MVD boss moving on after years of big events

Published 11:30 am Friday, November 11, 2011

The last time Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh stood before a packed hall in Vicksburg, it was Feb. 20, 2008 — to accept the red flag of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi Valley Division from outgoing commander Brig. Gen. Robert Crear.

If Walsh’s next post is as eventful as his 3 1/2 years as division chief in Vicksburg, it could be worthy of another ceremony.

“After we came off that stage, it’s been wild ever since,” Walsh told about 300 people at the Vicksburg Convention Center for a change of command ceremony to mark his passing command to Maj. Gen. John W. Peabody.

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Walsh, also the president of the Mississippi River Commission, has been assigned deputy commanding general for Civil and Emergency Operations for the Corps in Washington, D.C. Most recently, Peabody was commander and engineer for the Cincinnati-based Great Lakes and Ohio Rivers Division. Peabody also becomes president-designee of the MRC, the presidentially appointed agency that oversees the Mississippi River and Tributaries flood control project.

Walsh’s tenure as the division’s public face was marked by floods on the Lower Mississippi River in 2008 and 2011 — the latter of which set records up and down the Lower Mississippi, including Vicksburg’s 57.1-foot crest on May 19 — and a $15 billion overhaul of post-Katrina storm surge protection measures in New Orleans. Since 2008, the MVD has inked a memorandum of agreement between the MVD and the Mekong River Commission in China and established the Forward Engineer Support Team-Main, or FEST-M, that spent a year in Afghanistan.

This year’s historic river flood put him at the center of the Corps’ unprecedented activation of flood-fighting measures between St. Louis and New Orleans — most controversially the decisions to dynamite the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway frontline levee in southeast Missouri and to open bays on the Morganza Floodway for the first time since 1973.

Several times during his 20-minute speech, Walsh posed with outstretched arms to symbolize the river’s being the third-largest watershed in the world.

“Some things you have to do, some things you want to do and some things you get to do,” he said. “This job as commander of the Mississippi Valley Division is a get-to job.”

“You don’t say goodbye in the Army. You say, ‘See you next post,’” said Walsh, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, mixing his final words with riffs of “Essayons” — for “let us try,” the American engineer motto, translated from French — with some Irish words of wisdom. “For an Irishman, you might say something like, ‘May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warmly upon your fields, and the rain fall softly upon your heels,’ And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand. Essayons. See you next post.”

Walsh received a certificate for meritorious service. His wife, Susan L. Oliveri, received an Essayons Award for inspirational leadership, an honor given to spouses who contribute to the Army’s Engineer Regiment.

Previous commands for Peabody, 53, a northern Ohio native, include the 618th Engineer Company (Light Equipment) (Airborne), 82nd Airborne Division, the 299th Engineer Battalion, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, the Engineer Brigade for the 3rd Infantry Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom I, and the Corps’ Pacific Ocean Division.

“To be entrusted with responsibility of command of any organization is a great honor that carries with it solemn duties,” Peabody said, adding the tidbit that Thursday’s formal setting wasn’t the first time he’d thought about coming to Vicksburg.

“Most of you know I asked for this assignment — four years ago,” he said. “I never guessed I’d get another shot at coming here. Just goes to show you that good things happen to those who wait.”

Peabody pledged “to carry on the legacy of my predecessors, especially Mike Walsh, advance the course and direction in MVD, and to attempt to make lasting improvements to the way our institution operates.”

MVD commanders are responsible for the Corps’ water resources programs that cover 370,000 square miles and parts of 12 states from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. The division’s district offices are headquartered in St. Paul, Rock Island, St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans.