Engineers in the U.S. Army’s Engineer Regiment typically work either for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or in operational assignments, in the U.S. and around the world.
The operational side of the regiment has traditionally been considered more exciting for Army officers because that’s the part that “applies combat power to seize, retain, and exploit the operational initiative to gain and maintain a position of relative advantage.” In other words, they do Army stuff.
USACE on the other hand, manages natural resources, maintains waterways and builds infrastructure.
Both sides are equally important, but engineer officers, many of whom joined the Army to “play in the dirt,” often prefer the operational side of the house. But as two officers assigned to USACE’s Transatlantic Middle East District (TAM) recently learned, a tour with the Corps can provide a whole lot of excitement and ultimately a whole new level of experience.
Majors Derek Sentinella and Grant Wanamaker didn’t know what to expect when they were assigned to TAM. Both officers were used to looking at the Middle East as a deployment and were pleasantly surprised to find an entirely different experience.
“Seeing Kuwait as a country and not as a deployment stepping stone really changed my perspective of the Middle East entirely,” said Sentinella. “I went in with full combat equipment load, but after being outside the base, I realized the only threats were the traffic and the high heat. I really enjoyed the food, shopping off base, the people and the culture.”
Wanamaker, who was assigned to Bahrain and was able to bring his wife with him, shared a similar perspective.
“Living on the economy in a foreign country, especially being some distance from the base, with my wife was unique. We met expats from all around the world and had a very rich experience. We realized quickly that a lot of our differences were superficial and we could engage in some great cultural exchanges with the foreign nationals,” he said. “Going to the highly developed country of Bahrain was eye-opening. The level of appreciation they have for the US and what we do there was great to see. Also, if you told Cadet Wanamaker in his senior year of ROTC that he would be working on building a pier in the Middle East on a US Navy, base he would have said you have no idea how the Army works. And yet, here we are.”
Colonel Philip Secrist, TAM’s commander, echoed their sentiments and said it was important officers coming to his district understand that it could be a very desirable assignment.
"I think it's really important to take on a couple of misconceptions officers might have about working with our district and USACE in general. The first one is that an assignment with the Middle East District is a deployment. Our officers are on PCS orders to the Middle East. They are staying in housing and in most cases have the ability to get out and about to explore the countries they are assigned to as well as the rest of the region. These are safe, modern cities with all of the amenities a large city has to offer. In Major Wanamaker’s case he was even able to bring his family."
The scope and scale of the projects both officers worked on are another point of agreement between them on how beneficial their assignments were. The Middle East District has projects throughout the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility spanning multiple countries. Those projects include maritime construction, piers, bridges, runways, medical facilities and almost everything in between.
Sentinella said some of the projects he was most proud of working on were the ones that impacted U.S. forces.
“I worked on a large Pier & Breakwater at Kuwait Naval Base and runway repairs at Ali Al Salem Air Base. Both of these are critical because they serve as the sea and air ports in and out of theater for U.S. forces,” he said.
Wanamaker cited a medical clinic and new pier in Bahrain as his favorite projects but said his favorite aspect of the job was interacting with USACE’s military mission partners in the region, both U.S. and international.
“One of my proudest achievements was when I coined the phrase "How do we get to yes" in my office. A couple months ago, our director of programs and project management used it because it speaks to the kind of relationships we get to build with our mission partners,” said Wanamaker. “You really have to get over yourself and your preconceived notions about how a project "should" run. Once you listen and adapt, you can influence the projects to stay on track.”
Sentinella said the work he did while assigned to TAM was a really great developmental opportunity.
“Learning about operational level diplomatic and military interactions, e.g. security cooperation, difference between DCA-K and SOFA, NEOs, CONPLANS, has enabled me to become a better field grade officer from thinking tactically to the operational level,” he said.
Secrist agreed saying both officers are learning valuable skills they might not get in other positions.
“These officers are often punching far above their pay grade on the projects they manage and the people they interact with. They’re trusted to meet with some of our foreign counterparts at the colonel or even general officer level and represent USACE. There's also a huge variety to the projects they manage. We've currently got almost 2 billion dollars in active construction so even if you're only managing a fraction of that we're talking large projects. On top of that, they get to work with and manage a lot of civilians, a valuable skillset many officers don’t’ get until late in their career. If you really want to develop as an officer, this is the place to do it.”
In fact, Wanamaker, whose next assignment will be Command and General Staff College, specifically mentioned managing civilians as one of his most valuable lessons.
“This assignment really humbled me. Just when I thought I had a few things figured out, I realize I was easily outmaneuvered in a different battle space. It’s opened my eyes to what the USACE does for the Army and the US as a whole. It also reinforces the fact that leadership is leadership - if you lead civilians and military personnel differently, then you are doing something wrong. Some of your methods may differ, but for the most part influencing people is the same in and out of uniform,” he said.
Sentinella will next be assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division’s, COVID Fusion Cell in South Korea, a job he feels well prepared for given this assignment.
“Since I fell under the U.S. State Department Chief of Mission while in Kuwait, I got a lot of exposure to the Embassy and to working with the Department of State which is rarely, if ever, given to an Engineer Officer.”