As an Army engineer for over 40 years, Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite knows how to build solutions for any mission. Before assuming his current duties as Chief of Engineers and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Semonite previously established the Army Talent Management Task Force and served as its first director, and was also commanding general for Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan. As an integral part of the nation’s COVID-19 response, we sat down with him to discuss the Corps’ role across the strategic support area.
Can you briefly discuss the Corps’ mission set?
For the Army, as Chief of Engineers, I worry about 90,000 combat engineers. Our Engineer Regiment has two two-star commands, 17 engineer brigades, and an engineer battalion in each of the Army’s brigade combat teams. In addition to every aspect of military construction and installation support, we also do civil works, which allows us to expand our capabilities as we think about the future and multi-domain operations. Just like the Department of Transportation (DoT) does all of America’s interstates, we do all the waterways. If you’re driving on I-95 from Maine to Florida, you don’t realize you’re crossing from North to South Carolina because there’s a standard; the roads and signs are all consistent. We do the same for the Mississippi River, for instance, and just lowered New York Harbor five feet to accommodate bigger Post-Panamax ships.
The last piece is the interagency piece, which covers everything from Customs and Border Patrol and Veterans Affairs to Foreign Military Sales and disaster response—and this is where COVID-19 comes into the picture. We have the authority to work for anyone in the interagency; if they come to us with money, we can design a support package. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has 15 different Emergency Support Functions. There’s a big conference table and every chair has an assigned seat: Transportation is chair one and owned by DoT, Communications is chair two. USACE sits in chair three: when it comes to anything engineering, it’s the Corps. When COVID-19 emerged, that’s the authority we worked under.
Can you discuss the Corps’ role in the first 75 days of the COVID-19 response?
The biggest piece was developing a concept for getting ahead within the first two or three days. March 18 was a Wednesday. The Governor of New York had appeared on national television each day of the previous weekend repeatedly saying, “I need help; I’m not going to have enough hospitals. I need the Corps of Engineers because they’re the only ones that can do this.” Most assumed we’d go into a field and build a hospital as we would in Iraq or Afghanistan, assembling together modular, pre-fabricated units.
After watching all weekend, on Monday I said, “We better start getting ready.” I got a call from the White House that morning asking to send someone over; that’s when the initial Coronavirus Task Force was stood up. I went over that afternoon and quickly realized there was going to be a real problem with bed shortages if we didn’t do anything. I briefed Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, and he loaned us an airplane to take my team of expert hospital engineers to the New York state capitol.
We didn’t have time to build something in the middle of a field, so our concept was to modify four types of existing buildings into Alternate Care Facilities (ACFs), all of which could be used to treat either COVID or non-COVID patients: hotels, dormitories, sports arenas, and convention centers. Nobody was staying in hotels and colleges were empty; these “small rooms” are easy to contract and relatively similar in design. For field houses, big soccer stadiums, and convention centers “big rooms”—think building out 10-by-10 hospital rooms. How do you put oxygen into those rooms, or a sink on a concrete floor? So we came up with standard, conceptualized designs for each.
The “curve” was a big deal. At the time, all of America was expected to peak around April 24, which gave us about five weeks. But we found every city’s curve was different; New York’s looks nothing like Reno’s. All of our facilities beat the cities’ need date. In those first 75 days, we did 1,154 site inspections to see where we were going to build, and where municipalities could simply use our standard designs. While we built those 38 ACFs, our concepts and designs were used by states and cities to build out another 36 that provided 12,000 additional beds.
We never wanted an ambulance to arrive at a hospital and be told, “There’s no room, try the next hospital.” We effectively did that by leveraging those standard designs and our local commanders on the ground to proactively help local officials understand the problem set and offer our capabilities.
How is the COVID-19 response preparing us should the homeland come under attack in the future?
Resiliency and redundancy. In the DoD, we’re often guilty of getting rid of a capability if we aren’t frequently using it. We’ve seen this with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear capabilities, as well as with artillery—we didn’t use them for 20 years. All of a sudden, you don’t have the capability when you really need it. Don’t wait for the phone to ring. I’ve told my team, “If we think there will be a requirement, I’ve got your back.” The decision maker who’s going to ask isn’t going to know to ask until it’s way too late. Ventilators are a great example. We probably should’ve had many more than we do now, but because we never had to use them, when the budgets got cut somebody said we’ll take risk in ventilators. It’s the same for ammunition: what is the baseline for a basic load of ammo you must have? Is it a waste if it sits on the shelf for 10 years, doesn’t get used, and has to be cycled back out? No, it’s an insurance policy. Do you pass on car insurance just because you haven’t had an accident? No, you still have to make sure you have the capability.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced during the response effort?
Mission Command was probably the single most important factor in our response. Understand commander’s intent: mine was to get way ahead of this by going forth and doing great things. All the time I use the adage, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, feed him forever.” I brought all of our district commanders together with our technical folks and said, “I want teamwork. As soon as you find a bright idea, call back to the HQ and log it in for the next person building so they’re not starting from scratch.”
Every night, we’d have a big video teleconference to share those ideas. One day it was a solution for Code Blue alarms to ensure crash carts would come when needed; the next it was operating rooms. Every day, the designs improved to the point where we now have a playbook: for any of those four types of facilities anywhere in the country, here’s how you bring oxygen in, here’s how to prevent mixing contaminants as people go in and out, et cetera.
I also delegated approval down to where I had the capacity and competency. When my district commanders went out to their local officials, as soon as they knew they needed a facility it was automatic and construction started; I never even saw the request. My headquarters tracked it but all they needed was approval from FEMA, who paid the bill. This enabled decentralized operations, and our team ran with it.
It goes back to the intangibles of leadership and how you build a culture. For the last four years, I’ve been on a kick to “Revolutionize the Corps”, not “Reform” it. I grew up in a small town in Vermont, and five miles down the road there was a “Reform” school they sent all the bad kids to; that’s not what we’re doing. We are revolutionizing culture, not reforming processes. It’s empowering leaders to anticipate requirements, be willing to take risks, and ruthlessly execute. That doesn’t mean treating people without dignity and respect, or breaking the law; it means understanding the commander's intent and aggressively working to bring that to fruition.
How does Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA) fit into the mission?
As part of our civil works mission, our Commanders meet with their state governors every two to three months—more than anybody else in DoD—because we’re out there living in all the states. Our districts are in the nation’s 43 biggest cities, so our commanders already know the mayor and the head of emergency services. When somebody says I need 450 beds, it’s a no-brainer because of that intangible relationship.
The Corps’ headquarters and divisions are centrally funded, but we are a reimbursable command at the district level. They can grow and contract, and don’t have a fixed Table of Distribution and Allowances: a district might be 500 one day, a massive mission comes and they grow to 1,500 for a couple years, then eventually go back to 500. That requires being smart enough to find our people work as the project ramps down, but we are extremely good at moving people around without having a reduction in force. When COVID-19 began, we didn’t quit any of our other missions. Traditional units often don’t have that flexibility.
How is the Corps using lessons learned to posture for potential future waves?
First and foremost, we want to continue building out the playbook. We often utilize Multiple Award Task Order Contracts (MATOCs). Say we’re doing several roofs after a major storm. Instead of establishing contracts with dozens of companies, we’ll award one company a single contract for a group of states, allowing capacity to be built before the storm. We’d then pull the MATOC off the shelf and task order to execute roof construction. We’re doing the same for COVID-19: our contractors already have the standard designs and know what they must be able to bring. If we get more requests for facilities before a second wave might come, why wait and run to the starting line at the last minute? I want to build now and FEMA’s letting us do it.
The other aspect is working through how we deploy ourselves. Think about a quick reaction force (QRF): if we faced an enemy surge on the battlefield, we would launch the QRF. For the Corps, if we have a city about to be hit with a hurricane, we’d normally fly teams in the night before so they’re already on the ground with generators when it hits. What does that response look like in a COVID-19 environment? How can we make critical elements of our teams more resilient? If we get a limited supply of vaccines, where do we put them to ensure we can complete our missions?
Right now we’re going through a lot of drills assuming we won’t have vaccines. If we plan for the worst-case, we'll have some breathing room if it turns out to be less severe.
Where do you see the Corps 10 or 20 years in the future?
We have to maintain relevancy, which means continuing to be exceptionally aggressive. The most important thing for the Corps of Engineers is “Delivering the Program”: building a quality facility at or ahead of schedule, at or below cost, and while taking care of team safety and the environment. That means continuing to grow capability and fighting for the best talent.
The USACE Vision is to “Engineer Solutions for the Nation’s toughest challenges”. If America faces a really, really tough mission and we are short on time—think COVID-19—I want the nation to lean on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We’re the largest public engineering organization in the world, but we have to keep getting better. Our nation needs USACE to be “Building Strong.”
Arpi Dilanian is a strategic analyst in the Army Logistics Initiatives Group, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-4, Department of the Army. She holds a bachelor's degree from American University and a master's degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Matthew Howard is a strategic analyst in the Logistics Initiatives Group, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-4, Department of the Army. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Georgetown University.
This article was published in the October-December 2020 issue of Army Sustainment.