By Cheryl A. Moore, Afghanistan DistrictApril 9, 2019
Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, USACE Commanding General and 54th U. S. Army Chief of Engineers, and Command Sergeant Major Brad Houston took their visit to the Transatlantic Afghanistan District and hosted a Regimental Engineer town hall with all Engineers at Bagram who are forward- deployed in support of Operation Freedom's Sentinel.
"Rare is the occasion, said Afghanistan District Commander Jason Kelly, that you get a small audience of one where you can get up and see the Chief of Engineers. Many active soldiers and Corps employees with USACE can go their entire career and never have that opportunity to interact with the Chief."
Kelly said, "Not only are we privileged to hear what's happening within the Regiment, within the Corps, but we all have an opportunity to come together, from those of you working in the 264th, 20th Engineer Brigade, CJENG, JENG, USACE. It's a big deal for us to come together and I'm honored to start today's session and present to you our 54th Chief, Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite."
As Gen. Semonite took the microphone he said, "I want to personally thank all of you for being here, and I've said this to a couple groups already, It's hard just being in the military, because you've got a hard job, I'm not convinced we pay you enough, we work you longer than 40 hours a week, and certainly if you're a soldier we're asking for you to deploy all over the place. "
He pointed out that there are a bunch of Corps of Engineers civilians in the room, though it may be hard to tell. He pointed to one of the civilians Mr. Curtis Walker, a USACE employee working logistics in theater, and said some may wonder why a soldier has a beard, because he was wearing the civilian uniform which resembles the military one. The civilians were then asked to raise their hands to show they were Corps employees, pointing out that USACE is about 50 percent soldiers and 50 percent civilians.
About being in Afghanistan, Gen. Semonite said, "If you don't know, our civilians that are here are volunteers. We asked them to go, each with regular jobs back in America and we said we need folks to support the mission. Most times as a soldier you don't necessarily get a choice, your unit goes, but when you're here, this is all about giving the people of Afghanistan a chance."
During his Army career Gen. Semonite had been to Iraq but had not been to Afghanistan until in 2013 when he volunteered to come and was the commander of CSTC-A. This is the organization that buys all the uniforms, pays all the salaries, oversees the process on how to get the training ranges, builds the barracks, and the Corps of Engineers does a lot of partnership work with CSTC-A.
The Chief's passion for the mission was evident as he said, "I was here for 13 months and every single day I went out on the ground somewhere. I saw Afghan soldiers, I saw Afghan police, and I saw Afghan families after somebody had been blown up in an IED or car bomb, and yet the Afghans are one of the most appreciative people that I've ever run into. He said you go to the United States I'm not sure that the non-military of aligned people appreciate what it's like to live in a country that's free and who take a lot of our freedoms and everything for granted."
He went on to say but the Afghans, just knowing that we're here gives them a chance. He also reminded the regiment there's going to be a day that every one of them is going to be on a plane taking off, so as you fly out of country I ask that you ask yourselves, Have I put it all in? Have you done every single thing you could to be able to make things happen?
During the town hall Gen. Semonite pointed out that he and the sergeant major kind of wear three hats; stating they are part of the Army Staff as an engineer, the other being in charge of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, USACE is an acronym.
"So we'll talk about the Regiment, and will call the regiment as everybody who's in the service and USACE," he said. But there is a very specific command called USACE, its 34,000 people and we have 43 brigades."
He asked the Afghanistan District commander, Col. Kelly to stand up and said this is a brigade commander, just like you would think of an infantry brigade commander, he is an engineer brigade commander. He also asked Col. Sullivan of the 20th Engineer Brigade to stand up pointing out that this is another brigade commander, they're both exactly the same except in USACE we call them Districts.
Semonite said the 3rd hat, and job he and the sergeant major are most proud of though is being called the Chief of Branch. He said this is where they concentrate on equipment for the soldiers, talent management, what is done to make sure engineers get promoted and what is being done to make sure the Regiment is all working side by side in an effort to revolutionize response delivery with a combined USACE and Regiment approach.
"USACE is 99 percent civilians, one percent military," Semonite said. Working together shows that when we're in a bad place we are one Regiment, we're all together whether you're a USACE civilian, whether you're a high speed command sergeant major. Learning what the soldiers have for capability, what USACE has for capability, then we know how to combine the skills to continue working."
Command Sergeant Major Brad Houston also spoke to the Regiment, thanking the soldiers and civilians for their service and reminded them all to thank their families for their support. An important message as we celebrate Month of the Military child this April.
Gen. Semonite wrapped up his presentation by saying USACE is the largest public engineering firm in the world doing about $48B of work in a year and not only is it military construction being done for the Army, for the entire DOD but even the Veteran's Administration. "We want to be World Class, we want to be the best in the world as a public engineering firm," he said.
There was time for a few questions at the end of the town hall. Sheila McCarthy, Afghanistan District, deployed from the St. Louis District, asked "There was talk about nine months ago about splitting up USACE into different agencies. Me being from a civil works district, how is that all coming to play out?
"Bottom line these other organizations are not distributed like we are," Semonite said. "We are very hierarchical, or down on the ground, everybody knows everybody. It is better that one organization have control of it. And we at the Corps have this epic of getting things done and driving through."
And the final question of the day came from Chris Brooks, Director of Information Management who asked why the latest "Semonote" #20 was red.
"I did a couple of red ones when I was a one star, but I've never done a red one as the Chief of Engineers," Semonite said. He went on to explain that 20 have been done and they've all been green or amber. Green being good and amber signifying watch out, could be a little problem with something. On the other hand, Red is bad. "This red one goes back to protection of our information," he said. So this particular one reiterates to be more vigilant in our everyday work habits even just sitting behind our computers. "The red Semonote basically means knock it off," Semonite said.
His final comment was the reputation of the Regiment is in an unbelievable place and we need to continue to build the reputation every day.