(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

SAN ANTONIO -- After achieving an environmental job in the battery industry, a young, twenty-something man from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, imagined his career as being prosperous and full of opportunity. He envisioned a future in the field that could be fulfilling, and maybe even adventurous.

Damon Cardenas never once imagined that he would find himself completely transitioning into a career in the Department of Defense just a decade after beginning work in industry.

“As an industrial hygienist for the Air Force we assessed emerging contaminants and their impacts on the health of our military members and the environment,” said Cardenas.

Ending his career as the chief of the Acquisition and Technology Branch of the U.S. Army Environmental Command, Cardenas set the foundation as an undergraduate at the University of Texas in San Antonio. There he achieved a Bachelor’s of Science in Pathogenic Microbiology. He continued his education in San Antonio by earning a Master's of Science in Genetics.

His studies not only fueled his passion for the natural sciences of the world, but they also instilled within him a mindset and work ethic that was science-based and evidence driven. Beginning his career in the hazardous, pollutant-driven field of lead acid batteries, Cardenas was quick to realize the environmental repercussions of that industry and the need to change industrial standards and practices to protect the environment for future generations.

“I did all the sampling and analysis on the largest environmental cleanup in San Antonio, Texas, in 1978. The battery acid plant had been around since 1918 and while the company was considered a pioneer in the battery industry, they weren’t aware of the impact they were having on the environment or their workers’ health,” Cardenas said. Although state only required the plant to remediate the land for industrial use, Cardenas’ goal was to clean the land up to residential use so it could be used for anything, making the land more valuable.

After leaving the battery factory, Cardenas was hired as a corporate environmentalist for a steel mill, which enabled him to travel to other sites to help find practices to improve the health of the workers. In 1988 Cardenas was hired by the Air Force and was responsible for asbestos removal, lead base paint abatement, and educating the workforce on hazardous materials. He later was hired by the Army as the Environmental Chief for Fort Sam Houston. Following that he went to the US Army Medical Command and ultimately became the Chief of Environment and Sustainability there. When the Army established Installation Management Agency to manage its installations and the Southwest Division was established in San Antonio, Cardenas was borrowed manpower and tasked to lead the environmental team there.

While working for the military full time, he also taught more than 10 different science and environmental courses at San Antonio College for 11 years and helped initiate the environmental technology program there.

Cardenas started out with USAEC as a team leader for sustainable technologies where he enhanced his appreciation for innovative research and development. From there, he progressed through a variety of roles, such as Interim Conservation Branch Chief, Compliance Branch Chief, and finally landed where he is now: the Acquisition and Technology Branch Chief.

“Gaining knowledge in diverse environmental media set me up for success but also allowed me to delve into other interests, such as climate change.”

When the USAEC Commander was looking for someone to take the reins and help develop a training program for Army installation environmental staffs, she looked right at Cardenas.

“Climate change poses a threat to national security and it’s important that we identify the specific threats and risks and do all that we can to address those challenges,” said Cardenas. “We needed to provide fundamental information that would allow installation to develop their own goals and strategies to combat climate change threats.”

Now, after 33 years serving the U.S. Army, Cardenas finds himself retiring from government service. During this time, he has served a variety of roles, managing the Army’s efforts in research on emerging pollutants and chemicals, overseen the development of innovative technologies and adaptation/mitigation for the changing climate, and assisted with the creation of new regulations for harmful pollutants on our military installations.

Although his career ended with a different role than he would have experienced at the battery acid factory, he feels that it has been significantly more meaningful and rewarding.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve my country,” Cardenas said. “I feel like I’ve made a positive impact in every position I’ve held, making sure the health of the people and the environment is seen as an enabler of the Army mission.”