The field of civil engineering allows us to positively impact the lives of many people and make a huge difference in our nation. Even though getting through our schooling and professional exams can be really hard, the end result of all this hard work is well worth it. As our guest today put it, “The nation needs engineers and will always need engineers. And if you stick with it, you'll have great opportunities”.
Today’s guest is none other than Lieutenant General Thomas P. Bostick, a graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, an instructor of mechanical and civil engineering at West Point, and the 53rd Chief of Engineers of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). During his tenure as Chief of Engineers, he worked on the recovery from Superstorm Sandy, completed the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Borgne Surge Barrier in New Orleans, which won the 2014 ASCE Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award, prevented the 2011 Mississippi flood from being as destructive as it could be, and much more!
Mr. Bostick is a living example of how engineering can really impact people’s lives and keep them safe during natural occurrences, as well as help the nation get back on its feet again after being disrupted by such natural disasters. With amazing stories about leadership, comebacks from failures, and the importance of mentors and the engineering profession, this episode will definitely inspire you in your studies and life.
Winning After Losing: Building Resilient Teams, by Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick – https://amzn.to/3o6Pckj
U.S. Military Academy at West Point – https://www.westpoint.edu
Air Force Academy – https://www.usafa.af.mil
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – https://www.usace.army.mil
The Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Surge Barrier received the ASCE’s 2014 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award – https://www.asce.org/templates/press-release-detail.aspx?id=10312
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Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: All right. Welcome to the Civil Engineering Academy podcast. Excited to have you on, Tom.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: It's great to be here. Thank you very much.
Isaac Oakeson: Man, I was just blown away. You have a ton of achievements in your life and the audience that we serve as civil engineers, and I thought it was going to be really exciting to have you on, which is -- I'm glad we could have you on the show. So really appreciate you jumping on with me.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: That's certainly an honor. Thank you, Isaac.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. I would love for you to just dive in a little bit more into your background, if you could. Maybe why did you end up going into the military? It seems like, maybe, you had quite a few options. I don't know how you ended up there, and I guess a bigger picture is, maybe, is that a good option for other engineers that are heading down this path?
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: Well, I think it's a great option for many people. It's not an option for everybody, you know? I was the head recruiter for the Army and I realized that, you know, the army is a fit for some and it's not a fit for others. I like to say we enlist the soldier, we commission the officer, but we retain families. I moved 27 times in 38 years in the military. That takes a resilient spouse and family members to be able to do that. And my father was in the military, and he was in for 26 and a half years. And I thought that was a long time until I spent 38 years in the military. I actually did not want to come into the military, but we had five children in the family. My father was enlisted and the first member of our family to go to college was my older brother. And I worked three jobs in order to help my parents get him through college. And I thought about what I would do next, and I had three younger siblings and did not want them to have to work in order for me to go to college. So, I had a friend that went to West Point. So I considered West Point and the Air Force Academy, and was fortunate to get in both and chose the Army in West Point.
Isaac Oakeson: That's fantastic. I guess, what advice would you have to anybody that's considering that? I mean, is there any tips at all that you could give to somebody? I mean, it sounds like you're going to be moving a lot. And I like you said, it isn't for everybody, but it is for some. And I'm sure it's a good option for people that are looking for that.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: My time in engineering at West Point and, you know, so I'm a big bias for West Point. And my niece was there. Graduated from there last year. I have a niece that's there this year, a nephew that's graduated from there. So I'm a big fan and supportive of West Point. I think the education is one of the best you can get in the world. And as I mentioned, I taught both mechanical engineering and civil engineering courses when I was there in the departments, and engineering was rated among the best in the United States. So if you choose to go to West Point, the education, whether it's engineering or in the liberal arts, it's one of the best educations you could ever receive. Just as importantly -- You know, it's one of the biggest fraternities. I mean, we don't have a fraternity. But when you are in a class that graduates about a thousand students, it becomes a family. And then as you leave West Point, the long gray line as we call it, you're part of all classes of West Pointers. And then when you become a military officer, whether you're in the Air Force, Navy Marines, Coast Guard, Air Force, you're all part of the armed forces, and it's a great family and it's a great culture, and I really enjoyed it. My family --
Isaac Oakeson: That's amazing. That's great. I would love to go there, but I went to University of Utah, where I ended up getting my civil engineering degree and --
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: Well, that's a great university as well. In fact, I worked with some professors from Utah now in some of the pilot engineering work that we were doing.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh, that's great. I think one of the neat things you did is you're heavily involved in the US Army Corps of Engineers. Could you tell us maybe one or two most memorable experiences being involved in that?
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: Well, there's no other organization like the US Army Corps of Engineers. First, many people think of the Army Corps of Engineers is mostly soldiers, but it's 34000 people in the Aarmy Corps of Engineers and only 700 are actually in the army and wear the Army uniform. So it's mostly scientists and engineers and other specialties that make up this great organization, the US Army Corp of Engineers. It's the largest public engineering organization in the world. So many in your audiences that may choose not to want to serve in uniform can still serve as an engineer or a scientist, who is part of the team at the US army Corps of Engineers.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: When you think back to history, when general George Washington and the United States Army was formed, the army was formed on 14, June 1775, and that's before we even were a country in 1776. So on 14, June 1775, they formed the United States Army. And that's our birthday. Two days later, George Washington named the first Chief of Engineers. And I was the 53rd Chief of Engineers in that long history. And that history -- George Washington knew that he needed an engineer because the importance of the rivers and keeping the rivers open to traffic so settlers can move up and down the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers. And he knew that we needed roads and bridges. And later we needed, under Lincoln, railroads, and we needed to map the west. And all of that was done by engineers. So the Army Corps of Engineers dates back well before the country's history, and it's done some amazing things. When you think about the United States and Washington, DC, the Corps of Engineers built the Washington Monument, the Library of Congress, the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial, and much more. We were involved in finishing the Panama canal. So we do a lot of international work [inaudible] in 110 different countries across the globe. So very focused on the United States internationally. If someone wanted to serve in the Corps of Engineers, like I said, they could serve any place all over the world.
Isaac Oakeson: That's amazing. Is there any -- And I mean, with your time there, has there been one or two events that have just been top of mind when you were there?
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: Well, I remember -- I arrived in May of 2012, I became the Chief of Engineers. And prior to that, I was the head of personnel for the Army, and that was a three-star position. And I thought I'd retire out of that. And I was very fortunate to be selected to lead the Corps of Engineers. And I remember in that first month, in May, president Obama had a meeting in the White House situation room, and he brought in some of the top leaders that would be involved in emergency response because we were getting ready to go into the hurricane season. And I was in the situation room that day, and president Obama said that he was concerned that we might have a nor'easter that was powerful enough that it would knock out electricity along the Northeast coast and really cause wreak havoc in Wall Street and throughout New York City and New Jersey in the Northeast coast. Now, he didn't have a crystal ball, but in October of that year, hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast coast and it did exactly what the president was concerned. So a big part of my very initial part of my engagement as the Chief of Engineers was to help in the recovery from Superstorm Sandy, and watching nation pull that off and do it in such a professional way was one of the highlights of my time. And it happened real early in my professional career as the Chief of Engineers.
Isaac Oakeson: Just threw you right in, huh? Right into the deep end.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: The other thing that I was really proud of the Corps and of this country is that we finished the major work post Katrina. So a lot of the work that we did in New Orleans after the devastating hurricane Katrina in 2005, much of that work was completed on my watch. And certainly not due to me, but due to the great work of not only members of the Corps of Engineers, but members of engineering firms all over the United States and across the world.
Isaac Oakeson: I used to live in Louisiana, so I was very familiar with those levees that they had there. And, you know, everyone said that the city was sinking so much per year and kind of knew that the big one was coming sometime. And I think the efforts that at least I had witnessed were amazing in getting that, you know, repaired and done. So I'm sure that was an amazing experience for you.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: Yeah. So one of the projects there in 2014, the Inner Harbor barrier that we built, won the American Society of Civil Engineers construction project of the year in 2014. It's an amazing project. In fact, I invited Minister Chen Lei from China, who was the minister of the environment and water related work, and he invited me to China and then he came to the United States. He wanted to see three things. He wanted to see the recovery from Superstorm Sandy, he wanted to visit the Everglades because China is really starting to work on environmental issues that they have, and he wanted to see the projects that we built after hurricane Katrina. And he looked at this Inner Harbor project and he looked at the water pump station, which is the largest in the world that can empty an Olympic swimming pool in three seconds. That's how powerful it is.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: But he looked at this and he said, you know, "general blasting". You know, the Chinese are maybe a hundred years behind in the infrastructure development in the United States. They were working really hard to catch up. They built the three gorgeous dams, which is the largest dams in the world. But he looked at that Inner Harbor project and he looked at the other work and, you know, "We could not have done this in seven years like the United States has done". In seven years from that day, we had another hurricane that hit New Orleans and most people don't know about it, hurricane Isaac, because the system that we built worked.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. Well, my name is Isaac, so maybe I wasn't strong enough. That's awesome. That's a really neat experience. I think it's fun that you had those connections and that he wanted to see those things. That's really neat. I know that you are retired now from being Lieutenant General, and it looks like you've been able to write a book now called Winning After Losing. Could you tell us a little bit about that book? Why you wrote it? What it's about?
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: Yes.The subtitle is "Building Resilient Teams". So it's Winning After Losing: Building Resilient Teams. And the concept of resilience is something I like to talk about. And we saw it with hurricane Katrina, we saw with Sandy, we see it with any major disruption to a system. We're seeing it with COVID. But risk, for the engineers that are in the audience, we look at a certain probability of something happening and the devastation that could happen from that, and we try to defend against that risk. We try to build a levee that's high enough, strong enough. We try to buil a dam that can resist a certain amount of water. But the point is, with a hurricane or with COVID or anything like that, something bigger is right around the corner. A bigger disruption is going to happen, and you cannot build against that.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: So the idea is, you have to plan for a certain amount of give in the system. You might even say it's failure, the system is going to fail on a certain place. So you would plan for a certain amount of defense, you'd know that you were going to be disrupted, and you were going to then give somewhere in there. And then you want to respond and recover. And then you want to adapt and you want to grow even stronger because of the lessons learned. So prepare, absorb, recover, and adapt. That's kind of the three cycles I think of with resilience. And that absorb piece is where you're building something that's going to resist as much as it can this disruption, but accept the fact that there's going to be some give.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: I think the best example of that is the Mississippi river and tributary system. It's one of the few systems that we have in the United States, and it was built after the great flood of 1927. We had over 500 people that were killed, over 700,000 refugees, millions of square miles of land were flooded. And the Congress said to the US Army Corps of Engineers, "You would build a system that would help to prevent this kind of damage or limit this kind of damage in the future". So we built the Mississippi river and tributary system, which is a combination of blakes, levees, and locks, and all sorts of floodways that help relieve the pressure on the system. And one of the -- I'll go back to Chen Lei. Chen Lei was talking to me when I was in China and he said, you know, "general blasting". The great flood of 1927 was a big flood. The flood of 1994 was a big flood.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: The flood of 2011 was a really big flood for the United States. And he asked me which one was the biggest. And I said, "Minister Chen Lei, most Americans couldn't name those floods. So I'm very impressed that you've done your homework as always, and you know about those floods". And even though we lost so many people in 1927, the greatest flood by volume of water that moved down the Mississippi was in 2011. But most people don't even know about that flood because the system worked. And what happened right there below St. Louis, where the massive amounts of water really collect and move, there's a levee there that we blew up. We blew up in the minds of most Americans that watched that in 2011. But what we say is we operated the floodway. We intentionally opened up that levee and we flooded an area that was six miles wide or five miles wide, 65 miles deep.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: And we intentionally relieved the pressure. So that's what we did. And that's what you do in resilience. You find a place where the system can relieve itself, but maintain the entire system. And I think that's one of the great examples of what we've done. Hurricane Katrina and the hurricane protection system that's there in new Orleans has similar places where there are relief valves, where, if a large system comes in, a large disruption, larger than that we could have prepared for, larger than one that risk would have said to build against, we now have the resilient system. So going back to my book, "Winning After Losing" means that you can win after you lose. And the book is about examples of teams and people that have lost in life, in a mission, but they've bounced back. And "Building Resilient Teams" is this concept of how do you build a team that can bounce back from defeat?
Isaac Oakeson: I love that. I'm sure your book is just littered with examples of this. And a lot of the audience that I speak to is always preparing for their exams; their FE exam, their PE exam. And many of these students are actually repeat takers. And I can see that this mindset can carry through to even those taking exams. Like, I love the mindset. It can apply to something very, very large, and it also can apply to something where you're struggling even with your own exams, whether that's trying to take the FE or the PE exam to become a professional engineer. How does -- I guess, just to bring it down to that kind of level, what can an engineer do -- What can they learn from these mistakes? How do they -- What advice would you give to someone that continually is repeating an exam, and this doesn't feel like they're getting any traction, or that has even made a mistake at work and feels like maybe they're even a failure because they made one?
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: That's a great question. When I went to West Point, I did not realize what I was getting into. I was always good in math and science, but I also liked history and some other topics. But when I arrived at West Point, I learned that I had four or five electives the entire time I was there. So everyone was an engineer. In 1802, when Thomas Jefferson started West Point, he realized that we needed engineers in the United States, and the first engineering university in the country was West Point. And it predicts the engineers that would map the west and survey lands, they build the railroads and help us along the rivers. We needed engineers. And the president then believed that we needed a university, a military university, that can grow these engineers. So when I arrived, whether you liked it or not, and whether you were good at math or not, you were going to be an engineer, and you were going to study mechanical engineering.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: You were going to study fluids, thermo, electrical engineering, dynamics, statics. You'd study the liberal arts as well, but if you came to West Point and you were looking for a liberal arts degree, we all graduate with bachelor of science, because that's what we created. Now today, you can earn a major in any one of a number of different disciplines, whether it's history or economics or foreign languages. You can study that. But not during my day. So when I say to folks is, I hear a lot of youngsters say, "Well, engineering is hard" and they want to change their major. That could've happened to me. You know, it could've happened to a lot of my friends, but we didn't have a choice. And what I tell young students or cadets that are there now that are going through engineering, it is a demanding discipline. But the hard work that you put into it is going to be well worth it when you come out the other side. And as hard as it may be on some days, and the fact that you may not have weekends, you may not have much of a social life, once you get through the engineering discipline, you will be very thankful that you did. And the country needs young men and women that are focused on STEM. We're losing so much talent that we really need the students that are in school today to stick with it, regardless of how challenging it might be in. And what I can say is the nation needs engineers and will always need engineers, and that if you stick with it, you'll have great opportunities.
Isaac Oakeson: Thank you. That's really motivational, actually. I think engineering is a great field to be in, you know? I leaned in towards math and maybe that's why I went this route, but we need more engineers. The country needs them. And I think there definitely is a reward at the end of that. It's a very fulfilling career. It is difficult to get through the schooling process and that's understandable, but if you can grind through it, get through the grit of doing that, there's definitely rewards at the end of that tunnel. It's a very fulfilling career. I don't know of any others that, you know, can save more lives than what a civil engineer does. It really provides value for humanity in life, whether that's building levees, building buildings, bridges, you know? Everything that we use in life usually is touched by a civil engineer that had their influence on that. I'm curious, Tom. So, as a leader and you've been dealt a major blow, how does a leader recover from a major blow quickly? Is that possible? Like, is it important for a leader to show up? What's the steps when we've received a major blow? What should a leader be doing?
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: Well, I've had my share of major disruptions in my life. And I think -- Going back to the prepared states, in planning states, and I'll talk about it from a fitness sort of perspective. I spent a lot of time throughout my life in sports, in both sports and academics, but sports and physical fitness. And despite that, I was flying into Iraq, one of many, many visits to Iraq and I had a pain in my side after I landed. And I had a pretty strenuous workout after I landed, so I thought I stretched something in my side, tore ligament or something. And then I got on an airplane flying back to Texas and the pain got worse. And the next day I went into the hospital and I found out I had a pulmonary embolism.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: So because I was so stationary on the plane and didn't move around a lot, I had a blood clot that formed in my [inaudible]. It moved up through my heart and into my lungs. And I was pretty much out of commission and it didn't look like I was going to be able to deploy with the division. And this story is one of the stories in my book, because it's a story of personal resilience. But one of the things that happened was, while I was in the hospital, our division was required to send a general officer to the funeral of one of our fallen warriors from Iraq. And his name was Hutchinson, Ray Joseph Hutchinson. He was in the 101 airborne. And I had to do that because our division was going through an exercise to prepare to go to war, and I was the only one available to do it, but I was in the hospital and I called the doctor in and I said, "I'm leaving". And he goes, "What are you talking about 'You're leaving'". And I said, "Well, there's a funeral in Houston and that soldier and his family needs me more than I need to be staying in this hospital. So I packed up by -- I put these stockings on that they told me to wear to keep compression on my ankles and my calves and I drank a lot of water on the way down. And I met with the family and we were successful in April in bearing Ray Joseph. And I've been friends with this family ever since. I've been to 13 of these funerals like this for fallen soldiers. And the Hutchinson family, Michael and the rest of his family, have been great friends. Deborah, his wife.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: And I call them every year. I call them at least twice a year on the 7th of December when he was killed and the 9th of February, which is his birthday. So my point is, even though leaders may be having a bad day, you're still a leader and you can't demonstrate to the troops that you're having a bad day. You don't complain, you don't wine, you don't show weakness. Now, you may do that behind closed doors, and you may do that with your family members. But there's always somebody on the team, and whether that's the internal team or the external team, like this family, that is going to need support. And leaders provide that confidence, that support, and that encouragement that allows the team to continue to move forward.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow. That's a fantastic story. Thanks for sharing that. And that does give, at least me, perspective that it's important, no matter what's going on in your world, to show up if you're in that leadership position. That's a great story. I know our time is valuable. I just maybe have one more question and then maybe you can let us know where to find your resources. But, you mentioned a little bit about mentorship and I'm curious how a mentor helped you on your journey to where you're at and any tips for finding a good mentor for engineers looking for that.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: Well, I've had mentors all throughout my life. Probably the first one goes back to the initial story I told about going to West Point. I only applied to West Point and the Air Force Academy because they had full scholarships and I didn't apply anywhere else. And even though I had very good grades and I played football, and wrestled, and played baseball, and I was a leader in school, we had moved from Japan to California. And when I arrived and I put in my application for West Point, one of the things I learned is you had to have a nomination from a Congress, a member of Congress. So I wrote to the local Congressman and he had already given his nominations out. And then I wrote to the Senator and the Senator had already given their nominations out.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: So I couldn't get a nomination to West Point. And without a nomination, you could not be appointed to West Point. So I decided that I was going to go to the local community college, and it was going to be a carpenter because I always liked building things. And a retired general came to my school and he said, "Are you Tom Bostick?". And I said, "Yes, I am." I understand you want to go to West Point". I said, "Well, I did. But not anymore". And he goes, "What do you mean? Why have you changed your mind?" And I explained I couldn't get an appointment. And he said, "Well, why don't you write to the president?" And I said, "I don't understand. I told you I can't get a nomination from my local Congressman. I can't get one from a Senator. And now you're telling me to write the president?".
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: And he said, "Well, the president has 100 nominations for children at the military. So your father is in the military. And because you're the son, you can get a nomination through the president". So that's what I did. I wrote to the White House and I obtained one of those hundred nominations. And the rest is history. But instead of being the Chief of Engineers, I could have been a great carpenter and I would have loved and enjoyed life as a carpenter. But because this first mentor came into my life, it made such a difference that I spend a lot of my time mentoring young people. And there's a phrase, a quote that I like to use by a farmer. His name is Nelson Anderson. And he said, "The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you will never sit".
Isaac Oakeson: That's great.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: So you plan a tree, it grows. But by the time it grows to where it can cast a shadow you're not going to be there. And I think about this general, his name was general George Wall, that came to my high school. I graduated from West Point in 1978 and general Wall passed away in 1981. So he didn't see me make one promotion in the Army. But because I was the seed that he planted, many decades later I became the Chief of Engineers. But I attribute a lot of that to general Wall and my parents. But general wall opened the door for me that I didn't even know existed. So to the young people that are out there, you never know when someone's going to step into your life and be a mentor. And mentors, you know, work both ways, and I'm working with a number of young people now. Sometimes that is a great fit, sometimes it doesn't. But my point would be to stay open to the opportunity of having a mentor who can help teach you from the lessons that they've learned. They've become very resilient in their older age, I'd say. And because of that resilience and the lessons they've learned, they can pass on some of those lessons that may or may not be of value to you, but they would certainly be informative and educational.
Isaac Oakeson: That's fantastic. And so when he came to your school, you really only knew him for what? A short period of time?
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: Short period of time. And he came to my graduation. He came to the awards assembly, and he presented me with my appointment to west point.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow, that's amazing. So, you know, that's great advice. You know, it goes both ways. I think it takes people to want to be a mentor and to do that, and then for people to be accepting of that as well. So, you know, always be looking for those opportunities. So appreciate that. Well, I want to thank you for your service. All you've done. All this wisdom you've shared with our audience. Tom, where can people find your book and reach out to you if they wanted to?
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: Well, if you go to Amazon, it's on Amazon, and just look for Winning After Losing: Building Resilient Teams. You can type in my name. And you've got my contact information. You can certainly pass that on.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh, yes. You got a website. So we can just head your website. You've got all your information there as well. So we'll link all that for people if they are interested in checking out the book or learning more about you. I think you've got a very fascinating life, a life of leadership, and I really appreciate you jumping on the podcast with me.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: I've enjoyed it. Thank you.
Isaac Oakeson: Thank you. See you.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick: Bye.
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