When Lt. Col. David Meyer replaced Pete Dargle as garrison commander of Fort A.P. Hill this May, he assumed responsibility for 76,000 acres and a constantly revolving group of active-duty soldiers from the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force, as well as reservists, National Guard members, and employees of federal agencies. But although the scope of this task may sound daunting to civilians, for Meyer, one of the biggest adjustments has been getting used to the visibility of his role.
“I see Sheriff Lippa at the Food Lion, and the man stops and talks to me—he’s the county sheriff!” said Meyer, sitting in his new but already ship-shape office at the garrison headquarters on a sunny afternoon. “I’m just that dude that lives on A.P. Hill.”
Meyer may be, as he describes himself, a “pretty normal” man, but he’s one with a distinguished track record. A native of Central Maryland, for him, military service was a childhood dream turned reality.
“I’ve wanted to be in the Army my entire life,” he said. “This was all I ever wanted to do.”
His plans for a military career were sharpened both by his time in the ROTC program at Frostburg State University, an education that he received thanks to an ROTC scholarship, and by the first Gulf War, launched when he was a college freshman in 1990, which roused in him a passion for tanks. That commitment set him on a path up through the ranks of the Army, garnering along the way such decorations as two Bronze Stars and five Meritorious Service Medals, among many others.
Today, Meyer is still technically an armor officer, although, he said, “I haven’t touched a tank in about 12 years, because the Army figured out that I was okay at leading staffs of people to solve complex problems.”
Complex problem-solving, said Meyer, lies at the heart of Army training—and, of course, is integral to the mission of Fort A.P. Hill, which serves as the training area for the national capital region and the mid-Atlantic.
“We train for uncertainty,” said Meyer. “We train for complexity. We train so that it doesn’t matter what you encounter, you’ve got the basic skills you need, and you’ve got the trained, creative leadership you need to pick the right solution and execute (it).”
The value of exceptional training is a lesson that he learned firsthand through three overseas deployments. Sent twice to Baghdad and once to Kandahar in Afghanistan, Meyer had what he calls the “great luck” to be present for both the Iraq surge of 2007–08 and the Afghanistan surge of 2010–11.
“I’ve been in very dangerous places, and I’ve seen what well-trained, well-led soldiers are capable of,” he said. “You can change everything. You can change a country.”
And although the Middle East might seem very far from Caroline County, the lessons that Meyer learned there about both training and how to work closely with local governments proved invaluable in preparing him for his command of A.P. Hill, as did his last position teaching ROTC as a professor of military science at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a campus located about 50 miles from Pittsburgh.
“Tip O’Neill said it best: ‘All politics is local,’” said Meyer. “The physical issues are probably pretty different in Kandahar City than (they are) in Bowling Green or Caroline, but at the end of the day, our Board of Supervisors want what’s best for their district, I want what’s best for our post and our training population, and those two goals largely align.”
The strong relationship between A. P. Hill and Caroline County fostered by outgoing commander Lt. Col. Dargle is one that Meyer said he plans to continue to maintain and, if anything, expand.
“(Dargle) and I were raised by a lot of the same bosses,” said Meyer. “We see the Army largely the same way.”
So closely have Dargle and Meyer’s careers overlapped, in fact, that Meyer’s assumption of the post of garrison commander in May was not the first, but the second time he had taken over a post from his colleague: in 2008, Meyer relieved Dargle as second-in-command of a 1,000-man battalion in Baghdad. In explaining this strange twist of fate, Meyer fell back on a popular military adage: “The Army is the smallest 1,000-man organization you’ll ever meet,” he said, laughing.
In maintaining the close ties between the county and the fort, Meyer said that he plans to put particular focus on listening and taking into account local expertise.
“You’ve got to listen to somebody to know what they want,” he said. “Nobody’s got a corner on good ideas or the truth.”
One advantage of A.P. Hill that he emphasized was the continuity of the civilian workforce that staffs the fort, some 75 percent of whom come from Caroline or within one county of Caroline.
“The experience they have, the knowledge they have, the continuity they bring to that, is one of the reasons we can be as successful as we are year in, year out, routinely, and one of the reasons people keep wanting to come back,” Meyer said. Keeping that in mind, he described the attitude that he’s taken toward his first eight weeks as garrison commander as “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
Meyer’s passion for the task before him overseeing the smooth operation of the fort was palpable, as was his excitement at being in Caroline County. In his eight weeks at the fort, his family has already begun to settle in. His wife swims every morning at the YMCA, he said, and both of his children are enrolled in Caroline County Public Schools, his daughter at Caroline High School and his son at Caroline Middle School.
“I’m just excited to come to work every day,” he said. “This is not a job like any other I’ve ever had. I’m forever changed by it in just eight weeks. … It gets me fired up, because I like complexity, I like challenges, I like talking to people, I like telling the Army story. … The Army’s a people business: it’s about people, and it’s about our workforce and their families and the community. So I’m just excited that I get to go out and represent the Army and tell the Army’s story every day.” He paused for a moment to reflect on that. “That’s cool, man.”