REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--Retired Brig. Gen. Larry Capps is walking in the shadow of one of his heroes.
As this year's recipient of the Medaris Award, Capps is now a member of a prestigious group of business and community leaders honored with an award named after one of Redstone Arsenal's early leaders in missile system technology.
Capps, known in his own right for his leadership contributions at Redstone and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center as well as within the local community, received the annual award in August from the Tennessee Valley Chapter of the National Defense Industrial Association during the Space and Missile Defense Conference at the Von Braun Center. The award recognizes someone who has demonstrated technical excellence in promoting the nation's defense preparedness.
"I was very deeply honored to be selected," he said. "Maj. Gen. (John) Medaris was the founder of the Army's missile program. He led the Army's first missile agency -- the Army Ballistic Missile Agency -- when it was created in 1956. He got the Wernher von Braun team to work for ABMA.
"Maj. Gen. Medaris is the godfather of the Army's rocketry program. It was under Medaris' watch that Wernher von Braun modified the Army's Redstone Rocket into what was called the Jupiter C. That rocket took Explorer I on board and launched it into space."
That accomplishment also launched the nation's space program. And, for Capps, who was a teenager at the time, it unknowingly launched an Army career that would build on the missile technology of those early years and conclude with a civilian career promoting space exploration.
While Medaris encouraged and promoted von Braun and his German rocket team's work in missile development, Capps began his military career at West Point. Soon after graduating in 1963, Capps came to Redstone Arsenal as a student at the Ordnance Guided Missile School.
"I became aware of Maj. Gen. Medaris while I was here that first time," Capps said. "During a West Point Founders Day Dinner at Redstone Arsenal in 1964, I was a second lieutenant and the youngest West Point graduate, so I had to make a speech. Medaris could have been there.
"It was just the beginning of the Army's leap into missiles and rocketry. It was an exciting time. The school was training officers to lead efforts with missiles and rockets. It was gearing up to train us for Hawk, Nike, Hercules, Corporal, Redstone and Pershing rockets. There was a lot going on here."
Capps' military career took him to Germany, where he commanded the 64th Ordnance (Special Weapons) Company and then the 116th (Sergeant Guided Missile) Maintenance Company. He then served in Vietnam, where he was part of the Support Command in Saigon and then commanded the 40th Ordnance Company at Long Binh.
"I had units all the way up to the Cambodia border. There was a lot of traveling by helicopter to those units," he recalled.
During the Tet Offensive of 1968, Capps deployed his 300-man unit at night to move equipment and ammunition north by river to Da Nang. The landing ship tank used by his unit was underneath a bridge when Viet Cong attacked and took the bridge.
"There was a transportation unit with .50-caliber machine guns and we had .50-caliber ammunition," recalled the recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit and Bronze Star. "So we spent the night beating off the Viet Cong."
At Da Nang, Capps and his unit supported a Marine engineer battalion with ammunition and the use of heavy equipment, including bulldozers, 20-ton cranes and forklifts. The mission involved deploying units to fight all the way to the North Vietnamese border.
"We were on the north side of Da Nang and the Marine battalion got attacked just about every night. My guys learned to live through that," Capps said.
Assignments then took Capps on to graduate school and through an ordnance course before he was assigned to develop future small arms for the Army. A second tour -- this time to Cambodia -- had Capps commanding a Military Equipment Delivery Team. He left the country in September 1973 when Cambodia fell to the North Vietnamese. Vietnam fell two weeks later.
Other assignments included working at Redstone Arsenal on a missile program that later became the Patriot missile, commanding the 3rd Ordnance Battalion in Germany, working in the Office of Program Analyst and Evaluation for the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Army at the Pentagon, serving as division chief of Army Support Programs and Analysis Division at the Pentagon and commanding the 4th Training Brigade at Fort Jackson, S.C.
"The 4th Training Brigade was probably the best command for me because I got to see young men and women coming into the Army who had not a clue what they wanted to do or where they wanted to be," Capps said.
"When they graduated, they had a gleam in their eyes because they then knew what they wanted to do, what they wanted to be and that they could accomplish whatever they set out to do. It was really neat to see that kind of transformation in Soldiers."
His next assignment brought him to Redstone a third time, where he first served as the project manager for the Patriot Air Defense Missile System in 1985, and then went on to serve as program executive officer for High-to-Medium Air Defense Systems, led the multi-service Joint Theater Missile Defense Task Force and served as deputy commander of the Missile Command.
"There was a lot going on. We were building Patriot capabilities, fielding operations for logistics and managing foreign military sales," Capps said. "We had software changes to meet different attack formations. Then Operation Desert Storm happened and Patriot did its job. The missile system was one of the Army's big five systems, putting it up there for funding with the M-1 Abrams Tank, M-2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, Multiple Launch Rocket System and AH-64 Apache attack helicopter."
As MICOM's deputy commander, Capps provided leadership, management, planning and guidance in the operation of a 7,000-member organization responsible for the research, development, operations, maintenance and support of the Army's missile systems. He led the MICOM team that was responsible for gaining Army and congressional approvals for the design, build, operation and maintenance of what is now the Sparkman Center.
But it wasn't easy getting approvals and funding for the Sparkman Center. Capps was struggling with the mission when a chance meeting with Sen. Howell Heflin put the project on a fast track to funding. Heflin suggested to Capps that the complex be named after Sen. John J. Sparkman, saying "wouldn't it be lovely if there could be a magnificent building built in his name."
After the project became the John J. Sparkman Center for Missile Excellence, approval and funding was obtained within a year.
"The Sparkman Center was the beginning for Redstone's growth," Capps said. "It set the tone for Redstone Arsenal as a place where the Army could put its commands. The Army knew things are done right here and that we have a great work force. All you have to do is put in a little infrastructure up front and you've got things going here at Redstone."
In 1991, Capps retired after a 28-year Army career. He went on to work for Raytheon and then took on another high profile position in the Huntsville community -- chief executive officer of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. In that position, Capps led and managed Alabama's leading tourist attraction, and one of the most respected space museums in the nation and the world. During his tenure, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center stabilized its financial posture, restored the nation's first Saturn V rocket (a National Historic landmark), built the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, built the Educator Training Facility which is a joint use education facility with the NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, made major changes and improvements to the training facilities and equipment for the Space Camp and Aviation Challenge programs, and updated the exhibits in the museum. Capps retired from the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in 2010.
"There were a few obstacles along the way," Capps said of his career. "But I don't look at obstacles as things I can't do. I see them as challenges and then I think of how to overcome those challenges.
"You know even people like Maj. Gen. Medaris had challenges. He had the von Braun team in the Army and he wanted them to stay with the Army. But he lost them to NASA. That loss isn't important. What is important is that the Army got Explorer I from the team and it began the Army's missile program."
Along the way, Capps has also served several years as the chairman of the annual Armed Forces Celebration, and as a committee member for the Tennessee Valley BRAC Committee for 1991, 1995 and 2005, Veterans Memorial Committee, Tennessee Valley Chapter of the Boy Scouts of America, Huntsville-Madison County United Way, National Children's Advocacy Center Capital Campaign Committee, Military Affairs Committee of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce, Huntsville Library Foundation, Alabama Nature Conservancy and Huntsville Botanical Garden.
"It's been fun. I've enjoyed Huntsville and the people of Huntsville, and the atmosphere of Huntsville," said the Georgia native. "My wife, Brenda, and I have found a home here.
"And this Medaris Award … well I think it's recognition from your peers that you have made some small contribution to the community."