Lt. Col. Ed Chamberlayne’s office in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Charleston District is in a corner of a castle. There’s a guard on the first floor that won’t let anyone surprise any employee with an impromptu visit.
Throw in a moat and a gal with long hair, and you have a fairy tale.
But, Chamberlayne’s work life is anything but magical and although the building may look like it, it’s not a castle. The building matches The Citadel’s skyscape. The district commander regularly wrestles with the detrimental effects of sequestration and furloughs. He received the Order of the Palmetto from governor Nikki Haley for taking the Charleston Harbor deepening project and slashing construction time and costs dramatically. He’s spearheaded several vital regulatory programs throughout the state.
On Thursday, Chamberlayne will walk out of his lair for the last time and ride away on horseback. Well, a Toyota 4Runner with a Virginia Tech license plate frame. Districts undergo a change in command every two years. Lt. Col. John Litz takes his post.
Chamberlayne will go to Washington, D.C. to work at the Pentagon within the Office of the Chief of Engineers. “Please don’t make a big deal out of it,” he said in his typical nature. “This isn’t really anything special.”
Too bad, Ed, because it really is.
The Pentagon gig could be a one or two-year tenure. It’ll be move No. 11. He’s been to Kansas, Germany, Virginia, Iraq and Afghanistan during his two-decade long service in the Army.
“It’s personally hard on my family. We talk about Col. Chamberlayne did this, and Col. Chamberlayne did that. Col. Chamberlayne didn’t do anything. The Charleston District did it,” he said.
“But, we don’t talk about my family. My family has moved 11 times.”
Emma, his 14-year-old daughter, attended Academic Magnet. Eddie, his 11-year-old son, went to Pinckney Middle School. His wife, Allison, worked at Wild Dunes and as a substitute teacher in Berkeley County. Do they accept the changes?
“You think a 14 year old accepts that? They understand it; they don’t like it,” Chamberlayne said. “They respect what my career demands. Our folks say they support our military. I really hope they support the whole package. It’s hard on the family.”
During his acceptance speech for the Order of the Palmetto, Chamberlayne emphasized two things: he didn’t deserve the recognition and that he appreciated his family’s support. “This has been the most welcoming community we’ve ever lived in,” he said. “As short as two years may be, you definitely get that you’re a part of the community here. It makes it harder to leave.”
Although he may not be in a hurry to leave the Lowcountry, it’s the reality of his career. Would he prefer to stay and see the completion of the harbor deepening project through?
“You better say yes,” district spokesperson Glenn Jeffries said.
“For me to tell you what I want personally is really neither here nor there,” Chamberlayne said. “The reality is that we move every 2-3 years...I would love to finish something that we started here, but it’s okay for someone else to finish it.”
In two years, he’s impacted a project with national significance. “When I got here in the summer of 2011, we had a mission to start a feasibility study to look at how to make Charleston Harbor more efficient. We didn’t have much money. We didn’t have a full schedule or a way to do it, but we knew we had to get it done,” he said.
“Now, two years later, we have all the money, we have a very detailed schedule and we have the means to complete the recommendation for Charleston Harbor by September 2015.”
That wasn’t the first time – and it won’t be the last – that he’s faced a daunting task and succeeded. During his first tour in Iraq in 2003, he led a team of civilians all over the country to try to find former Iraqi facilities to repair and use for allied troops. “No weapons, no equipment,” he said, smiling. “I had one pistol.”
The Army was exploring how it could use engineering expertise to benefit the tactical side of operations. “Wasn’t that scary?” Jeffries asked.
“Uh, yeah, I had one pistol,” he said, smiling. “I would borrow a Humvee from those around me that weren’t using them. The Humvee had no doors and no roof, much less any armor.”
This was before the military faced heavy opposition of Improvised Explosive Devices, but Chamberlayne said he had a captain who was killed by an IED. “Yes, it was scary,” he added, “but my main weapon was waving at people: ‘Hello!’”
Three years later, he was deployed to Iraq again for 15 months, where he helped clear 1,900 IEDs. “Every single person we would meet would turn around and go the other way,” he joked. “We were that loved.”
District employees are at least slightly more fond of their outgoing district commander. Jeffries heaped praise on Chamberlayne for keeping the Charleston District in the public forum.
“I’d have to say he spends a lot of time telling our story,” Jeffries said. “In the last two years, he’s done over 120 media interviews.”
“Really, though?” Chamberlayne said.
“Yes, you have.”
“I don’t believe it’s a 120. That’s a little high.”
“Yes,” she continued. “He spends a significant part of his time telling our story.”
Chamberlayne admitted he’ll miss Charleston but plans to keep up with the Lowcountry through social media. “We’ll be very sad to leave,” he said. “It was great to receive the Order of the Palmetto, but a week into it, I feel a little guilty, because I didn’t do anything. The team that really has been responsible for advancing so many issues across the state is right here in the Charleston District. “They’re not going anywhere. You’ll get another colonel who will do the exact same thing, and hopefully he’ll do it better.”