Engineer receives top award, reflects on career at Fort Drum
May 22, 2014
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Forty years ago this summer, 2nd Lt. Jim Corriveau was finishing up engineering school at Fort Belvoir, Va., having graduated ROTC at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in his home state of Massachusetts.
In September 1974, he reported to a small garrison near the Canadian border called Camp Drum, N.Y.
One month later, the installation was renamed Fort Drum, and Corriveau went on to make the rural post his new home, helping to plan and engineer every step of its explosive growth -- including $4 billion of new infrastructure put in the ground since the 1980s.
For his most recent decade of work, Fort Drum's Public Works director was recognized May 5 at the Pentagon with the Department of the Army's Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service, the highest honor granted by the secretary of the Army to Army civilian personnel.
Corriveau said it was an unbelievable honor to receive it, but that he was not surprised to see the work of his 265 employees acknowledged.
"This award is not just mine," he said. "The team I have here is just incredible. The award recognizes all of their fine work."
It is work that has been intensive, especially over the last 12 years of rapid growth at Fort Drum, coupled with continuous warfighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to playing a major role in sustaining the facilities that underwrite every activity on post, Corriveau's team has accumulated numerous environmental awards and recognition along the way.
"We are a big team," he said. "I'm real proud of the capability of this team. They are professionals who are first-rate in what they do."
Housing on a War Footing
According to the award citation, for the period between October 2002 and September 2013 Corriveau, "contributed immeasurably" to improving the quality of life for all Soldiers, Families and Civilians of Fort Drum and the 10th Mountain Division (LI) who call the post home.
As the Soldier and Family Member population here nearly doubled since 9/11, Corriveau led an expansion that secured Fort Drum's ability to house and support a transformed 10th Mountain Division into the future.
"It was a pretty intense time," he said. "We were trying to find places for Soldiers and Families to live -- pretty fundamental stuff."
Before becoming director of PW in 2006, Corriveau served as chief of housing for several years, where he helped Fort Drum implement the U.S. Army's Residential Communities Initiative, a newly rolled out program that privatized family housing on posts Armywide.
"That took quite a bit of doing," he said. "I spent four months down at Fort Meade, Md., on the Source Selection Board.
"We selected (Actus) Lend Lease," he added. "And they continue to be an excellent provider for Army Families and a housing leader in the North Country."
However, the local housing market was not growing as quickly as post officials had hoped and Families were living as far away as Syracuse.
So Corriveau turned his focus downtown, encouraging developers through organizations such as the Development Authority of the North Country, Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization and Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency to invest and build in the North Country.
"That was a sustained effort during those years, continuing even up until recent times," he said.
As a result of the construction of more than 1,000 rental units off post in recent years, he said the local housing market dramatically improved for Soldiers and their Families.
Corriveau has overseen nearly $2 billion in military construction development over the last 12 years.
"That's fun work for engineers," he said. "You get involved in defining what the projects are and what you will need and how to justify it to the Army and Congress."
Corriveau said he especially enjoys working with his master planning team, because it means trying to develop Fort Drum real estate in a way that's coherent and functional.
"When you do it right, it shows," he said. "You drive down the street and it looks good. It looks like it belongs."
Much of the military construction on post is what he called "in-fill" development, or building in the open spaces between existing facilities. Corriveau said the approach is cheaper, smarter and leads to a more integrated and pedestrian-friendly campus.
In the last year, in-fill development at Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield has included the construction of a new aviation brigade headquarters, two barracks buildings and some battalion- and company-level facilities.
"The airfield is an intense piece of real estate," he said, noting the challenges of the past year's projects. "And we're doing it all again this year, putting up all this steel, doubling the size of these hangars, all while the brigade is training up for its next rotation."
In addition to the hangars, a new air traffic control tower -- two and a half times the size of the existing one -- is scheduled for the upcoming year. Major construction also is under way on Gas Alley, as are preparations for wall-to-wall air-conditioning in Hays Hall, something that was not authorized 30 years ago when the building went up.
Thomas Ferguson, chief of the Operations and Maintenance Division of Public Works, attributes the successful implementation of so much development in recent years to Corriveau's leadership.
"From my personal observations, he was the principal engineer of Fort Drum's modern facilities that we all benefit from and take pride in today," said Ferguson, who has worked alongside Corriveau since 1980.
"And there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Fort Drum is a better place due directly to the contributions he has made throughout his exceptional public service career."
After arriving here in 1974, Corriveau helped teach National Guardsmen and Reservists to construct timber trestle bridges, range towers, tank trails and other troop projects.
"The early days were a lot of fun," he said. "It was such a small group of us here -- about 200 Soldiers. That was it. So you got to know almost everybody. It was like a Family."
After four years, he left active duty to work as a part-time combat engineer with the Army Reserves and full-time civil engineer with Fort Drum's civilian workforce.
Corriveau, who became a supervisor within PW in the early 1980s, explained that there is only so much one can do with the nuts and bolts of his trade.
"With human capital -- people -- there is no limit to the upside," he said. "It's just such a wonderful opportunity to be in charge, not just a 'be the boss' kind of a thing, but to be in a place to motivate folks to do their best. You stand back and watch that happening, and it's a great, great feeling."
Selecting subordinate leaders to run a shop, section, branch or division is a key element of that success.
"It's very important work to pick the right people," he said. "You need your team to really click to go forward, particularly so in the leadership ranks. That's where I get my biggest kick out of things."
Corriveau describes himself as a "glass-half-full kind of a guy." He said even with tight budgets and downsizing, PW is still a large and capable team with talent worth investing in.
"The thing is that the big money is always in the human element, the people," he said. "To get the most of that investment, you have to leverage it with training and equipment … so that people feel proud of what they are doing and want to excel.
"Everybody comes to work in the morning wanting to do a great job," he added. "I want to do a better job than yesterday, to go home more satisfied than I was yesterday."
For Corriveau, another way of investing in people is holding regular PW workforce briefings -- face-to-face meetings that not only serve to connect with his people but also to offer them a bigger picture regarding what is happening at the garrison, division and Installation Management Command leadership levels.
"I spend a lot of time with them because I want their head to be in the game and to understand why something is important, where we are headed, and what's critical in the way ahead," he said. "I talk a lot about the Soldiers and their challenges as Soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division going off to war, and the sacrifices they and their Families are making.
"We need to be empathetic there," he continued. "I want my plumbers who go out and unplug a toilet to understand all of that. That helps make his work more relevant. It plays out that way; it just does. So I spend a lot of time communicating all of that."
Scott Murphy, Electric Shop leader under the Operations and Maintenance Division of Public Works, has worked under Corriveau for the last 25 years.
He called his boss a compassionate person who cares for people and treats them with the utmost respect. Murphy also pointed out that through an "open-door policy" and a belief in investing in people, Corriveau breeds a dedicated and productive workforce.
"He continuously pushes training to keep our engineers up to date on equipment and infrastructure," he said. (He wants) our engineers performing their jobs in a safe manner, and (he wants) to keep the residents and workforce safe."
Fort Drum's Cultural Resources Program manager has worked with Corriveau for the past 15 years. Having won many DOD awards and international recognition for her work with Soldiers in conflict areas around the world, Dr. Laurie Rush said she cannot think of any other individual who has had a more positive impact on her career.
"I remember the first time I ever had an opportunity to meet with him one on one to discuss an important issue," Rush said. "I remember leaving his office thinking, 'Mr. Corriveau is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful people I have ever had a conversation with.'"
Rush said Corriveau offers invaluable advice that usually entails multiple solutions to one problem. She also praised the careful way he approaches any resolution, such as his willingness once to counsel her over seemingly insignificant mistakes in her email etiquette.
"He picked up on all of the unwritten messages in my discourse and pointed them out to me," she said. "Like the fact that I had replied immediately, indicating to the sender that I was watching for the email; the fact that I had misspelled words in the response, indicating to the sender that I was angry and 'shooting from the hip.'
"I still use the insight and lessons he shared on that occasion every single day," she added. "Who would even think of those details, let alone take the time to guide an employee in such a thoughtful way?"
In the bigger picture, the soft-spoken engineer's interpersonal skills that often employ a delicate touch may seem beside the point. But for those who know him well, Corriveau's restrained and respectful demeanor has been a key to his success as a leader.
Jason Wagner, chief of Public Works' Natural Resources Branch, called Corriveau an "extremely high class" individual committed to excellence in his people and his organization.
"He always listens before he makes any judgments, even to ideas miles outside of the box," said Wagner, who has known Corriveau for more than 14 years. "He trusts his team to lean forward, and he will back them through thick and thin."
"I have developed a great respect and admiration for Jim's ability, foresight and dedication," Ferguson echoed. "He's a hard-working professional with the highest level of honesty and integrity, exhibited not only as a federal manager but as a person."
To be nominated for the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service, individuals must demonstrate outstanding leadership in realizing achievements that must be clearly exceptional or preeminent among all persons who have performed similar duties.
On behalf of Secretary of the Army John McHugh, Brad Carson, undersecretary of the Army, presented Corriveau with the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service.
Corriveau's wife, Mary, former Watertown city manager, and Col. Gary A. Rosenberg, Fort Drum garrison commander, accompanied him to Washington for the ceremony. He said he enjoyed seeing some old friends still in uniform who had served at Fort Drum years ago.
About his long career at Fort Drum, Corriveau said he often considers himself "just a civil engineer who homesteaded here for 40 years."
Other than days spent fighting bureaucratic battles, he said he loves giving most of his time to engaging his people.
"That part is wonderful," he said. "Some days I just cannot believe the Army pays me to do it.
"And I really enjoy being the cheerleader for the PW team," he added, "telling their story everywhere I go and defending them wherever I go as necessary, because they just rise to the occasion and excel time and again."
Corriveau retired from the Army Reserves in the rank of colonel 10 years ago. As his long career as an Army Civilian draws to a close, he expressed disbelief and gratitude while reflecting again on his award.
"I rose through the ranks, to be sure, and ended up being the director of PW," he said. "But compared to big Army? That's different. This was nothing I ever expected to see coming my way.
"For all of the opportunities the Army has provided me, I'm very grateful," he added. "Serving our Soldiers, Families and Civilians at Fort Drum is fulfilling work. And as an engineer, facilitating the build-out of Fort Drum infrastructure through two major expansions has been a dream assignment."