Corps engineers care for Army, DoD worldwide
February 21, 2013
He may wear the uniform, but at the heart of Col. Robert Ruch is not just a Soldier, but an engineer.
"One of the really neat things as a military engineer is we get to float back and forth between the real Army and then the Corps of Engineers," said Ruch, commander of the Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville. "It's the ability to link those two together and take experiences from one and do better in the other job."
Growing up in a family of eight kids, Ruch, the son of a naval engineer who served in World War II, was a geo-environmental science major at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, when he got a sneak peek of what the Army and engineering could offer him in the Cadet Troop Leader Training Program. Thinking he'd only wear the uniform for four years, the Pennsylvania native is now at 27 years and counting. Throughout his career he's served as the 53rd commander of the Philadelphia District of the Corps of Engineers, the senior staff officer for NATO Infrastructure in Crisis Response Operations dealing with construction in Afghanistan and the Balkans, and live fire engineer trainer for the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., among other assignments.
"You love that troop time, but it's in moving back and forth between the tactical Army and Corps of Engineers that keeps it really fresh," Ruch said. "The challenges are part of what really makes it rewarding. I got to help manage the biggest flood in the Missouri Basin. We did press conferences every day for 75 days straight, and as hard as that seemed, you miss the things that were the hardest because you get the most reward."
Ruch took command of the Engineering and Support Center July 26. While the headquarters is physically located in the Tennessee Valley, Huntsville Center and its more than 800 employees know no boundaries in their support of the Department of Defense and other government agencies worldwide. At any given time, 25 employees from Huntsville Center are deployed in harm's way, where they may be helping build a base camp, clearing IEDs or making sure routes are safe for Soldiers.
"We're that shock absorber," Ruch said. "When they need engineering expertise anywhere, they send these folks. They read the paper, they see the threat, and they still raise their hand to say 'I'm willing to go do that.' They take that same skill set for what they're doing here to where there are artillery rounds landing. I have so much respect for them. When I signed up for this I knew what I was doing, but for a civilian to stand up and say 'yes' is incredible."
Ensuring future generations of engineers are there and ready to say 'yes' like today's Huntsville Center employees is paramount to Ruch, who supports his employees' efforts to go out into the community and share their love for STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- with local students.
"Really, as a nation, we need to work on STEM," Ruch said. "We are not putting enough emphasis on those programs for our students. We have great school systems here, and we need to get out and engage with these kids and get excited about these types of disciplines so they want to grow up and do this type of work. A majority of our engineering students are coming in from other countries, and they're going right back out the door when they're done. We need them to stay. We need the best and the brightest, regardless of where they're from. We need to motivate our children to think science and math are great professions. There's no challenge in this country that the answers aren't coming from engineering communities."
Huntsville Center employees comprise the Corps' work force of more than 35,000 employees in 90-plus countries working in support of ballistic missile defense, installation support, ordnance and explosives, engineering, chemical demilitarization programs and the Environmental and Munitions Center of Expertise. Each worker has their own mission to perform and story to tell.
"Our mission has broadened to answer whatever the requirements ask of us," Ruch said. "We're real proud of our role in supporting the Army and installations across the Department of Defense."
The world is a little safer with Melissa Kelly working behind the scenes.
Kelly, an electrical engineer who serves as a product engineer in Huntsville Center's Electronics Security Branch, applies her problem solver and analytical thinking mentality to protecting government agencies across the world in her line of work for the Corps. Supporting agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Army, Statue of Liberty and Smithsonian, it's engineers like Kelly who design the means to keep facilities safe, through protective measures like cameras and card readers.
"I feel like in some way I am supporting the effort to promote national security and efforts bigger than I know," Kelly said. Born in Meridian, Miss., ever since she was a little girl Kelly has had a knack for math and solving problems, something that comes in handy when it comes to projects like upgrading a secure room for an agency or redesigning an entire security system. A lifelong learner, she holds multiple degrees, including an MBA. Prior to coming to the Corps two years ago, Kelly worked as an electrical design engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and even dabbled in education for a time, passing on her love for STEM to future generations through tutoring and teaching high school math, in addition to electronics and basic electricity classes at Calhoun Community College.
"I thought that I could promote science and engineering by being a good math teacher," Kelly said. "A lot of people don't necessarily understand what engineers do. Engineering plays a vital role in the future and security of our nation."
William J. Eggleston III sees the whole picture, not just part of it.
In his role as safety engineer at Huntsville Center, and lead for facility systems safety for the entire Corps of Engineers -- Huntsville Center is the center of expertise within the Corps of Engineers -- it is Eggleston's responsibility to ensure that from cradle to grave, safety is of the utmost importance when it comes to the construction, demolition, maintenance and utilization of a building, by thinking outside of the box when it comes to potential problems and solutions.
"There's a lot of requirements, a lot of standards and a lot of regulations in every one of the engineering disciplines, and we look outside those norms," Eggleston said. "We look at all the other things that are going on within the footprint of the construction project -- we look at the design, the construction side, the workers who are building it and if they're going to be safe doing the things that they need to do. It's our job to say, 'What about this? What about that?'"
Take for instance a brand new, state of the art hospital in Alaska, complete with an environmentally friendly all-glass atrium, that stands 90-feet high. When the light bulbs burn out at 90 feet, how are workers to replace them? Due to the size of the doors, Eggleston said, bringing in a lift or other equipment to change the bulbs was impossible, meaning that once the bulbs are out, they're out. It cost $125,000 to install reels that allow workers to lower the bulbs down. Had Eggleston and his team been involved from day one, it would've cost only $25,000.
"Safety engineering is 60 percent communication and 40 percent knowledge," Eggleston said. "You've got to be able to communicate to the general officer levels, and then to the workers in the field digging a trench."
In addition to being in charge of the health and life of workers, such as slips, trips and falls, as well as ergonomics and occupational health at Huntsville Center, Eggleston is also responsible for the board of investigations for fatalities within the Corps, expanding their reach not just to the safety of the engineers within the Corps, but those who complete the work for them as well.
"It changes your whole aspect of how important safety engineering is within a project," Eggleston said. "We've had electrocutions and falls that have caused deaths. One of the things that a normal discipline engineer would not really look at is those actual construction workers, not the end user, the customer, but the workers themselves. We get a gamut of all of it."
Eggleston has had the opportunity to travel the world for his job -- he's TDY 70 percent of the time -- with Hawaii, San Diego, Sacramento and Boston being a few of his favorite stops along the way. As the father of two girls and an active participant in Huntsville Center's education outreach to local schools, passing on not only the love, but the importance of engineering and other STEM fields, is something Eggleston feels passionately about, especially when it comes to sharing the "fun side" of engineering.
"We're losing the engineering battle to China and Japan," Eggleston said. "Overseas countries are really pushing engineering. Because we are a free United States, we don't push our kids, we let them make their own decisions, but in other countries, that's what they have to do. What made the United States a world power is the engineers who came up with the rockets and space systems."