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Posted 12/14/2016

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By Cheryl Buckel, Strategic Planner
South Pacific Division


 

What a wild ride! As I reflect back on the adventures of working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the past 34 years,  I can’t think of a better way to see the world, experience many different careers, and meet such fabulous people, all while working for one federal agency.  Here are a few stories from those years.

Early Years

After being hired on as a Department of Army (DA) Intern in the early 1980s, I spent a year rotating through the different offices of the Seattle District in Washington. One of my assignments was working at a large hydroelectric dam as a construction representative. During my internship, I had the opportunity to walk into the giant turbines (while they were offline of course) and the huge penstocks that fed the turbines. With hydraulic structures as my emphasis getting my Civil Engineering degree, this was one of my bucket list items achieved!

Another DA Intern assignment was assisting the senior marine biologist on marine sampling off of one of the larger Corps dredges in Grays Harbor. Our 12-hour shift consisted of taking a one-minute sample of dredge spoils in a sample basket, then counting and documenting the diversity of marine life, both living and dead within each sample. We did this throughout the 12 hour shift. We were sampling on the “bar” where the harbor meets the Pacific Ocean with ocean swells of to 12 feet! I harnessed my “inner pirate” and had a great adventure.

After completing the Intern program, I began working in Emergency Management. In the Pacific Northwest, the frequency of flooding kept us very busy during the winter and spring months. There were times when I stood thigh-deep in rushing water throwing sandbags on top of a levee. I was put in charge of directing a military helicopter to fly the USACE Commander over the flooded communities after the rain stopped. I experienced the most satisfaction going into communities to work with them on preparedness planning for flooding and earthquakes.

In 1989, shortly after the birth of my first child, I was selected as one of the first Corps team members to respond as part of the federal support to the Loma Prieta Earthquake in San Francisco. I spent the next month working on with local and state officials assessing damage in the Marina district and along the Embarcadero. Being away from my family was tough, so I looked for a change.

And so began my second career with the Corps. I worked as an environmental engineer doing cleanup of formerly used military sites where general operations and maintenance practices resulted in spilling solvents and petroleum products onto the ground and eventually into the ground water. We were required to train in the use of a “Level A” suit -- a self-contained, enclosed breathing suit much like you see in the movies. Fortunately, I never had to use one on duty.

One of the most interesting projects I worked on was on Johnson Atoll, located 750 miles southwest of Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Corps was asked to assess the level of radioactive materials on and around a launch pad where a missile had exploded on takeoff. Upon deplaning, my introduction to the island was the safety briefing in which officials issued each person a gas mask, tank of air, and two syringes of Atropine, a medication used to treat nerve agent and pesticide poisoning. It was at that time I discovered the island has an active demilitarization plant, where people were busy neutralizing chemical weapons. The instructions were interesting, along the lines of: “Upon hearing the first siren, put the mask on and stab yourself with the first syringe in the thigh. If you make it to the second siren, use the second syringe.” Luckily, during our week there we never heard a siren.

One last adventure before moving to a new Corps position was driving around the northwestern states looking for little 10-foot x10-foot shacks. Unsuspecting, these shacks were entrances to missile silos. There, where we were greeted by 18-old Soldiers with huge automatic weapons. Many of these Soldiers had been on long rotations and were living underground. The look in their eyes, and the seriousness of these jobs, made these trips some of the most intense.

Middle Years

As our family grew, I took a job as an Environmental Project Manager in Albuquerque in my home state of New Mexico.

One of the more interesting projects I had was shortly after the Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos – the community I grew up in – which had lost several housing areas and was under severe threat of flooding from monsoons as a result of the denuded watersheds. This was an opportunity to give back to the people and community where I was raised. I helped provide temporary housing options for many homeless families, buy coordinating the building of infrastructure in support for the temporary housing. Additionally, I worked with many of the nearby Pueblos to devise ways of protecting sacred lands that could be affected by the flooding downstream.

In December 2000, my husband was offered a job in Wiesbaden, Germany. We packed the children and moved to Germany. Of all of the opportunities the Corps has to offer, this is one of the best. Living and working in Germany, experiencing the culture of all of the countries nearby, and visiting many historic places was a great way to raise the kids. We spent many weekends traveling throughout Europe. The adventures we had with friends and family are all cherished memories.

Europe also brought with it some of the most rewarding projects of my career, as I supported the design and construction of hospitals and dental clinics in Germany and Italy. Working with a variety of stakeholders -- from the needs of the medical communities to meeting foreign government regulations – was a rewarding and challenging experience, especially knowing that these facilities would support the military service members and their families.

One special assignment took place while I was working for the international engineering section of the Europe District. I was asked to represent the Corps of Engineers at an international emergency response conference in Riga, Latvia. While there I worked with the State Department and active military units in support of their efforts to renovate a nearby orphanage. It was the first time I had traveled to this area of Europe, and it was enriching both professionally and personally.

After five years overseas, my family and I returned to New Mexico, where I again worked as a project manager. This time, I worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs building schools and dormitories in Navajo communities. Because of my time with dual-language projects in Germany, I easily adapted to the Navajo meetings, where it was an honor to listen to Elders discuss issues in both their native language and English. It my own way I believe I contributed to helping improve the quality of life for the future generations.

In 2006, I was honored to be selected as one of 36 individual Emerging Leaders across the Corps enterprise to attend and interact with the awesome executive leadership of the Corps at the quarterly leadership summit! This experience included learning about other future leaders in the Corps, and shadowing current leaders. The perspective from the top reenergized me to seek more challenging ways to support our agency and engage in the development of future Corps professionals.

A resulting assignment as an Emerging Leader was to train as a Gallup StrengthsFinders Coach. This enabled me to coach, mentor, and teach about 2,000 individuals across the Corps, over the next 10 years, in all levels of leadership programs. It is through these efforts I realized my love of teaching, and coaching, which makes sense as a third-generation educator!

Later Years

As I moved into my later career years, I realized I had a lot to offer and pay forward to future Corps employees. I began doing more on the side with my experiences.

I researched and developed a mentoring program for the Albuquerque District, which in its pilot year had 16 people, and second year grew to more than 25 percent of the workforce of the District. The success of this program was identified as a “best practice” in the USACE enterprise Mentoring guidance. I was then asked to present the mentoring journey, development and implementation of the program to the University of New Mexico (UNM) international mentoring Conference, four years in a row.

Through social media networks, I was asked to provide project management, team building and strategic planning sessions for the UNM Anderson graduate school. It was to share my experiences with professionals outside of the Corps.

I worked with the New Mexico Federal Executive Boards, providing an Advanced Leadership for Excellence Series, which saved the federal government more than $27,000 in training. I helped the San Francisco Federal Executive Board develop the structure for a multi-agency Leadership Program. Much of this work was done outside normal work hours.

The Municipal Management Association of Northern California, Women’s Leadership Summit, requested I come and provide my perspective on Customer Care. This was a great opportunity to engage women role models in meaningful conversation about how we support our communities.

I had the opportunity to share what I’d learned with all levels of the Corps organization, spending six months at headquarters, before landing a job in San Francisco at the South Pacific Division. This allowed me to see Corps work at all levels, something I think everyone in the organization could benefit from. In doing this, staff have the opportunity to see how it all works together, and provides an opportunity for knowledge sharing with others.

Conclusion

As an employee who has dedicated 34 years of their career to the Corps of Engineers, I am grateful for the training opportunities that helped me understand how our organization worked from the very first day I was hired, to the technical courses which helped me hone my expertise throughout the years, and finally to the leadership development programs which helped me evolve into the leader behind the leadership in the organization.

But the most important lesson I learned was it isn’t just the adventures that made this career memorable – it’s the people.

Being a public servant takes a lot of dedication. The people of the Corps represent some of the most amazing professional, technically excellent, and hardworking people dedicated to delivering vital engineering solutions, in collaboration with our partners, to secure our nation, energize our economy and reduce risk from disaster.

It has truly been an honor to work alongside these awesome people, and I hope as I leave the Corps after 34 years of dedicated service, that in some way, I helped make it a better place for my co-workers and teammates. I leave knowing I have made long lasting friendships, and excited about the future adventures outside this great organization.

Essayons!