More than 70 well-wishers attended a farewell luncheon to celebrate the career of Lt. Col. Burlin Emery, U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville deputy commander, Aug. 11. Emery is retiring after 21 years of service.
Addressing the crowd, Col. John Hurley, Huntsville Center commander, said there are certain accomplishments a Soldier should aspire to gain as an Army officer and engineer.
“We tell our young lieutenants that there are certain things they need to do, and Burlin has certainly done every single one of them,” Hurley said.
“He’s been a platoon leader; a company executive officer; a company commander; a battalion operations officer and a battalion executive officer, a brigade operations officer and a deputy brigade commander. He deployed four times, once as an Afghan Army adviser. He served as commander here and deputy commander here. He’s done all of that and done it all exceptionally well throughout his career. As a nation we will always be grateful for your sacrifices you and your family have made in service to the Army and to your country.”
Although most of his career was spent with the company, battalion and brigade side of Army engineering, Emery said one of the greatest challenges he’s had was serving as Huntsville Center’s deputy commander since 2015. Emery said his assignment here has also been one of the most rewarding.
“When I first got here, I really just didn’t know that much about Huntsville Center. My initial impressions were certainly that there was a lot of knowledge and technical expertise within the workforce, but there were some issues that quite honestly needed to be addressed and it mainly revolved around improving the facility and improving communication within the organization,” Emery said.
Emery focused much of his effort as deputy commander to overseeing upgrades to Huntsville Center’s facilities. The main facility has more than 135,000 square feet of space and the majority of the Center’s more than 1,000 employees are under its roof. There are also half a dozen suites leased by the Center to accommodate mission growth over the years.
The facility opened for business in 1995, and Emery said a facelift for the building is long overdue. However, he said when he came on board, there were other issues requiring his attention before any refurbishment projects could begin.
“When I got here in July 2015, we had an expired lease. Now we have a signed lease —a good lease – and we can hold people (building ownership) to a standard. That’s a huge accomplishment, and we can begin moving forward with our plans,” Emery said.
Some of the most challenging aspects to upgrading the facility is finding space as people have to be relocated before any upgrades are accomplished, he said. To accommodate the contractors, Emery negotiated leases for properties surrounding the main facility to ensure the leased suites are held to high standards for the workforce too.
“We’ve done a lot in the last couple of years, and I’m excited to see progress,” Emery said. “We managed to renovate two of the suites and move people out of substandard facilities into the renovated suites. Coming on line this month we have two new suites, and we’ll see more than 100 people moving out of the main building bringing us closer to seeing renovation work begin.”
Emery said managing projects of this magnitude are challenging because uprooting people from their spaces can be tedious even if it’s for relatively short periods of time. He said the contractor is in the facility after hours and on the weekends making assessments and plans and renovations will likely start after fiscal- year end activities. However, he said in the long run, streamlining how business is done through looking at moving certain activities to other locations gives the contractors the space they need to do the work required and to make center operations more effective.
“We recently moved mail room operations to the warehouse and after the renovation of the old mail room space, we’ll bring the Civilian Personnel Activity Center back in there and get focused administrative and personnel services for our employees. While I wish I could snap my fingers and make all this go much quicker, it’s harder than I ever imagined.”
Emery is quick to point out that although he managed the renovation for facility upgrades, he was surrounded by a team willing to work hard to make it all happen.
“I’ve had a great team. From the special project team support, to Col. (Robert) Ruch (previous Center commander) and Col. Hurley always supporting me, to the directorates willing to listen and consider the options – and they weren’t always nice options – we’ve made a lot of progress. That support means Center employees are going to end up with a newly renovated building and suites that can accommodate growth.
Emery said another aspect of the job that was challenging and yet rewarding was overseeing collective bargaining negotiations with the nation’s largest union representing federal employees. Huntsville Center leadership and American Federation of Government Employees Local 1858 representatives put final signatures on a three-year agreement for union representation for the Center’s approximately 400 nonprofessional employees in April.
“The negotiations for collective bargaining were difficult initially,” he said. “It was a fractured relationship. Not a lot of trust and a lot of skepticism from management that the union would be challenging. Quite honestly, that relationship is strong today and people are learning that a collective bargaining agreement works well for both sides. It protects the employees and sets firm standards for management to enforce and have employees adhere to those standards.”
Emery said he’s enjoyed the time at Huntsville Center and being able to make a difference, but after 20 years in uniform there are others now who are depending on him more.
“My family is ready for me to not have to worry about deploying anymore,” Emery said. “My kids are at ages where deployment is harder on them. I was blessed to deploy four times and make a difference in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quite honestly my wife doesn’t want to mom and dad anymore if I were to deploy, and I don’t want to miss this time in my children’s lives.”
So after more than 20 years, Emery will hang up the uniform and start preparing for the next adventure.