WINCHESTER — The Army Corps of Engineers has always had a difficult job, but increasingly volatile and violent weather patterns will test corps leadership and operations in the coming years, the transatlantic division commander said on Thursday.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Middle East District (USACE MED) held its bi-annual leadership change ceremony at the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum in downtown Winchester on Thursday, with Col. Philip M. Secrist succeeding Col. Stephen H. Bales as Middle East district commander.
Located in the Winchester area since 1986, the USACE MED oversees large-scale construction projects such as dams and bridges throughout the Middle East. Since Bales took command in 2017, the outpost has completed $400 million in projects in the Middle East.
In a speech before the ceremony, Transatlantic Division Commander Col. Christopher G. Beck said the corps is entering a new era of challenges because of bigger and more powerful weather events. “We continue to see increasing disasters and emergencies,” he said.
Recent federal reports outline the threat that climate change poses to American military and humanitarian endeavors through increased flooding, coastal erosion, desertification, wildfires, thawing permafrost and drought.
Beck said after the ceremony that he does not know if climate change is a factor, but more severe weather events stress the operations and budgets of USACE, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and other organizations that handle the consequences of disasters, he said.
“We’ve had a significant increase in natural disasters in the last few years,” Beck said after the ceremony. “Behind every storm there are people.”
Beck said there are times when he’s convinced “the sky is falling” but he can be confident that Bales “is going to catch it,” a valuable quality for someone overseeing high-cost construction projects with vital national security implications “in a very challenging part of the world.”
Bales thanked his family and the 350 employees in Winchester, who help plan and execute projects in places like Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Oman.
Secrist comes to Winchester from the Mosul Dam Task Force, which he joined in June of last year. He is credited with helping to stabilize what was once considered one of the most dangerous dams in the world on the Tigris River in northern Iraq.
The dam’s unstable foundation has been a major concern since American military operations started in 2003. Stabilizing it was a joint effort between American, Italian and Iraqi/Kurdish military. About 60 USACE MED persons were on the ground in Iraq for the project.
Secrist, who was raised in the town of Shenandoah, said it is “a great experience” to come back home and swim in the Shenandoah River. “It’s probably our forever home.”
Secrist said he is confident that USACE can meet the challenges of the future by remaining committed to excellence and respectfulness at home and abroad.
“We figure things out,” Secrist said. “What the corps always does is figure things out.”