Less than an hour before his command at Dugway Proving Ground would end, Col. Sean Kirschner called the day bittersweet.
After two years in command of the installation, Kirschner will join United States Forces Korea as a staff officer in August. He said he’s already focused on the next assignment, where he will coordinate efforts with allies and partner agencies to counter the weapons of mass destruction threat from North Korea.
Kirschner said Dugway tests equipment and provides training support for soldiers stationed in Korea, so a relationship already exists.
“Even in this job that I’m in now, I had interactions with the folks that I’ll be working with there in a few weeks,” he said. “So it makes the transition a little bit easier.”
While he plans to have his family move with him, Kirschner acknowledged the geopolitical climate in Korea will factor into the determination.
Before the change of command ceremony Wednesday morning, Kirschner reflected on his two years at Dugway prior to turning over the reins to Col. Brant Hoskins. He said the opportunity to work with the people at Dugway met his high expectations when he took command in 2015.
“That ended up being the source of my greatest satisfaction, because these folks are just so resilient and creative and brave and dedicated,” Kirschner said. “You just can’t help but be motivated and humbled by their service to this country.”
Kirschner said most employees make long commutes to the remote and isolated facility, working with deadly toxins to ensure soldiers have the best equipment and training. He also rattled off a list of attributes — loyalty, duty, selfless service and personal courage — he felt represented the employees.
“What those are, those are some of the Army values, right?” Kirschner said. “And they transcend whether you’re in a uniform or whether you’re wearing a tie to work or whatever form you’re serving the Army.”
The breadth of public and private customers working with Dugway was another surprise and highlight for Kirschner after taking command. He said he hadn’t known the Department of Homeland Security, Justice Department and NASA were among the agencies working with Dugway.
“We are a national treasure and people recognize that and they come here for the best testing and the best training they can find,” Kirschner said.
When asked about the Defense Department and U.S. Centers for Disease Control investigations into inadvertent shipments of live anthrax underway as he took command in 2015, Kirschner said the investigations and audits gave direction on how to make Dugway more secure.
Dugway came under scrutiny in 2015 after it was found the installation had accidentally shipped live anthrax spores to 194 laboratories in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, three U.S. territories and nine foreign nations over a 12-year period.
Kirschner said safety and security of employees, outside partners, neighbors and the environment are paramount and Dugway has implemented many of the recommended fixes following the reports.
“I truly think the workforce here takes it as seriously as I do and as Col. Hoskins will,” he said. “I’m very confident that what we do out here is very safe and very secure.”
Kirschner said the first thing he went over with Hoskins, the incoming commander, was the safety and security of the facility. He said Hoskins, whose previous assignment was in Kuwait, has been able to explain to employees how the technology tested in Dugway is used in the field and why the work is meaningful and relevant.
“That was powerful for them to hear that testimony from someone who just came out of theater, relating back to what they do every day,” Kirschner said. “I’m excited that he’s coming here, bringing that perspective, so that he can relate that on a daily basis to these folks.”
On a more personal note, Kirschner said his family took advantage of being stationed in Utah to explore the state and surrounding region.
“Our bucket list is a lot lighter now than it was when we got here,” he said. “We didn’t waste one minute sitting around. We got out and saw the beautiful state of Utah and the surrounding areas out here in the West.”
Dugway was a “phenomenal” tour for his family, Kirschner said, and it enriched their lives.
“A couple of them came kicking and screaming, but they’re all leaving kicking and screaming too, so that matters,” Kirschner said.