As a field test crewman here in the 1950s, Jim Keetch worked in clouds of invisible germs carrying deadly diseases.
But he also worried about getting bitten and scratched by monkeys.Keetch remembers carrying live monkeys - confined in boxes with holes for their heads to stick out of - into the west desert where researchers would watch the animals react to toxic germs sprayed into the air.
He knew there was danger in the air, but he was equally aware of the hazard in the boxes.
"Those monkeys were famous for biting," he recalls, describing how the primates would defend themselves as they were being stuffed into the boxes.
After 38 years of working with dangerous biological and chemical agents and other munitions at Dugway, Keetch still believes his biggest risk is driving off this remote Army base 80 miles west of Salt Lake City. "I am often asked if I am afraid for my family living here. But you know what the biggest danger is? It's the public highway out there."
It is the long distance between Dugway and the nearest sign of civilization that prompted the military in 1942 to base a proving ground here. Dugway celebrates its 50th year of operation this week.
"It was isolated enough that there would be no danger to life and property," said Col. John R. Burns, Dugway's first commander. The Army says its 841,000 acres of uninhabited flat desert valleys and rugged mountains make Dugway ideal for large-scale testing of weaponry.
It's ironic, then, that Dugway has also become the home to Keetch and more than 2,500 others. The self-supporting community where civilian and military personnel live, located 10 miles from the nearest testing facility, has a day-care center, schools, golf course, theater, bowling alley, supermarket and other amenities.
"It's the pits for a single person but a great place for a family," Keetch said.
He would know. He has lived here under both situations.
In 1952, Keetch had just graduated from high school when he hitch-hiked to Dugway from Orem to start work as a lab technician. His bunk was in a tar-paper shack, through which sand would constantly blow.
When he was drafted in 1957 and after he served his two-year stint he didn't plan to return to Dugway. But he was newly married, broke and had re-employment rights to his old job. So he moved back to the tar-paper shacks with his new wife, Kitsy, who wasn't exactly thrilled with the place. "She asked, `Where are the trees?' It was desolate," he recalled. "But we learned to love it."
Trees have since grown and the housing has improved. Meantime, the Keetches raised three children here, one of whom has returned to work for a contractor. He said even three-generation Dugway families are not uncommon.
So what's the attraction? Keetch believes it's the strong community spirit. "The entire community has a common goal. We work together and socialize together. We have no homeless or unemployed. All of us support the mission" of Dugway.
That mission - testing wartime equipment, particularly chemical and biological weapons - hasn't always had the same kind of support from the general public.
The flood of protest began in 1968 when nerve gas dropped over the testing area also drifted into neighboring Skull Valley, killing 5,000 sheep. Despite public outrage and the subsequent test ban of real chemical arms, Keetch doesn't believe Dugway was entirely at fault.
"We may have contributed. (But) the BLM was releasing a pesticide in the area at the same time to control grasshoppers," he said, noting that the shepherds should have showed signs of nerve gas contamination, but they didn't.
Numerous other incidents of accidental and intended releases of chemicals and germs from Dugway have occurred. Procedures have changed, however, to reduce the risk to the general public and wildlife. Open-air testing is done only with harmless simulants, and tests of chemical agents or biological toxins are done in labs using minute amounts. Also, Dugway stresses that all testing is of equipment designed to defend against chemical or biological warfare.
Keetch, Dugway's division chief of test conduct, said the workers are more at risk now because the small quantities of chemicals and germs are more concentrated, while the open air would dilute them. But that doesn't mean Dugway employees should worry, he added.
"You have to have respect for (the chemicals and germs), but not be afraid of them. . . . "I've been covered with chemicals, but I was dressed in a rubber suit."
He recalls an accidental exposure to a nerve agent, which briefly affected his vision. He was given an antidote and stayed three days in the hospital for observation.
Despite the risks involved, Keetch doesn't think past testing of chemical or biological weapons was any different than testing the performance of a bayonet.
"There is nothing in war that is humane," he said.