News: Former district commander visits old stomping grounds
Story by John Budnik
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - A black and white portrait hangs in the hallway of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District. Photographed is an Army colonel in his mid-40s. With half of a smile and eyebrows furrowed, he stares at observers with a piercing gaze.
Retired Col. Amos Mathews is one of 26 Soldiers to have served as the Alaska District commander during the 68-year history of the organization. His image is displayed among a group of leaders that are now pillars of Corps engineering history in Alaska.
An ecstatic Col. Christopher Lestochi, the current district commander, hosted Mathews during a visit to the headquarters building at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson June 9.
The two gentlemen reminisced and compared past and present issues in the same office Mathews commanded from 40 years ago. His personality was more than of a retired military officer, but of a raconteur that expounded Alaska District history and lessons learned.
“When the Chief of Engineers came by on his triennial visit, he said the Alaska District was one of the most austere district offices he had ever seen,” Mathews recalled from his tenure. “I didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing.”
Mathews served as the district engineer from 1970-1973. Now living in Denver, Colo., he contacted the district while vacationing to see his daughter residing in Alaska. When the opportunity presented itself to convene, Lestochi would not be remiss.
“Every commander has challenges that are unique to their time,” Lestochi said. “At the end of the day, they are not all so very different from those that the previous district engineers faced. I wish every commander had the great fortune to be able to engage with those that have gone before them.”
With a lifetime of experience double the years of any active duty colonel, Mathews is a living repository of examples portraying the fluctuating balance between continuity and change throughout the district’s history. The Clean Water Act of 1972 was enacted during his command and is a central focus of today’s Regulatory Division, a program requiring about 50 employees to execute.
“Our permitting department was only two people back then,” Mathews explained. “The process was not as contentious as it can be today.”
The Alaska District conducted studies about the North Slope under his leadership, setting a foundation of knowledge for processing many of the permit actions now required of the oil industry. Mathews would later find himself working in the oil business for 10 years in Alaska following a 24-year Army career.
“We still did not know much about what was up there,” he said of the early pipeline days of the 1970s.
The Alaska District’s humanitarian assistance mission is a recent evolving program that Mathews was fascinated with while meeting the program’s personnel on his tour of the headquarters building. During his administration, the U.S. military was in Southeast Asia but for a far more different mission than what the district is currently executing.
Since 2009, the district has constructed schools, medical clinics and cyclone shelters for the U.S. Pacific Command in seven of the 36 countries across the region. The district’s international program includes a foreign military sales project to construct several supporting facilities of the Indian Air Force’s new C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft located at Hindan Air Force Station, India.
“I can’t think of better people to send to Southeast Asia than employees of the Alaska District,” Lestochi said. “There is an expeditionary mindset needed to live in Alaska in the first place.”
His attitude acknowledges Mathews’ story of the Chief of Engineer’s sentiment of the district’s remoteness and severe climatic conditions. These circumstances create challenges necessary to overcome to complete assignments and are situations that Lestochi believes district staff thrives in.
For these two district commanders and those who follow, there will always be at least one constant factor that helps determine the success of their mission as the district engineer – the dedicated personnel carrying out the duties of the Alaska District.
“Surround yourself with good people that are committed to the mission,” Lestochi said, sharing one of his own lessons learned from his career. “Let them do their job and the unit will succeed.”
Perhaps in 2054, a colored portrait of an Army colonel in his mid-40s will hang in the hallway of the district headquarters building. With the American flag and Corps castle in the background, and a big smile, he will stare into the eyes of his older self while on a visit to his old stomping grounds.