- Associated Press - Saturday, November 14, 2015

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Riding up a hill in the backseat of an AM General Humvee, I felt pretty secure. It was the last obstacle we were taking the military vehicle through at the company’s test track, and we had already tackled some impressive stunts.

I should have known something was coming, though, since just moments before our driver Eric Johnson, who teaches people how to navigate Humvees through treacherous terrain, said we were coming up on his favorite part of the track.

Next thing I knew I was grabbing on to anything I could to feel stable as I felt the front right side of the Humvee shooting upward, now seeing the Tribune photographer sitting in the front seat suspended above me.

I wasn’t about to let go of the door as Eric had brought the vehicle to a stop, the Humvee’s weight slightly teetering with its right front wheel a few feet off the ground, all while on an incline. But the obstacles at AM General’s test track are child’s play, Eric said, compared to what the Humvee is really capable of conquering.

That’s because the track is more focused on training military personnel how to approach and handle different terrain than it is about putting the Humvee through its paces.

The roughly 320-acre test site, sitting next to a former Studebaker manufacturing facility, has seen many changes over the years. Including marshland, sand dunes, hills, rocks, deep water and urban terrain, the grounds have continued to change with the landscapes of war.

AM General has produced the Humvee for both domestic and foreign needs at its military plant in Mishawaka for more than 30 years, and the vehicle is currently used in about 60 countries.

The grounds don’t just change for the military side either. AM General’s commercial business also takes advantage of the area, testing brakes, pot holes, high speed passes, “anything you can encounter on the road,” said John Stearns, the facility’s senior instructor.

And if there’s something new AM General engineers want to simulate, Stearns said, they simply work with local contractors to design a new obstacle. The most impressive obstacles, though, are geared toward the Humvee training.

I had heard big talk about what these vehicles could do, but now having seen one in action, they do live up to the hype. Right from the beginning of the track, the Humvee climbed a 22-inch vertical step and rolled through uneven terrain with ease.

Then after parking on a 40-percent side slope came my favorite part of the course, dropping down and going back up a 60-percent slope. It was the roller coaster feel of the drop and climb that I enjoyed. Though AM General opened up the course to us for a fun experience, along with a visit by U.S. Rep Jackie Walorski, the training the company provides to military is crucial.

It’s companies such as AM General that have helped the state become a major player in the defense industry, said Walorski, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

“In our state when … we talk about military budget, we are talking about tens of thousands of Hoosier jobs,” Walorski said of the Indiana’s part in the industry. “That’s how much Indiana has grown.”

Thousands of U.S. and foreign military go through the about weeklong training at the facility, Stearns said, that encompasses hands-on technical and mechanical training and the off-road driving.

“This allows them to really know this vehicle inside and out,” he said. “They know how to fix their vehicle, they know how to keep it going, they know how to properly approach an obstacle. … That’s a load off of a soldier’s, or any military member’s, mind.”

Currently, there is a group of Army Rangers, as well as groups from Canada and Mexico, going through the training. The best part for many of AM General’s trainers, though, is continuing to work with the military. Almost all of the instructors are former military, Stearns said.

Now in his 12th year with AM General, Stearns spent 22 years with the Army, having led training at Fort Knox.

“We get to do what we love to do and that’s train soldiers,” Stearns said. “That’s the best part.”

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Source: South Bend Tribune, http://bit.ly/1QvE1f9

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com

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