bases around the country to support this for 30-day TDYs. I had a couple of guys from Fort Devins and other places.”
It might have seemed unlikely in that era for the working class kid from Philadelphia to end up a Red Hat in Yuma, but Corcoran grew up surrounded by men with first-hand military experience.
“I always had an interest in the military. My father and all but one of his five brothers were World War II combat vets. On my mother’s side, her father fought in World War I and her brother was in during the Korean War. I felt I had an obligation to serve.”
He served in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) while pursuing an accounting degree at Pennsylvania State University, then received his requested billet with the Army’s famed 82nd Airborne upon receiving his commission. He was 21 years old, with quartermaster basic training and parachute rigger school under his belt. When he arrived at Fort Bragg as a 2nd Lt., he immediately found himself executive officer for a 320-man company.
“I had to sign for millions of dollars worth of equipment. I had a mess hall that fed 600 people on a daily basis, I had a motor pool and a company supply that I was responsible for. It was: this is your job, and you’d better make everything work.”
The position was demanding and taxing, but he excelled. With six months left to go in his three-year tour, his commanding officer offered to recommend him for a billet at YPG that ordinarily went to a Captain. He readily accepted the offer, based on a longstanding desire to experience a climate that was warm all year and a glowing report about the obscure post that he had once heard in a chance encounter with another officer while in basic training.
“When I was in officer basic, one of the officers who was in the advanced course had a little get-together for us newly commissioned officers, and he had just come from Yuma Proving Ground. I remember him sitting down with a group of us and saying, ‘You wouldn’t believe this place-- you work from 7:00 to 3:30, and by 4:00 I was out on the Colorado River water skiing. It’s warm all year long, it was the best three years of my life!’”
As expected, the pace of life at YPG was much more relaxed than at Fort Bragg, but there was still plenty of activity around him, much of which would soon have dramatic impact on both the military and daily life for civilians.
“At the time I was here, there was a lot of exciting stuff going on: GPS; a new vehicle that was going to replace the Jeep; the dust filters on the Abrams tank; the Apache attack helicopter. A lot of this stuff was classified, so you wouldn’t see it in 'The Outpost'.”
Those items, of course, were the receivers for the Global Positioning Satellite system, which had just recently been miniaturized into man-portable backpacks that weighed nearly 30 pounds, and the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV). He had no direct part in any of the tests, but heard intriguing talk from fellow officers who had.
One thing in particular struck Corcoran during his time in Yuma: the overt displays of respect local civilians gave military personnel, something he had yet to encounter while in uniform. Though the United States had withdrawn from the Vietnam War almost a decade earlier, the damage from that painful fault line in American history remained, and Soldiers—even those who joined after the end of the conflict-- bore the brunt of it.
“I remember one time wearing a uniform while I was in ROTC and having people give me dirty looks and say things to me. When I would go home on leave, I wouldn’t wear my uniform. There was a cultural bias against the military that stemmed from Vietnam—people disliked the military and made it clear they did if they saw you in uniform.”
In most places in the country, Corcoran observed, this attitude persisted until after Desert Storm, the dramatically successful 96 hour-long ground war against Iraq in 1991. In Yuma, however, a palpable and stated appreciation for the military still existed in the early 1980s.
“The supportive environment was present not just at the proving ground, but also in town. They were happy that the military was here and appreciated that you would spend money in their businesses.”
Despite this, the fact remained that YPG and Yuma, which then had a year-round population of about 45,000 at that time, was far less exciting than the young man from Philadelphia was accustomed to.
“The post was very small. As far as anything to do on the weekend or after duty hours, I don’t remember there being anything. For a young guy in his 20s with some money to spend, there wasn’t a tremendous amount to do.”
He shared a rented condominium off-post with a fellow officer and pursued a graduate degree from Webster University, which then held classes at for uniformed personnel at MCAS-Yuma. He also made weekend trips out of town as much as possible.
“I probably could drive to San Diego blindfolded,” he laughed. “I went there all the time. I went to Phoenix a fair amount, too, but it was relatively small back then.”
He left active duty after his tour in Yuma was through, moving to the National Guard for two years and then the Army Reserve for 18 more. He volunteered to return to active duty in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, by which time he was a Lt. Col. The kind of warfare the nation was now involved in was much different from what the Army was preparing for during his time in Yuma decades earlier.
“We were training for a large scale, tank-heavy operation, and they were probably going to come into West Germany with three times the number of tanks and personnel we had. I never had any expectation in the early 1980s that we would end up somewhere like Iraq or Afghanistan.”
He retired from the Army Reserve in 2003. His career out of uniform was as a certified public accountant in the Office of the Inspector General for the General Service Administration, and Corcoran credits in part his exposure to civilian civil servants at YPG with inspiring him to initially pursue the position.
He remains grateful for the chance to serve at the Army’s hottest airfield.