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Posted 2/25/2009

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By John Neville


If you like this stuff, try and get to the Army Corps of Engineers

That’s what U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Deputy Commander Lt. Col. Stephen Bales said to about 30 Army officers from Fort Knox’s 19th Engineer Battalion who were visiting the McAlpine Locks and Dam project Feb. 18.

Most of the Soldiers in attendance studied engineering-- civil, mechanical, or electrical typically-- and they all had been to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., to pick up the combat side of their trade at the Army’s Engineer Basic Officer Leadership Course. Several had already seen a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan, too.

But the Corps’ mission is different.

“This is unlike anything you’ve ever dealt with,” Bales said.

First, Bales explained, Corps projects don’t progress as they do in the Army. Decisions to put up a bridge over a river in Iraq don’t need congressional authorization and appropriations— two stages of the legislative process that can be politically sensitive and time consuming. The majority of Corps projects do require the okay from Congress, and these projects must be funded before anything gets started.

Besides administrative differences, the Corps’ mission also varies from the uniformed side of the house. Corps missions are divided into two sectors—military and civilian.

The Corps manages the majority of construction on Army (and some other services) bases across the United States, and, currently, due to Base Realignment and Closure projects, there is a ‘whole lot of building going on.’ Fort Knox projects alone are nearing half a billion dollars. The Louisville district—the third largest district in the Corps—manages the construction of all reserve centers within the 50 states.

But there is more to the Corps than erecting state of the art military facilities. The Corps—and the Louisville district especially-- is heavily involved in assuring that the pace of American commerce isn’t disrupted by impassable waterways.

The Louisville District manages ten locks and dams sites along the Ohio and Green River that allow hundreds of tons of coal, crude, agriculture products, and other goods to pass safely to their destinations. The district also manages twenty flood damage reduction lake projects within Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. The work runs 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and severe weather—like Kentucky’s recent ice storm—doesn’t bring these operations to a halt, either.

“We had to take dam 52 up and down twice in sub-freezing weather,” Bales explained. “It’s dangerous work. These guys are out there in very severe weather. It doesn’t matter what’s going on around them, they have to go put this dam up if the river gets too low. We’ve got to keep the river open to make sure traffic can go up and down. The Ohio River has more barge traffic than any other river in the nation.”

While they do have their differences, the engineers in uniform and the largely civilian Corps staff are also very much alike. They both help people.

The Corps was heavily involved in the recent ice storm that wreaked havoc on Kentucky’s electrical grid. The Corps also provided critical support during the floods that hit southern Indiana last summer. The Corps’ emergency response role surprised Bales, who was assigned to the Louisville office in June.

“This is one of the things I truly did not have a good appreciation of before I got here,” he said. “But we truly have a whole group of individuals in the Corps whose whole purpose in life is emergency operations. “We’ve got a very extensive operations center over in the federal building. If you guys have ever been in a high-speed TOC (tactical operations center) in the field with big screen TVs and everything…I can bring a whole team in there and we can go help people.”

The Corps—acting upon the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency following the recent freeze—provided generator support, coordinated road debris removal, and inspected hospitals, nursing homes, churches, and other critical facilities to determine if they were safe for use. The mission required long hours, and tension among officials, responders and the public was intense at times. But there was a payoff.

“Anybody wearing a Corps t-shirt can walk in that (state capitol) building and be viewed as a hero,” Bales said. “I was working 16 to 18 hour days, but it was well worth it. It was rewarding in the end. I got to work with some great individuals. If you think you’d like this stuff, get to the Corps of Engineers.

Were any of the young officers listening to Bales’s briefing interested in working for the Corps one day? It appears so.

“Yeah, it’s definitely something I’m interested in,” said 1st Lt. Andrew Stockhoff who is currently working with the Corps’ construction projects on Knox for two weeks before he deploys to Afghanistan in the spring.

Stockoff will also work with the Corps in Afghanistan as a project engineer. Hundreds of Corps employees are deployed around the globe in support of the Global War on Terrorism.

“I’m looking forward to working with them in Afghanistan and in the future,” Stockhoff said.