The Influentials, Part 1
Colonel Robert F. Hepner, Jr. – Garrison Commander, Fort Indiantown Gap
Times have changed, knows Robert F. Hepner, Jr. When he first became a soldier, the United States was in a Cold War, staring down Communism. Nearly 29 years later, he’s still a soldier, this time in the War on Terror.
“I wanted to be in the military since I was a little kid,” says Hepner. “My mom has pictures.”
Hepner commands Fort Indiantown Gap, the venerable Pennsylvania National Guard training center. Hepner served in diverse artillery and communications leadership roles for more than 10 years with the U.S. Army, including deployment to Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm/Desert Shield. After retiring from active duty, he joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, serving in artillery, communications and counter-drug assignments, including nine months in Afghanistan.
The Pennsylvania National Guard is the nation’s oldest military organization, carrying out its mission to fight America’s wars, support the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and domestic operations such as disaster relief.
Hepner says, the Guard is “a professional military organization, but we still have roots in the community.”
“I know I’m biased because I’m in the Pennsylvania Guard” – stressing the word Pennsylvania – “but we do it better than anybody else.”
Hepner oversees a site that employs 2,000 people year-round and hosts 120,000 people in training annually, from all branches and from Pennsylvania, the U.S. and around the globe. When they’re not in training, they enjoy area attractions and restaurants, helping feed the Gap’s $550 million economic impact.
Civilians visit the Gap’s museum, hunt its grounds and fish its streams. Hepner is intent on building bridges to neighbors, through engagement with local elected officials and membership in business groups.
The outreach is “really paying big dividends,” he says. When callers complain about rumblings from the Gap, he reminds them that the people making that noise are soldiers in training, so “that’s the sound of freedom.”
“If you don’t tell your story,” he says, “you can’t blame people for not knowing.”
Hepner is also a commander who can easily drop a mention of the Gap’s annual Regal Fritillary butterfly walks into a conversation. “The reason he does so good here is because tanks and tracked vehicles tear up the ground, and he loves tore-up ground,” says Hepner.
The Regal Fritillary butterfly seems something of a mascot for the Gap’s award-winning environmental efforts, including a buffer program to keep development from encroaching, and $9 million participation in a conservation easement to preserve the pristine land around nearby DeHart Dam, water supplier for the city of Harrisburg.
“We aren’t getting any more land, and we’ve got to take care of what we have,” he says.
Hepner occasionally hunts on Gap lands. He spends his spare time watching his sons, ages 16 and 21, in track meets. His wife of 26 years, Jennifer, is strong and independent, serving as an Army wife with “patience, understanding and strength.”
With recent modernizations to Gap buildings, training ranges and facilities, the site has become the busiest National Guard training center – “in the country,” Hepner emphasizes. “We have been able to keep up with change and keep the installation viable.”