Fort Drum's top civilian leader reflects ahead of retirement
March 31, 2011
FORT DRUM, NY -- One of the few constants during the past decade of Fort Drum's explosive growth and transformation is about to change.
Judith L. Gentner, deputy to the garrison commander, will retire next week after more than 30 years of decorated civilian service to the Army.
"It has been an incredible experience and opportunity," said Gentner, who came to Fort Drum in 1997 and presided over the installation's largest expansion in history. "I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I'd go to work for the Army. But I did, and it was a good fit for me. Their values matched with mine, and it's a noble cause.
"I was afforded the opportunity to do so many things (in the Army) that I never would have thought I'd be able to do," she added.
For the past 14 years, Gentner has provided executive leadership for thousands of civilian employees on post. She has directed policy decisions, supervised the directorates and represented the garrison commander in his absence.
She said her job is like the assistant city manager of a medium-sized city, with the garrison commander as the city manager and the commanding general as the mayor.
"The only difference is cities don't have their residents coming and going like we do," she said.
With her retirement goes decades of invaluable experience that leaders in uniform say they will sorely miss.
Col. Noel T. Nicolle, Fort Drum garrison commander since last September, said the intricacies of an all-civilian workforce were a complete "mystery" to him when he arrived. He likened a colonel being paired with a civilian leader to a boxer training with a martial artist.
"When all you understand is brute force, you never appreciate the power of subtlety and poise," said Nicolle, who called Gentner's leadership style humble and unpretentious. "Mrs. Gentner's depth of knowledge and experience allows her to understand all the nuances of a situation, as well as the second- and third-order effects of a particular decision.
"She is the consummate professional," he added, "and is a walking encyclopedia of all things relating to operating a garrison. Whether it is personnel actions, law enforcement issues, impact outside the installation, or how best to support a deploying brigade, Mrs. Gentner has seen it all and always offers sound advice based on facts and experience."
Fort Drum's last garrison commander, who worked with her for more than two years, called Gentner a history-making leader who oversaw the greatest growth of any Army installation possibly since World War II.
"We had over $1 billion in expansion in a three-year period," said Col. Kenneth H. Riddle, currently deployed to Afghanistan with 10th Mountain Division (LI) headquarters. "It always gave me a sense of comfort to know I had a deputy who managed the civilian workforce and kept the commander out of the weeds. She provided continuity in the workforce from commander to commander.
"I was amazed at the professionalism and the level of commitment to not only her job, but also to the entire workforce - she is 100-percent committed," Riddle said. "The legacy Judy leaves behind is a strong work ethic, professionalism and an incredible dedication to supporting Soldiers and their Families."
Gentner's impressive Army career began unassumingly. After obtaining a bachelor's degree from the University of Colorado, she took an entry-level job at an Army recreation center in Kitzingen, Germany, where she said a part of her routine was making Soldiers take yoga.
Hard work paid off, and Gentner eventually was put in charge of morale, welfare and recreation programs for Soldiers and Family Members stationed at Schweinfurt, Germany.
"You're learning as you're going," she said of her Army career. "It really was just the experience of progressing through the different grade levels in the Army that gets you prepared to take on the next level."
With the Army, Gentner earned her master's degree in public administration and attended the U.S. Army War College and the Army Management Staff College.
Last year in Washington, D.C., she received the Army's highest civilian award - the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service - for leading efforts that brought Fort Drum more than $5 million in savings. In addition to the prestigious achievement, she has twice won three other top Army decorations - the Meritorious Civilian Service Award, the Superior Civilian Service Award and the Commander's Award for Civilian Service.
"Never would I have thought (all of this could happen) when I was wearing jeans and tennis shoes to work every day," she said. "I just believe the opportunity is there with the Army if you take advantage of it."
Before becoming deputy to the garrison commander here, Gentner did the same job for three years at the Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne, N.J., a major military shipping hub that has since closed. She said the installation, located on a two-and-a-half mile peninsula, was not only miniscule compared to Fort Drum, but also consisted predominantly of civilians.
"My favorite jobs were being where the Soldiers and Families are," she said. "I got that in Europe, and I get that at Fort Drum."
Gentner said her deep appreciation for Soldiers and their loved ones comes from family. Her brother, father, grandfather and uncle are either military veterans or retirees.
She said her upbringing also inspired an appreciation for her country's military.
"When you grow up in 1950s, early 1960s, heartland America, you are a patriot," she said. "That's just (who you are). The flag went by, and you saluted it."
In college, when the draft was reinstituted for Vietnam, Gentner's education in patriotism continued.
"I started seeing some of my male counterparts getting their (draft) numbers," she said. "You start to realize that people you knew were going out to defend what you believed in."
Nothing evokes deeper emotion from Gentner than the American flag and individuals at Fort Drum who sacrifice to preserve its ideals.
"I was truly blessed with the people I got to work with," she said. "They are the most dedicated, patriotic group of individuals I ever worked with in my Army career. They will go to any cost to get the job done."
The job, she said, is taking care of Soldiers and their Families. Gentner said Fort Drum employees consistently go out of their way to accomplish that mission.
In one such incident, the Directorate of Logistics was battling tough weather conditions to load a train in time for deploying troops.
"(Other directorates) all stopped what they were doing because they realized the importance of getting that train loaded with this equipment for our Soldiers to go to war," she said. "They all just went and loaded those trains. It was amazing. Not one boss had to say: 'Help!'
"We didn't even know about it (until after the fact)," she said. "Nobody had to tell them to go help. They just did it. It's just amazing, and it happens every day."
Looking back at her long career, Gentner said she hopes she was somebody known for listening and fairly deciding on the tough issues brought to her attention.
"They may not have always liked my decisions," she said, "but I would hope they at least knew I had thought about it and that I made a fair decision."
For members of the civilian workforce, their thoughts of Gentner reflect on her winning leadership style.
"Judy has led our garrison team with passionate energy, wisdom and a seasoned approach that's been most effective during these challenging times," said Public Works Director Jim Corriveau, who has worked at the installation for nearly 40 years. "She will be sorely missed ... (but) her legacy lives on in so many of us who benefitted greatly from her exceptional leadership."
Denise Wallace, director of the Civilian Personnel Advisory Center, joined the Fort Drum workforce in 1994. She began working closely with Gentner after becoming the garrison command group's executive officer in 2005.
She called Gentner the epitome of a selfless leader who always led by example.
"I quickly learned that she held her employees to very high standards," Wallace said. "She (has) always put the best interest of Soldiers, Family Members and the civilian workforce at the forefront of every decision that was made.
"Mrs. Gentner is a tough but fair leader," Wallace added, "who embodies the Army's values and lives them every day. She is a champion of each and every member of the workforce, and she taught us all by her example."
Gentner leaves the workforce with roughly 1,600 civilian employees of the Installation Management Command, a command created several years ago to standardize installation services Armywide. IMCOM workers account for 1/3 of the total 4,800 civilians employed at Fort Drum by various Army commands and defense contractors.
Although she plans to take a six-month break to consider work and volunteer ideas on the horizon, Gentner said she will settle with her husband and son locally.
"We are converts to the North Country; we love it here," she said. "I plan to spend lots of time with my family."
Gentner counts herself fortunate to have worked with such dedicated people at Fort Drum. Reflecting on all of her Army experiences, she said Fort Drum is a workforce that is "making history," and for the part she played, she is grateful.
For how she hopes the Fort Drum community remembers her, she offered three simple words.
"That I cared," she said.