After nearly four decades of service to his nation, Charles Ford, U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville’s program manager, retired March 3.
However, Ford isn’t just retiring from a career, he’s stepping away from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the organization with the greatest impact on his life.
“I wanted to be an Army Engineer. That’s what my dad did for 20 years, and that’s what I wanted to do. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Corps of Engineers,” Ford said.
Ford grew up a military brat – a term of endearment used to describe the child of a parent or parents serving full-time in the U.S. Armed Forces. As a brat, Ford experienced a mobile upbringing with extensive exposure to foreign and American regional cultures, and developed a love of traveling. He also grew up with a heightened sense of patriotism and a pursuit of a service-related career.
“I was born in England, and lived in three countries, three states and one U.S. territory before my father retired from the Army and settled in Montgomery, Alabama, to take a job with the state,” Ford said.
Following graduating from Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery in 1972, Ford attended Auburn University where he enrolled in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps. In December of 1976 he earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, was commissioned in the Army as a second lieutenant and married Rhonda, his college sweetheart. After obtaining an educational delay Ford went on to obtain a master’s degree in geotechnical engineering before going on active duty in 1978.
After his initial training at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, his first assignment was as the facility engineer with the 558th Artillery Group in Athens, Greece, an assignment that allowed Ford and his new bride, Rhonda, to travel extensively throughout Greece as well as taking trips to Turkey, Egypt, Israel and the Soviet Union. Rhonda, a Montgomery native, knew she wanted to travel, making assignments overseas more interesting and exciting.
The Fords returned to Fort Belvoir in 1982 where he served for two years as the Prime Power Production Specialist school commandant. However, he and his wife knew they wanted to return overseas as soon as possible, but the opportunities to do so as an Army officer just were not available.
Ford made the decision to transition out of the active duty Army in 1984 and began looking for engineering work that was rewarding professionally and would allow his family to see more of the world. He took a civilian position at Fort Belvoir working in the systems division at the U.S. Army Facility and Engineering Support Agency.
Within a year, Ford accepted a position overseas with the USACE Turkey Area office at Incirlik Air Base. Ford and his family called Turkey home for five years, followed by a project manager position at a USACE office in Germany and a return to Turkey for another four-year assignment where he said he held all the positions a civilian engineer could hold in the area office there.
“I found it all very rewarding. All the jobs overseas, and especially in Turkey, taught me a lot about construction, how to deal with contractors and stakeholders, and how an installation operates,” Ford said.
With twin daughters reaching their teens, Ford said he and Rhonda knew it was time to return to the states.
“You enjoy living overseas, but you miss family,” Ford said. “I wanted to be near home and I knew some people here in Huntsville. After more than 15 years working overseas I had gained a significant amount of experience in both project management and constructionand because Huntsville Division supported some of my projects in Turkey I had knowledge of the Huntsville mission.” Ford said he was willing to accept a downgrade from a GS-14 to a GS-12 to move to Huntsville Division.
“My family comes first. Huntsville’s a nice town, and the Center had a great mission, so in December of 1996 I began working here at Huntsville Division in the medical program as a project manager,” he said.
In 1997, after USACE designated Huntsville Division as the Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, Ford began working the Center’s Chemical Demilitarization mission climbing the ladder from alternate technology chief to deputy director.
However, before becoming deputy director, he had the opportunity to work on a very unique project that took him back overseas.
In 1998 the U.S. government assigned the Huntsville Center as the U.S. construction oversight agent for chemical demilitarization activities in the former Soviet Union.
“The Center was tasked to provide contract planning, management and on-site program management for construction of the Russian Chemical Weapons Destruction Complex at Shchuch’ye, Russia,” Ford said. “I was detailed to the site east of Ural Mountains where I was the first site manager, and I kicked off construction on the site.”
Ford said the project was unique because he was working with Russian engineers and contractors to build a plant to dispose of Russian chemical weapons.
“We were in charge of facility construction, and the Russians were in charge of the demilitarization operations there,” Ford said.
“I was only there from January through June before turning it over to subsequent site managers but it was a great learning experience. There were a lot of construction practices in Russia that were totally alien to me. Living in different countries, I learned about engineering techniques and learned there are ways to do the same thing differently, but this was very different. I questioned some of the things they were doing, requiring that they demonstrate their methods were allowed by their codes. So I had to adapt to different construction methods, allow the contractor to do their job and at the same time deal with the Russian government. It was very interesting assignment.”
Ford returned to the Center as the deputy chief and subsequently Director of the Chemical Demilitarization program.
While in the position as chief, Ford soon targeted a specific Center position that had not even been created.
“Jim Cox was the business director, and he was looking at creating a project management directorate, and he asked me for my advice on how to organize it,” Ford said.
“After I helped him in the planning and laying it all out, I told him ‘I want that job (directorate chief).’ It wasn’t a pay raise, it was a grade equivalent position to the one I was in, but it was something I thought I was suited to do because I was passionate about project management.”
Ford stayed in the position as director of what eventually became the Installation Support and Programs Management Directorate until becoming the Center’s Programs Manager, the senior civilian position at the Center.
However, he said when he took his first job at the then Huntsville Division, he and his wife never expected to be in Huntsville more than three years.
“Huntsville Center is dynamic. With an ever changing work environment and mission requirements the Center is able to adapt. I moved from job-to-job at the Center, and I really enjoyed every position I had and before you know it, 20 years passed,” he said.
“I love the Corps of Engineers. Earlier in my career I had opportunities to leave the Corps for higher grade positions with NASA and GSA, declining both to stay with the Corps. I liked the professionalism of the Corps, the mission of the Corps and the locations where the Corps operates, and the more I worked with other agencies, the more I realized the Corps of Engineers is unique.”
In retirement, Ford said initially he will concentrate on home improvement projects. He said he also wants to give more time to his church. Joined by Rhonda, he will continue to travel.
Ford said he always knew he wanted to be in the Army Corps of engineers and to travel. For most of his life that’s what he’s done.
“I was born in the Corps; my birthday is the same as the Corps’ birthday. It’s a fabulous organization. I’m going to miss the Corps.”