Project engineer supports U.S. military, diplomatic missions in Estonia

Published Jan. 18, 2017

TALLINN, Estonia — Chris Bailey grew up in Alabama and saw snow so infrequently he thought it was a Christmas miracle. As a boy, his hometown was dusted by flurries less than a handful of times.

Now serving with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District in Estonia, snow is a daily norm for Bailey — at least in winter months when average temperatures hover around freezing in the Baltic country. As a one-man project office, Bailey is the engineer responsible for managing more than 20 European Reassurance Initiative infrastructure and construction projects for U.S. Army and Air Force partners.

Extreme winter weather, which can delay construction work, is just one of many challenges Bailey has encountered and overcome to deliver projects on time and within budget.

The projects enable training readiness of NATO, U.S. and Estonian defense forces, according to Lt. Col. Jason Gresh, the U.S. Embassy Tallinn Office of Defense Cooperation chief.

“Chris brings a tremendous amount of engineering project management experience to the team,” Gresh said. “He’s aware of the peculiarities of the design and contracting processes, and understands how to appropriately approach projects with U.S. interests in mind while understanding host nation sensitivities and equities.”

It may not be written in his job description, but Bailey acts as a liaison between U.S. and host nation stakeholders to successfully deliver projects like ranges and airfield upgrades, said Jack Galloway, Europe District’s Special Projects Section chief and Bailey’s supervisor.

“Chris is the rare extroverted engineer,” Galloway said. “His open and collaborative communication style fits in the diplomatic setting. He instantly built a rapport with U.S. embassy staff and Estonian Ministry of Defense officials.”

In addition, Bailey manages relationships with contractors performing ERI and humanitarian-assistance work for the district in Estonia. There are a number of local contractors working with the U.S. government for the first time, Galloway said.

“Problems may arise when a U.S. contract is awarded to a foreign firm not familiar with our requirements,” he said. “There are issues Chris needs to resolve on how to execute the work; for example, our contracts specify U.S. building standards but also allow for host nation standards if they are equivalent to, or better than U.S. standards. Chris has the technical competence, flexibility and patience to resolve these problems.”

In a Honda CR-V with studded snow and ice tires, Bailey makes the hour drive from Tallinn to Tapa Military Base almost daily to check the progress of his projects. He wouldn’t be able to do this job remotely, Gresh said.

In December, Bailey took part in a bilateral ceremony marking the completion of 27 ERI projects at Tapa designed to support training and readiness of NATO, U.S. and Estonian forces. Now that most of the district’s work at Tapa is complete, he’s shifting focus to manage military construction projects for the Air Force at Amari Air Base. Bailey will oversee contractors building a new dormitory, squadron operations building, hazardous cargo loading pad and maintenance hangers.

Despite the heavy workload, Bailey says he enjoys work and life in Estonia because there’s an element of adventure.

“It’s a foreign country so lots of things are new, but it’s also convenient that many people speak English,” he said. “And this is a country that gained its independence in my lifetime and the people are so proud of the freedom they have. It’s fulfilling to try to help them with the projects we are building and the American presence here.”

Bailey’s mom says she is proud that he has adjusted so well to his career.

“I was worried when he first went to a foreign country, but he’s made it,” Sheree said.

Estonia and Europe may feel comfortable to Bailey after three years here, but growing up he never imagined living in abroad.

“I didn’t know what the rest of the world was. I never had a desire to find out until I was older —the outside world always seemed scary,” he said.

In 2013 Bailey was working for the Corps’ Savannah District and happened upon a Europe District job announcement for a project engineer position in Romania.

“I was looking to take on more responsibility, so I applied,” Bailey said.

At the time, the district was recruiting a team to manage construction of a $134 million land-based Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense complex in Deveselu, Romania. Tony Jettinghoff, the former resident engineer and selecting official for the position, said one name caught his attention for the project engineer job: Chris Bailey.

“He was a relatively new USACE employee with pertinent experience on military construction projects at forts Benning and Stewart, Georgia” Jettinghoff said. “Deveselu isn’t comparable to a U.S. military installation; however, I appreciated that Chris understood the dynamics of dealing with base commanders and installation regulations, which was imperative to developing good relations with host nation military personnel.”

While Bailey was interested in Romania, he expressed some reservations about moving overseas, Jettinghoff said.

“Through his southern drawl, Chris conveyed a positive attitude with an eagerness to learn, but I sensed some trepidation because he had never been outside of the U.S.,” he said. “I had to convince Chris that the missile defense project was a tremendous opportunity. After doing some research, and sorting out the logistics of getting a passport, Chris accepted the position and began an adventure that would profoundly impact his personal life and professional future.”

Sheree, recalls the day Chris shared the news about moving to Romania.

“I was very shocked,” she said. “His dad and I were both shocked, and I was a little concerned. He was always so quiet growing up, I wasn’t sure how he would do in a foreign environment.”

Bailey’s job in Romania was fast-passed because of a presidential mandate to finish the project by the end of 2015 — just over two years after breaking ground — and he and his colleagues met the mission requirement.

Bailey acclimated quickly to his new surroundings in Deveselu and established strong relationships with his team, according to Rob Eldered, the district’s senior project manager in Romania.

“The overseas setting allowed Chris to build on his willingness to take initiative and responsibility,” Eldered said. “He learned to count on himself and his colleagues to successfully address issues and solve problems in the unique construction environment of Romania.”

The experience was about more than work, though. Shortly after his arrival, a local contractor invited Bailey to play pickup basketball at a gym off base.

“The Romanians were excited to play basketball with Americans,” Bailey said. “Eventually we started playing the local high school team; we would scrimmage against them.”

During a trip home, Bailey told his family about the Romanian high school team and their enthusiasm for the sport. He also explained that they didn’t have official jerseys or uniforms.

When Bailey’s uncle, an avid sports fan, heard the story he decided to donate jerseys.

“With the players’ input we created a mascot — a lion — and had the jerseys made,” Bailey said. “They were reversible so they could scrimmage each other, too.”

Bailey loved basketball, baseball and really any sport growing up, according to his mom.

“I think playing baseball, from the time he was five till he graduated high school, has a lot to do with him being a good team player,” she said. “He’s always been part of a team.”

When Bailey graduated from Auburn University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, he decided to join the Corps team, despite a few other job offers. Through a USACE-sponsored program, he then went back to Auburn to earn a master’s degree in building construction in 2011.

“I interviewed with the former resident engineer at Fort Benning and he described the great exposure I could get working on large construction projects for the military,” Bailey said. “It would be work experience I couldn’t get elsewhere.”

He was recruited through the Army intern program to work for Savannah District. Bailey was still fairly new to the Corps when he was assigned to manage the infantry platoon battle course at Fort Stewart for Richard Mock, the Savanah District Claims Section chief and Bailey’s former supervisor.

“Chris became the expert on a project riddled with issues and I trusted in his ability to bring it to successful completion; he had a levelheadedness that allowed him to resolve issues while maintaining positive working relationships,” Mock said. “He certainly earned the respect of his peers and supervisors.”

Five years and three jobs later, Bailey continues to learn and grow professionally. He’s gaining immeasurable experience as a one-man office in Estonia, Mock added.

“A project engineer working solo in the field must work through both the mundane day-to-day tasks, as well as the highly technical tasks by himself,” he said. “It requires sound contract administration knowledge as well as technical ability.

“Working solo also tends to push a project engineer to learn about areas outside of their area of expertise. For instance, Chris as a civil engineer is gaining a good grasp on systems related to mechanical and electrical engineering.”

Bailey’s technical competence is matched by his willingness to go above and beyond to meet the needs of partners and stakeholders, said Col. Matthew Tyler, USACE Europe District commander.

"I wish I could fill every district office with a clone of Chris; he’s an emerging leader,” Tyler said. “Chris thrives when given complex and challenging work, and is an influential informal leader who others look to for guidance and assistance. He’s involved with activities outside of work that promote greater esprit de corps and support the larger community where ever he is."

Even if Bailey couldn’t foreshadow his own career in engineering and construction, his mom said she could.

“He loved construction growing up,” she said. “From the time he was a toddler, he played with bulldozers and cement trucks, 3-D puzzles and building blocks. When he would see a construction site, he would stop us to watch them work for what felt like hours.”

Now he’s managing high-visibility construction projects representing the U.S. commitment to NATO allies and the security of Europe. It’s gratifying work and the effect it has can’t be quantified, Bailey said.

“With USACE I’ve grown personally and professionally, but what I’ve gained most is the ability to relate to and appreciate people that didn’t grow up in a small town in rural Alabama,” he said. “For me it’s about understanding that people are people, even in a remote Romanian village.”