WIESBADEN, Germany – Col. Peter Helmlinger promises a smooth transition while he prepares to exit later this week as commander of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District. He only wishes he could be around to see a few major projects become reality.
At the top of that list would be the unveiling of three Department of Defense Education Activity schools on the NATO base at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium. The elementary and middle schools are slated to open this summer, while engineers target early 2015 for completion of the high school.
“It was the first major project I participated in,” he said of the elementary school groundbreaking two years ago, the first step toward a $180 million overhaul of SHAPE International School. “It would be nice to see that to fruition. It’s the first of the many new DODDS schools we will build, and it’s a key component for revitalizing the whole SHAPE campus.”
On Friday, Helmlinger will turn over the leadership post to Col. Matthew Tyler in a change of command at the Amelia Earhart Center, the district’s headquarters in Wiesbaden. The ceremony starts at 10 a.m.
Tyler is set to arrive from nearby Clay Kaserne after serving as the deputy chief of staff for U.S. Army Europe’s Engineer Division. In a few weeks, Helmlinger will assume command of Transatlantic Afghanistan District (formerly Afghanistan Engineer District) at Bagram Airfield, where he’ll lead the unit’s remaining construction operations and oversee its transition to an area office in support of the forecasted U.S. troop drawdown.
“It’s bittersweet to leave any organization,” he said. “This really has been the most enjoyable job I’ve held in the Army, and certainly the most significant, as far as the scope and responsibility of our workload. … I’ll mostly miss the people. I’m biased, but I think Europe District has some of the best employees in the Corps. They made a big difference.
“Europe is a unique location. We have very strategically important projects in interesting parts of the world, but ultimately, it’s our people who are doing the hard work that I’ll miss the most.”
Helmlinger, who came to Europe District in July 2011, traveled extensively around the agency’s vast footprint, from Israel and Romania to Belgium, the Republic of Georgia and Italy. He routinely visited personnel in area, resident and project offices while representing USACE at various groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
The district has the largest geographic area of responsibility in the Army Corps of Engineers. It supports two combatant commands, European Command and Africa Command, while relying on a sizeable local national workforce for continuity and expertise.
The colonel said the organization also is heavily immersed in supporting warfighters, the top priority of Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the USACE commanding general and chief of engineers.
“All those things make Europe District an excellent place to work and provide us with challenges, but it’s a professionally rewarding mission,” he said.
Under Helmlinger’s watch, the district averaged 1,700 contract actions and $725 million in construction placement annually, with projects in 35 countries managed by a workforce of 400 people based in nine nations. It helped Installation Management Command-Europe consolidate to seven garrisons, which included Wiesbaden’s transformation into the home of USAREUR. In June 2012, the Shalikashvili Mission Command Center became the U.S. government’s first LEED Silver-certified building in Germany.
Construction of the Ramstein Air Operations Center, NATO Special Operations Headquarters in Belgium and AFRICOM Joint Operations Center – which is currently under renovation in Stuttgart – are among numerous other major ventures the district took on in the past three years. The agency also completed the Permanent Forward Operating Site Novo Selo Training Area in Bulgaria for rotational forces and assumed responsibility for the expanding USAREUR Support Contract to provide expeditionary base operations services.
Helmlinger said the most significant event for him took place in February, when the district began site preparation for the Rhine Ordnance Barracks Medical Center Replacement in Weilerbach. Officials have targeted the spring of 2022 for completion of the project, which will replace the Army’s aging Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
“That ensures we have overcome most of the obstacles that could delay the program that is so vital to our forces and families in Europe, but also for the predictability of this district’s workload in the next eight years,” he said.
Clay Kaserne’s Consolidated Intelligence Center and the Aegis Ashore missile defense complex in Romania are two other critical facilities Helmlinger regrets he won’t be around to see fully operational. Both projects should be finished in the coming years.
He says the district maintains a solid theater security cooperation program in support of EUCOM and AFRICOM, but it has potential for growth and refinement with U.S. Army Africa, a relatively new command.
“I’m confident the district will follow through on this in the future,” he added.
Africa could take on more strategic relevance for the U.S. military as a whole, Helmlinger said. Europe District will certainly play a vital role.
“As our forces return from Afghanistan, that’ll be the next focus of the Army using rotationally aligned forces primarily from the U.S. that will go for short-term deployments to promote security and stability in the region, as well as improve local capacity,” he said. “Our humanitarian-assistance projects assist with all of those.”
The commander has lived in Germany for nine years overall, including three in junior high school as the son of an Army officer stationed in Darmstadt. From 2002 to 2005, Helmlinger served with the 130th Engineer Brigade in Hanau and Bamberg.
“Wiesbaden is really a special town with very friendly people in a beautiful region of Germany,” he said. “It seems to be centrally located for travel across all of Europe. It’s very unique and I’ll certainly miss it as well.”
Helmlinger has deployed three times to Iraq, but this marks his first Afghanistan tour. He’s scheduled to be downrange up to a year.
“I’m just happy to serve,” he said. “I thought battalion command would be the pinnacle of my career and most rewarding experience, but this opportunity to command at the district has topped that. … I’ve said that overseas contingency operations are the most important mission in the Army. So it’s my turn to go and support that.”
Helmlinger said the approach here was simple: He never wavered from his priorities to take care of people, support partners and deliver quality projects.
He lauded district members for consistently volunteering their time and talents to promote science, technology, engineering and math interest in students across Europe. District personnel also led USACE with an average 3 percent volunteer deployment rate to Operation Enduring Freedom, and the organization’s Forward Engineer Support Team-Advanced completed a six-month stint in Jordan earlier this year.
“I want to thank everybody who’s been a part of our success,” Helmlinger said.
The outgoing commander praised his successor, saying Tyler has been “uniquely situated” at USAREUR in the past year to make a seamless move to Europe District.
“He is well prepared to command the district with distinction,” he added. “He is already situationally aware of all the issues taking place in Germany and Europe. … Now, with this position, he’ll be more in tune with the needs of our customers having been on both sides of that spectrum.”