By Michael M. Novogradac, U.S. Army Operational Test Command Public Affairs
WEST FORT HOOD, Texas – Hundreds watched a virtual retirement ceremony honoring the 40-plus year career of the top Army Civilian employee of the unit here that tests all new and modernized equipment.
Bryan, Texas resident John W. Diem, Executive Director of the U.S. Army Operational Test Command since 2017, is the only Army Senior Executive Service member at Fort Hood; the federal civilian equivalent to a one-star general officer.
“Nobody in Operational Test Command wants to see J.D. go,” said OTC Commander Brig. Gen. David W. Gardner during the Feb. 11 event.
Gardner thanked the virtual audience including many OTC workers and others from the Army’s test and evaluation community. Some even traveled to attend in person from as far as White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
He then set the stage introducing Diem and his wife Julie, their five adult children and 13 grandchildren; with a few of them attending along with Diem’s mother, Mrs. Kathy Diem who traveled from San Antonio.
“The saying J.D. likes most to hear,” said Gardner, “is, ‘That can’t be done,’ to which he always responds …”
“Of course, it can!” Diem earnestly interrupted.
“Hold my beer,” Gardner continued to laughter.
Gardner then switched gears to Diem’s profound career-long effects on Army equipment testing.
“In the 11 years since J.D.’s final return to OTC the command has continued to conduct independent operational testing of new Army equipment before it’s fully fielded, in the hands of representative Soldiers, and under realistic operating environments,” said Gardner.
“J.D. has been at the center of our successful mission despite what some would characterize as impossible challenges over the past decade.”
He described some of those challenges.
“A 15 percent reduction in our workforce while taking on two significant areas of testing: air and missile defense and electronic and intelligence warfare,” he said.
“He has shepherded OTC through a decade of flat budgets, decreased buying power and multiple continuing resolutions. And let’s not forget that he has had to train 10 different commanding generals in the past 10 years.”
Gardner reflected on how Diem can retire knowing he has worked hard to recruit and develop the next generation to carry on his work a hundred-fold.
He said Diem always reminds everyone, “OTC is the Soldier’s advocate. He has always pushed the (OTC) team to not accept the status quo, but to be innovative. J.D. has never been shy to draft a team of teams or leverage the latest technology whether inside or outside of DoD.”
Gardner said Diem became successful not because of how many people know and admire him, but because he has built a chain of deep relationships.
Those relationships include the Joint Modernization Command at Fort Bliss, Texas during multiple Network Integration Experiments; the Training and Doctrine Command’s Centers of Excellence; all of the Program Executive Offices responsible for various categories of equipment systems; Department of the Army staff and Forces Command units across the U.S.; and Office of the Secretary of Defense; and of course, the Army and Joint testing communities.
“His people skills make him a fixture of the Texas community. Well-known by business leaders; state and federal politicians and academic powerhouses,” Gardner said, “which benefits OTC and the Army.”
Next, he reflected on how Diem can retire knowing he has worked hard to recruit and develop the next generation to carry on his work a hundred-fold.
“He has ensured we are developing our acquisition workforce; getting education opportunities for our hard science and math employees; leveraging other pots of available money to put people first and seeking interns and new hires in the most diverse pool of talent one can imagine.”
In his final thank you, Gardner said, “J.D., thank you for what you’ve done for OTC. Thank you for what you’ve done for the army. And thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you have done for me, personally, for every ATEC and OTC commanding general, and for what you have done for the American soldier!”
Taking the podium, Diem, 65, reminisced on his long career saying he had more gratitude than he had time to express his thanks and hoped he did not leave anyone out as he named several people present and viewing online.
“First acknowledgement to God,” he said. “Thank you. This wonderful broken road — to paraphrase that song — it has been blessed and awesome. I never knew where it was going. Every one of those turns in the road has led to awesome new opportunities and challenges and friendships.”
To all his family and friends, he said, “So many other unnamed angels and wingmen — You all never gave up on me. You had my back. You always believed in me and encouraged me even in those times when I gave up.
Diem continued naming people in the equipment acquisition and testing community, while also thanking his wife, Julie for a lesson he learned, which he called his “blended family.”
He said, “It extends to this family that is here at OTC, across ATEC and across the Army. Family is more than DNA. DNA does not define your family.”
He then spoke to all of OTC’s partners who support operational testing scattered across the country and globe.
“To our community academic and industry partners, one of the best parts of this job is this outreach outside the fence line at West Fort Hood and all of our locations,” he said.
“As we’ve worked with our academic partners here (Central Texas College, Texas A&M Central Texas) — thanks for always asking, ‘What else can we do for OTC?’ to fill out the workforce and to look for new technologies.”
Reminiscing of his time at OTC, which began in 1982, he said, “I reported in to the granddaddy of this command (When OTC was previously named TRADOC Combined Arms Test Activity) 40 years and 22 days ago.
“I didn’t think I wanted to be here — I really wanted to be an S2 over in the 2nd Armored Division. I guess it hadn’t turned out so badly — it’s been a great reminder that man plans, and God laughs.”
Retiring within just days of what would be five years as Executive Director, he said OTC has persevered through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I never imagined these final two years would be in this isolation and separation that we’ve been dealt,” he said, “and I miss all of those five-minute meetings between meetings and exchanges of fist bumps. But we’ve got pretty good. We’re working around that with Teams chats. And texts, and emails.
“You all persevered,” he continued. “You found ways to keep the pace of Army modernization. You kept your teams, your Soldiers, and the units that we test with safe.”
He explained how every test unit during the pandemic left their tests better trained and ready to take on the missions they would go on the day after.
“It wasn’t easy, but you succeeded,” he said. “You did it with courage; you embraced change and transformation and you put skin in the game.”
Diem’s long career began as a Military Intelligence Corps officer in 1981 after graduating from Texas A&M university in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in history and a masters in geography; and he later reported to Fort Hood in 1982 while assigned as a test officer with Training and Doctrine Command.
Diem was sent off into retirement with a Distinguished Civilian Service Medal; Outstanding Service in the Army Senior Executive Services Certificate; and the Association of Texas A&M former Students presented Diem with a certificate honoring his 40 years of service to the Army.
He also received a Texas State Retirement Certificate signed by Greg Abbott, Texas governor; a certificate honoring him as an “Honorary Texas signed by Greg Abbott, Texas governor; and he was commissioned as an “Honorary Admiral” in the Texas Navy by Greg Abbott, Texas governor.
Diem’s wife Julie was presented the Public Service Medal for caring service to the Soldiers, Army Civilian employees and Families at OTC, signed by Brig. Gen. David W. Gardner, OTC commander; and she was commissioned as a “Yellow Rose of Texas by Greg Abbott, Texas governor.
Harker Heights resident John W. Leffers will serve as OTC’s acting interim Executive Director.
Leffers entered Federal Service in September 2019 as the Senior Test Manager for USAOTC’s Maneuver Support and Sustainment Test Directorate. He hails from Utica, New York and retired after 28 years of service with the U.S. Army as an Infantry Colonel in 2019. He served three 12-month combat tours: Operation Iraqi Freedom (twice) in Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.