One of the nicest guys in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will retire Nov. 30, 2013.
Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh gives a self-deprecating chuckle. “Well, I don’t know about being the nicest guy in USACE. I just believe that everybody brings something special to the office. Many times being a leader means finding that specialness in everybody, and bringing their talents forward. That’s what I try to do.”
Walsh is the USACE Deputy Commanding General for Civil and Emergency Operations. He provides executive leadership and strategic direction to eight divisions and 38 districts to execute a multi-billion dollar program for civil works -- flood risk reduction, navigation, ecosystem restoration and five smaller programs.
“I also direct our extensive team of government and contractor personnel to execute large public works infrastructure planning, design, construction, operations and maintenance,” Walsh said. “These projects include the Everglades, Puget Sound, the Mississippi River Tributaries Project, the Los Angeles River and Hurricane Sandy Recovery.”
Walsh has held this position since December 2011. His other USACE commands have been Mississippi Valley Division, Gulf Region Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom, South Atlantic Division, Sacramento District and San Francisco District.
Anyone who believes that civil works engineers don’t have war stories should hear Walsh talk about his career highlights. At Fort Belvoir, Va., he was project engineer for a four-story building -- two stories above ground, two underground. In Iraq he watched the transfer of power between DoD generals and Department of State ambassadors in a country at war.
The flood of 2009 at Fargo/Moorhead, N.D., is a special memory.
“We were fighting a riverine flood in a blizzard,” Walsh said. “Giant snowflakes coming down and we’re helping move sandbags to the river. They were filling sandbags in the basketball dome in Fargo, and running them out to the levees as fast as they could. If the sandbags froze it was like trying to stack frozen turkeys.”
Walsh joined the Army on June 6, 1977, with a direct commission through the ROTC program at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I thought that military service would be a good way to adapt my skills and education in engineering,” Walsh said. “I also thought it would be a good way to develop leadership skills, learning to command platoons and companies. I thought I would stay four or five years, command an engineer company and then leave the Army.
“But I’ve been doing this for 36 years,” Walsh said. “I decided to stay because I enjoyed serving with great people on challenging missions in diverse locations.”
Walsh is leaving the Army, but “I’m not retiring,” he said. “I’ll transition out of the military and go do something else. ‘Retirement’ has the connotation that you’ll sit on the back porch drinking adult beverages and smoking a cigar. I’m not doing that. I’m going to do another job where I can build upon my knowledge of water resources and water resource management.
“The water resources of our nation are still immature and we need to continue working on them. I’ve been doing that in the Army for 20 years, but at a certain point you need to go do something else. So I’m not retiring, I’m transitioning to something else. I’ve got another 20 or 25 years left in me to continue working with water resources.”
So Walsh sees a bright future for himself, and his experience with USACE makes him optimistic about the agency’s future.
“I have two messages for USACE,” Walsh said. “First, I think the better part of the Corps of Engineers’ history has yet to be written and, second, remember the true meaning of our motto ‘Essayons’.
“In the next 10 years, a lot of water issues are going to become acute,” Walsh said. “The water wars between Florida and Georgia and Alabama. The water issues between Northern California and Southern California. The dams on the Upper Missouri River. The droughts in the Southwest. As our nation tries to address those, there is only one federal agency that plans, engineers and builds water resource projects. In another 10 years our nation will turn to USACE and ask ‘How do we address these water problems?’”
Walsh’s second message stems from an incident in Iraq. While there, Walsh mentioned to a French-speaking ambassador that the USACE motto is “Essayons.”
“Do you know what that means,” asked the ambassador. “It’s French for ‘Well, give us a shot at it. We’ll try.’”
“No sir, that’s French,” Walsh replied. “‘Essayons’ is an American Army term. It means ‘Let us try.’ When others have failed, let us try. When others don’t know what to do, let us try. When the mission must be accomplished, ‘Essayons!’