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Arsenal leader looks back on satisfying career
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Mike Bunch recently retired as deputy commander of Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center after 35 years of government service.
ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL -- When Mike Bunch first got a job on Arsenal Island in 1974 as a keypunch operator (at $3 an hour), he never dreamed he'd make a career working for the federal government.

In December, the 58-year-old Coyne Center native retired as deputy commander of the Arsenal's main factory, the Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center. Mr. Bunch worked for various military commands on the island for nearly 35 years.

"I met my wife of 34 years here; I met the best friends of my life here," he reminisced in his office last fall. "I have been surrounded by people who are dedicated to getting that young soldier out there in harm's way the best equipment possible to ensure mission accomplishment and get that soldier back home to his or her family."

"I am proud to have worked for the Army for almost 35 years, and I am happy to have gotten to a point where I actually became personal friends with some very fine individuals who also happened to be military officers," Mr. Bunch said. "As a group, there is nothing to compare them to.

"They are dedicated, compassionate, smart individuals who could be making way more money in private industry but choose to make the Army a career," he said. "Their families and friends know what these men are like; I do not believe the general public realizes the depth of the dedication to service to country these men and women have. I guess I am really proud to have been around long enough to see that and realize it."

A Sherrard High School graduate, Mr. Bunch has close family ties to the Arsenal -- a great-grandfather, two grandparents and both parents all worked on the island. In the early '80s, he said, about a dozen of his relatives were employed there.

"As a very little kid, we used to go to the annual Arsenal picnic. There'd be pony rides, a train; I remember coming to them," Mr. Bunch recalled. He met his wife, Julie, the second year he worked on the island, and they were engaged a year later. "There was a lot more socializing of the workforce. It became easy to stay."

After getting married, Mr. Bunch went to work for International Harvester in Davenport and was transferred to Kansas City, Kan., in 1980. He moved back to the Quad-Cities in 1982, and, with the collapse of the farm economy, went to work for the Army Corps of Engineers (on the Arsenal) for four years.

"The advantage of being on the island, there's a lot of variety on the post," Mr. Bunch said of job opportunities.

Among the many positions he held were tool grinder trainee at the factory; budget analyst and an accountant in the Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command and Industrial Operations Command; resource manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, and associate director of industrial base operations with Tank and Automotive Command (TACOM). He got his business administration degree from Upper Iowa University.

Everyone at JMTC is aware of potential budget cuts and occasional threats of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, which last took place in 2005. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan boosted business for JMTC, but the pendulum has swung back with the withdrawal from Iraq

In 2005, the Army transferred repair of M119 howitzers, which are made at the Arsenal, to save money, Mr. Bunch said. "Otherwise, a major change at the factory has been in the last few years as we act on the knowledge that we must diversify our product line to ensure our capabilities are ready and exercised for the next time the Army deploys and needs something quickly."

"It's a year-to-year thing," he said of Arsenal workload. "The plant orders received last year become what I'm working on this year. It depends how much work we can generate. We're hand to mouth. There is no law or Army policy that directs the Army to use the Arsenal for anything."

In 2002 (before the Iraq war), there were 750 people working at JMTC. The peak employment was 1,800 in 2009, Mr. Bunch said, noting there are about 1,600 today. With declining defense spending, it makes sense for the Arsenal to diversify products and work for customers outside the Army, he said.

"We basically reinvent ourselves on the run, work with other government agencies, and have partnerships with companies like Sivyer Steel in Bettendorf and Mandus Group in Rock Island," Mr. Bunch said. "We're now a worldwide supplier for John Deere -- machining work, grinding cylinders. There's a potential for that to grow, but we have to prove to Deere that we can actually perform.

"Deere will help us because they have a vested interest in the success of their suppliers and have shown a willingness to help us," he said. Congress also is working on lifting a cap on public-private partnerships to allow the Arsenal to do more work for the private sector.

Budget cuts "should give the workforce a sense of urgency of why we should get better fast," Mr. Bunch said. "Legislators can fight the fight for you in the halls of Congress, but if you can't deliver a quality product on time at a reasonable price, they're not going to be able to save you. That should be a wakeup call."

"The bottom line for us, though, is we are more like a private business than the Army organizations that we share Rock Island with," he noted. "Like a private business, we have to seek out opportunities, contact potential customers, convince them to visit, give us an opportunity to solve a production issue they have, then prove ourselves by providing a quality product, at a reasonable cost, on time."

The factory is long known as an artillery producer, and over the last dozen years it's become a manufacturer of mobile maintenance systems, various armor solutions and small arms parts, Mr. Bunch said. "Even in time of peace, there are plenty of requirements for manufactured goods coming from Department of Defense.

"The Arsenal is capable of producing many of these. We are working hard to attract Defense Logistics Agency, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps work, while continuing to work with Army customers," he said.

"Performance will be crucial to making new customers repeat customers. It can be done with a dedication to constant process improvement, like you hear every coach at all levels of sports say, 'We have to get better every day.' That applies to Rock Island Arsenal, too."

He retired now because his wife recently retired from TACOM, and one day he "looked around and all of a sudden I am the old guy," Mr. Bunch said. "I am to the point where I would like to see what else I can do with the 72 hours a week I am spending getting to and from work and working."




Living the dream

Who: Mike Bunch, recently retired deputy commander of the Joint Manfacturing and Technology Center at Rock Island Arsenal
Quote: "I am happy to have gotten to a point where I became personal friends with some very fine individuals who also happened to be military officers."


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