Fort Meade, home to the National Security Agency, the Defense Information Systems Agency, U.S. Cyber Command and other key organizations, was a net winner in the 2005 round of base realignment. With 52,000 service members, civilians and contractors, the Army installation in Anne Arundel County is the largest workplace in Maryland.
But by the time Army Col. Edward C. Rothstein took command, military spending was beginning to tighten again.
Rothstein's tenure as garrison commander, overseeing security and emergency services, public works and construction, family care, morale and well-being programs, coincided with the government-wide spending cuts known as the sequester and furloughs.
With less money to provide services, he had to prioritize, and then communicate his choices to the workforce and the wider community.
Rothstein, who has spent 30 years in uniform, stepped down this month in advance of his retirement in February. At the change-of-command ceremony, Thomas J. Schoenbeck of the U.S. Army Installation Management Command credited Rothstein for leadership in implementing programs focusing on readiness and resiliency.
Schoenbeck called the soon-to-open Army Wellness Center "a fantastic operation." During a time of declining budgets, Schoenbeck said, Rothstein "expertly provided services to support and secure the customer base here at Fort Meade," built "lasting relationships with local, state and federal" authorities, and "spearheaded innovative programs that will lead Fort Meade well into the future."
The 49-year-old New Jersey native plans to remain in the area. The Baltimore Sun caught up with him the day after the change-of-command ceremony — as he headed with his wife, Audrey, and their teen-age children to Florida and Disney World — to ask about leadership and Fort Meade.
Your time at Fort Meade has coincided with tighter budgets, sequestration and furloughs. What has been the greatest challenge?
The biggest challenge is having to say no to an activity or an opportunity that somebody wants to do because it may not be aligned with the priorities of where I put my people and my money.
Now it has been more of a challenge over the last year because of the fiscal constraints. So I really had to focus my budget and my money on life health safety issues. And then when the furlough came into effect, understanding now I have a workforce working a 32-hour work week, I really had to align their work with our priorities. And stay away from some of the tangential issues and opportunities that if we had a robust economy and workforce, we'd be able to accomplish a lot more.
This is important to me. Being a soldier, having soldiers under my charge, we all wear the same uniform. I never ask someone to do something that I wouldn't do myself. However, leading Fort Meade and the garrison workforce, I have a combination of soldiers in uniform and then a large civilian population. And the challenge with the furlough is I can sympathize but not empathize. I can sympathize with what they're going through, but I'm not walking in their shoes. The boots I wear were not furloughed.
I found over time with the civilian workforce, it's not just about losing the money that they're losing with the 32-hour work week, but actually not being able to accomplish the job that they had in front of them. It is a piece of self-worth that they're missing.
And that's a real challenge to me because as a soldier, we work 24-7. Until the job is done I can keep people there until we get the job done. I cannot do that with the civilian workforce. Even though they want me to. Even though they want to be there longer hours, I've got to tell them to go home, and I've got to say we will not finish the job today. We'll see what we can do tomorrow, and try to accomplish what we can in a 32-hour work week.
I think sometimes we're short-sighted because we talk so much about money and we lose what really matters in most cases: that self-worth. My workforce was very dedicated to getting the job done. So the continuing resolution, sequestration and then the impact of sequestration, which caused a furlough to be in place, it added to each other and has created a very difficult time.
How do you lead in difficult times? How important is communication?
I had commander's town halls. I used the media, and also our internal communications, like the Soundoff [the base newspaper]. Communication is really important, and it's important that I'm very transparent, so what I tell my workforce, I also tell the community. So we manage expectations through clear communications, where transparency on what our priorities are is known to the community.
A case in point, our swimming pool broke a few months ago. It's a recreational tool and for fitness. I didn't have the money to fix it. We've got to prioritize our money. And people are going to be upset losing a pool. So I shared that with the community, saying these are my priorities, and I let them know. It allowed them to now understand why we've made our decision, as opposed to just saying, the pool's closed. Because that does nobody any good.
Mitigation on a lot of this is good understanding with the community both inside the fence-line and outside, but also the counties and the community outside the fence-line understanding our challenges. And they've reached out to us to say, "Hey, how can we help?" So they've allowed us to use pools and golf courses. Through the increasing discounts for military and Department of Defense civilians. I mean, that's pretty cool stuff, and the way that it happens is through good, effective communications and transparency.
What are the challenges ahead for Fort Meade?
The challenge for the Fort Meade community and the workforce is the level of ambiguity that still exists. We're in the fourth quarter of our fiscal year, and we are hearing the rumblings or the comments that there may be another sequestration or a continuing sequestration into the new fiscal year. What we don't know is what are those impacts.
When the sequestration happened in March, we were told we were going to have 20-plus days of furlough. That was very, very difficult. However, we started planning for 21 days of furlough and increased our social services, communicated to the community the impact. And it was dwindling down to 11 days and now to either five or six. So that's good for money, that's good for the individual and paycheck. But what it does is it challenges them, again, their value and their plans. You want to be able to forecast how you're going to spend your money, and that became very, very difficult for families. And it built stress.
The ambiguity of not knowing the impact of the sequestration continues to build stress on the workforce and the community. What we're doing is continuing to develop a robust wellness center and resiliency effort for our Fort Meade community. Not just our men and women in uniform, but also the workforce and the families. Because it impacts not just one or the other. It really does impact the entire community.
What will you remember from your time as commander of Fort Meade?
With Audrey and my kids, it's how this community comes together. How they've embraced us and their leadership on the garrison. Just how vibrant and how dynamic the community "Team Meade" is. I've worked hard to develop the Team Meade attitude, which goes well beyond the paycheck and what's in it for me. It's the attitude of we're one big region.
The change-of-command really exemplified that. We had [Rep. John] Sarbanes and [Howard County Executive] Ken Ulman there. We had [Maryland Environment Secretary Robert] Summers and [Business and Economic Development Secretary Dominick] Murray. We had businessmen and women from the entire region.
If Fort Meade could be a kind of catalyst to continue to develop and grow our great region, then we're doing good stuff. That's what I'm going to miss most.
What's next for you?
I can tell you my intent is to stay in this community and work and continue to develop this great region. I think we're doing well. I think we have a long ways to go, and I want to be a part of it.
Do you have a job lined up?
I can tell you to stand by. An announcement should be very soon.
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