Former Fort Bliss missile school site bridges generation gap for Army family

Sgt. 1st Class Donsel Champ’s photo is in the upper right hand corner of this poster. Courtesy photo .

Sgt. 1st Class Donsel Champ’s photo is in the upper right hand corner of this poster. Courtesy photo .

By David Poe, USAG Fort Bliss Public Affairs:

(El Paso, Texas, Nov. 30, 2017)

On Nov. 22, Bill Champ and his sister, Bonnie Rodriguez, went on a search to find their dad.

They weren’t looking for the retired Donsel Champ, because they could find him in the hills of Ripley, West Virginia – where he currently happily resides. Instead, they returned to a unique memorial on West Fort Bliss to find Sgt. 1st Class Donsel Champ and they found him at the SAFEGUARD Central Training Facility display near the corner of Jeb Stuart and Taylor roads.

Dedicated to the Cold War missile defense program and the school that stood because of it, the display tells the story of the missile corps presence at Fort Bliss in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the roles that instructors, students and staff played in a world where nuclear proliferation was a reality. Sgt. 1st Class Champ was a staff member at the SCTF.

From left, Bill Champ, his sister Bonnie Rodriguez and her husband, Hector Rodriguez, check out the SAFEGUARD Central Training Facility site at Fort Bliss Nov. 22. Champ and Rodriguez were on base to see the site and learn about the program her father help stand up in the early 1970s. Photo by David Poe, USAG Fort Bliss Public Affairs.

“He was very serious about his work,” Bill remembered as he scanned the cement planes and placards around the site. “He was very quiet, so we didn’t hear a lot of stuff. Even today, if I ask him something about the Sprint missile, I’ll say, ‘Surely now you can tell me what the top speed of that missile was,’ but he’ll say, ‘No, it’s classified.’ He still won’t talk about it.”

American missile capabilities were especially sensitive during that time, so much so that the school created sound proofed, controlled classrooms. Many had no windows and special sound-proofing and security baffling were added to the air ducts and attics. Also, no outlets were installed back-to-back to prohibit the installation of listening devices. The SCTF included mock missile silos, multiple labs for hands-on training in electrical systems, power generation, mechanics and radar electronics, among other areas.

“He is very proud of his career,” Bill said of his father, who retired to Chaparral, N.M., and stayed in the Borderland for many years before heading back to West Virginia, “even if he couldn’t talk about it to a lot of people because of the classified nature of it. If you met him in a cafe, he wouldn’t be the one buttonholing you about his military career.”

Although the SAFEGUARD school didn’t start until the 1970s, it wasn’t the first time Fort Bliss had been considered a missile hub. It became the home of the First Antiaircraft Artillery and Guided Missile Battalion and School in 1946. Under what was called Operation Paperclip, Fort Bliss became the center of research of the German V-2 rocket research led by German Scientist Wernher Von Braun, as well as the development of the first guided interceptor missiles, or ABMs.

Although the SAFEGUARD program may be gone, the display stands as a reminder of the innovative Soldiers who brought it to life at a challenging time in our nation’s history. Soldiers like Donsel Champ.

“The program selected you, so they looked over the men with the necessary training and looked for the best. I didn’t realize how he was at the top of his food chain,” Bill said of his father.

“I’m glad there’s still a place here that serves as a remembrance of this program. It’s a dead program now, but it had some really interesting technologies, so I’m glad there’s a place where people can come.”

Bonnie Rodriguez added that the SCTF site is also part of her family’s history and said Fort Bliss has a lot of stories that parallel the stories of families.

“Not only is this military history, but family history,” she said. “It’s cool to bring your kids to these places and say, ‘This is what your father did. This is what your grandfather did.’ It’s something to pass down through the generations. This is who your grandfather was and this is what he did. It makes him come alive and helps you get to know him.

“This is my dad and this is what he did,” she said.

For more details on the short-lived SAFEGUARD program, the SCTF and the role Team Bliss brought to missile defense during the program’s heyday, visit http://bit.ly/2AeZBTZ.