JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON – From Los Angeles to Anchorage with international stops in between, this new district employee brings seasoned engineering expertise from around the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and private industry.
Doug Bliss, chief of the Geotechnical and Engineering Services Branch, is continuing a career that has circumnavigated the world. After spending more than two decades in the Republic of Korea, he is following his professional and personal pursuits at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District.
In the late 1970s, Bliss employed his geology degree conducting site investigations for projects near the City of Angels while fresh out of the University of California, Los Angeles. He was responsible for examining the Whittier Fault for a 400-acre subdivision planned on top of the active seismic feature. Climbing into exploratory trenches, being lowered into bucket auger holes, logging borings and geologic mapping was great work, but the engineering subject matter made the work most rewarding, he said.
“I was looking for some meaningful application beyond straight geology, rocks and minerals,” Bliss said. “My introduction into the geological engineering practice in Los Angeles moved me toward that field.”
After deciding to move on from Southern California’s fault zones, he earned a master’s degree in geological engineering from the University of Idaho. Shortly thereafter, Bliss worked for a geotechnical consulting firm that was assigned the site investigation and foundation design for a multibillion-dollar power plant project in British Columbia, Canada.
In 1983, Bliss began his international career with the Corps, starting with a position at the Far East District in Seoul, South Korea.
“It was an intense period of military design and construction work,” he explained. “As a geotechnical engineer, I had the opportunity to design and oversee construction for a wide range of facilities, from underground command centers to high rise structures, including the Dragon Hill Lodge facility.”
The Dragon Hill Lodge is a well-known hotel owned by the Department of Defense and an armed forces recreation center that serves the military community of U.S. Army Garrison – Yongsan near Seoul.
From 1988 to 1990, Bliss served at the Europe District in Frankfurt, Germany. Located in West Berlin is the highest point of topographic relief in the area called Teufelsberg, or Devil’s Mountain, he said. Rising 260 feet above the surrounding terrain, the hill was created after millions of cubic yards of rubble were piled up in the aftermath of World War II.
The mound also was home to a former U.S. National Security Agency listening post at the top, directed towards the former Soviet Union, East Germany and other Warsaw Pact nations.
Teufelsberg and the listening post were slowly settling into the underlying soft river plain deposits. Bliss was assigned to investigate the site’s geotechnical conditions and determine the best means to stabilize the hilltop structures. However, the surveillance station’s fate would be sealed with as much history that it was built upon.
“The Berlin Wall came down and the project was no longer needed,” he said.
From 1990 to 1993, Bliss worked for the Seattle District and was involved in both geotechnical and environmental-related projects. During this period, he had an opportunity to assist the Alaska District on a couple of environmental site investigations at Fort Greely.
“With the field work being performed in June, I remember lots of sunlight, great weather and scenery, amazing ground conditions for a geotechnical engineer with fast moving groundwater, but not much sleep,” Bliss said.
In 1993, he returned to the Far East District as the chief of the Geotechnical Section and in 1996 was promoted to chief of the Geotechnical and Environmental Engineering Branch.
“There is a rich history regarding the establishment and subsequent operations of the Far East District,” he said. “In the ashes of the Korean war, the district was set up and became a major contributor to the growth of the local construction industry, engineering profession and rehabilitation of the country.”
Currently, the Far East District is involved with implementing the U.S. Army’s largest construction program related to a major realignment of military force structure within South Korea. Bliss and his staff were major contributors to successful project completion by identifying critical site conditions requiring significant ground improvement and foundation construction measures.
“Land expansion at U.S. Army Garrison – Humphreys (near Anjeong-ri and Pyeongtaek) has involved more than 14 million cubic yards of fill placed over a former rice paddy area with very soft subsoil conditions,” Bliss said. “It is prone to seasonal flooding, too.”
Furthermore, monitoring the ground improvement and tracking settlement during construction was essential to ensure a stable site for follow-on facility construction, he said.
For Bliss, the intense work environment was satisfying because he felt that his efforts provided valued service to the U.S. military and host nation.
“There is the obvious geopolitical aspect of the Far East District’s presence in South Korea, which provides an extra meaning to the Corps’ design and construction program and what each person contributes to the mission,” Bliss said. “It is also about doing your best to provide quality products with all of the available resources on hand.”
Despite a challenging mission, the country provided many recreational opportunities for Bliss, who is an avid hiker, backpacker, skier, tennis player and classical guitarist.
“Hiking is really big in South Korea,” Bliss said. “There are a lot of trails, and I was a member of a mountaineering group that my wife was part of since her college days. Seoraksan is one of several national parks, and we hiked all over that place.”
The Far East District also is conveniently located near many local eateries. Culturally, nobody sits at their desk to eat and socializing at lunch time is an important part of the day. If you are sitting alone at your desk eating a tuna fish sandwich, it will not take long before being drawn into the local cuisine, which is great, he said.
“I would really encourage people to look toward South Korea for a work assignment if it fits within their career and personal goals,” Bliss said. “It is a work-and-play intensive environment with great camaraderie, a welcoming attitude and a close-knit group with shared purpose and values.”
Bliss said he recommends taking the time to research the country and its culture if impressions are based off of a few news reports and popular culture.
Following his long tenure with the Far East District, he accepted his current position at the Alaska District earlier this year. New challenges await him, he said, as he becomes familiar with a mission that includes civil works, and specifically for his branch, dam safety and coastal engineering. However, the leadership skills and career experience he gained in his professional career so far will translate well at his new home.
“He is the kind of person people want to work for,” said Dave Frenier, chief of the Engineering Division. “We wanted a strong leader who is great with people and communicates well. He was already familiar with the Pacific Ocean Division’s capabilities, so the region continues to benefit.”
When Bliss is not leading his team of engineers and scientists, he said he has a passion for encouraging young students to study the hard sciences. At the Far East District, Bliss led the science, technology, engineering and mathematics education initiative for the local Department of Defense schools. He orchestrated many events that introduced students to professionals working in those fields, such as an annual Engineers Day, toothpick bridge design and earthquake tower challenge competitions.
“Besides benefiting the students, these presentations have been a positive experience for the engineers who volunteer their time,” he said. “Typically, we just want to sit down and do our work, but it is good practice to improve our communication skills.”
Ultimately, this seasoned world traveler said he is excited for new opportunities provided at the Alaska District, getting to know its missions and exploring what the state has to offer. His wife, Song, also is a long-time Corps employee now employed by the Army Corps of Engineers – Information Technology office at the Alaska District. Both she and their son, Brian, a New York University graduate student studying film, are equally excited to be in Alaska, he said.
“The scenery is beautiful,” Bliss said. “We are going to venture out and do some hiking as soon as I figure out the bear thing.”