Louisville, Ky. – With hard work and perseverance, anything is possible, just ask Tara O’Leary. Little did she know that when she started working for the Louisville District in 1996 that she would one day be leading the team on one of its mega-projects.
O’Leary, who is now the Deputy Chief of the Veterans Affairs Division and Louisville VAMC project manager, started her journey with the district as a co-op student while attending the University of Louisville to study engineering.
“I did three semesters of co-ops in the Engineering Division - in Environmental, Structural, and Geotechnical. The co-ops gave me a great overview of what the Engineering Division does,” she said.
She eventually graduated from the University of Louisville’s Speed Scientific School, now known as the J.B. Speed School of Engineering, and holds a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and a Master of Engineering in Civil Engineering.
“When I graduated I came back to work full-time in the Environmental Branch. The district worked with me to determine my placement upon graduation, but with my degree being more focused on environmental, I thought that the Environmental Branch would be the best fit,” she said.
O’Leary said she enjoyed her time in the district’s Environmental program, where she worked for about 10 years.
“I worked a lot on Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) projects focused on soil and groundwater cleanups on bases that had been closed or excessed. I also worked on the Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) program where the government took control of older properties that were formerly owned or leased by the government. Many of these sites were used back in World War I and World War II, so it was really interesting to get to work on historical types of sites,” she shared.
She later decided to take a position in the Engineering Management Branch.
“When Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) occurred in 2005, there was a lot of Army Reserve work in Engineering Management. I had done a previous rotation in there, and they asked if I would come back and help out with the increased workload. I managed designs of Army Reserve facilities for about 10 years,” she said.
The new position allowed her to try something new, learn about another of the district’s missions and grow personally and professionally.
“Traveling the country was good. I got to travel to the west coast and visit some places I would have not normally have visited. I also worked on a lot of projects in the northeast,” O’Leary said. “It was great – I got to get to know and work with some great people on my teams. I still reach out to and talk to many of them today.”
O’Leary joined the District’s Veteran’s Affairs Division in 2018.
“At the time the Louisville VA Medical Center project was scheduling to award, I had an opportunity to come over and transition out of what I had been doing. I was excited – at the time I had been with the Corps for over close to 20 years but had never worked on a project in my own state let alone my home city,” she said.
O’Leary was named the project manager for the $900 million project last year after the former project manager retired. She said it’s challenging and exciting to be managing such a large project for the district.
“I didn’t know that when I started out that I would ever picture myself in this type of role.” she explained. “The magnitude is exciting because you can’t miss seeing the project. People drive by the site on the interstate and know it’s there and what it is. I am proud to be involved in building something in my own community that’s going to be here for 50-plus years. I am proud to be building something that is going to serve the Veterans in the area for many years to come, especially since these are my co-workers, my family, and people I go to church with.”
“My position is also multi-hatted, while I’m the project manager, I’m also the deputy of the VA Division – I have had to find my balance of how best my time is used. It all comes down to prioritization That’s probably my hardest challenge right now, balancing all of the demands with my time, but having good team members helps me achieve that balance.”
“An important part of any team, especially a newly established one, is communication – just learning how to talk to each other and work together, what the needs are of a certain agency or team member versus what your needs and priorities are. If you peel back the layers and get to the root of any successful teams, a lot of it leads back to communication and how you build that spirit of teamwork,” she said. “You have to surround yourself with good people that can work together as a team and who understand where you may need help, support or backup.”
O’Leary attributes her success to her upbringing from a young age.
“I came from a background of where I was empowered and supported to do anything I wanted. So when I made the decision to go into the engineering field, I felt I could succeed,” she said. “You just have to be confident in who you are, what your abilities are, and what you can do and not let those around you tell you otherwise. People will see what you bring to the table and that you are a valuable member of the team. A lot of it comes from being passionate about what you are doing and confident in who you are and that you can do what you want to do.”