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Posted 11/6/2015

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By Jennifer Aldridge


WIESBADEN, Germany — The door is always open. New and tenured-employee foot traffic wears heavily on the office carpet. Behind the desk, ready to serve the district, sits Marylou Benner.

Benner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District Employee Support Office chief, has been a constant here for more than seven years. She was selected as ESO chief in 2008 shortly after the office was created as a one-stop shop by district leaders for all things tied to sponsorship, personnel and travel.

After a 32-year government career, Benner retired Sept. 30 during a ceremony at the Amelia Earhart Center in Wiesbaden. Colleagues, friends and family attended the event, where Col. Matthew Tyler, district commander, spoke about Benner’s impact on the district during her tenure.

“There is no one in this building who cares more about our employees than Marylou,” he said.

Benner is known throughout the district as a helpful, friendly resource. She’s always available to answer questions about work and life in Europe, said Christine Hamovitz, an ESO administrative support assistant. 

 

“She spent a lot of time researching what employees needed — whether it was personal, or a problem with work. She was always there,” Hamovitz said. 

 

When employees first arrive in Germany for an overseas assignment, Benner said they have a million questions, “Where do I go? Who do I contact? How do I get there?”

“Our job is to ensure their questions are answered. We take care of all the administrative stuff, so when the first week is over, they can report to their departments and start working,” she added. “You don’t want a new employee to be worried about their common access card, or not having a license or housing.”

New hires are contacted by Benner’s team long before arriving in Germany. ESO sends welcome packets, picks them up at Frankfurt Airport, schedules newcomer briefings and acts as their host during in-processing week, whether they’re assigned to Wiesbaden or en route to district field offices throughout Europe.

 

The first week can be very overwhelming, but ESO works to create a welcoming atmosphere, Hamovitz said.

“Marylou has an open-door policy – even early in the morning or late in the evening. I learned a lot about customer service and how to help people from her,” Hamovitz added.

 

There are many differences between overseas and stateside USACE districts. At home, employees have established support systems – their family, friends and communities.

 

“Here, we don’t have extended family and friends, or the community that we grew up in,” Benner said. “We are dumped into a whole new environment. In many cases, this is very foreign, very strange. Employees tend to congregate together because they depend on each other for help and information.” 

Growing up a Navy brat, Benner spent more than 20 years living abroad with her family. In her experience, overseas agencies always have a greater feeling of community.

 

“In the states, at an organization day or command picnic, people will attend to make sure the commander sees them and then they leave. Here, people actually like getting together with colleagues and their families. I have been to every Europe District Organization Day since I started. It makes a big difference,” she said.  

Around 2003, district leadership identified a need to more formally welcome newcomers, Benner recalled.

 

“People would fly to Frankfurt and it was their first time in a foreign country. They would have to find their way to the hotel with no understanding of the German language or money, and at the time, with no cellphone. Then they got to the hotel and had to make their way to the office on their own. The command was frustrated with the situation and changed it by creating an ESO,” she said.  

The office now supports the district’s human resources-related staffing, recruitment, hiring and manpower-management requirements. It processes extensions and manages the “five-year rule” program. The team answers questions about arrivals, tours and departures — covering everything from payroll and passports to mandatory training and overseas entitlements.

 

Benner considers people to be the highlight of her time with the district. 

“The ESO staffs I have now and have had in the past are great people,” she said. “They are very understanding and willing to help in answering a multitude of questions.”

In addition to the positive memories, Benner also experienced many challenges and changes.

The Department of Defense revised the “five-year rule” policy applied to civilians working overseas in 2012, requiring them to reside in the states for two years, instead of 12 months, before accepting another job overseas. The revision also requires USACE extensions beyond seven years to be approved by Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the agency's commanding general. While the rule was established in 1966, some organizations interpreted the policy more liberally than others, officials said.

The revised guidance requires a much stronger business case for extensions, Benner said.   

“The enforcement of the five-year rule has done a disservice to locally-hired employees,” she said. “I think it has affected morale.”

District turnover has increased from 15 percent to nearly 50 percent since 2012, Benner said. This rate of turnover is considered disruptive, and can result in faltering operations, productivity, employee morale and customer service, according to a Cornell University study.    

“I have seen people work in the district, rotate back to the U.S. for two years and return to the district,” she said. “In my opinion, all we have really done is expended a lot of PCS money.”

While Benner retired from government service as an Army civilian, she spent 25 years with the Navy. She started in accounting and also worked as a civilian and military payroll specialist. Midway through her career, she became a human resources specialist handling retirements, benefits, workers’ compensation and employee relations. Benner also served in the Navy Reserve and rose from a petty officer third class to lieutenant.

Today, Benner’s office is empty — her replacement is expected later this year — but the warm, family-like culture she fostered will remain, ESO staffers say.   

Her work to improve the district for more than 1,000 past and current employees will continue to benefit the organization despite her departure, Hamovitz said.  

“She displayed customer service at its best,” she said.