Force multipliers: 51 Charlies benefit both USACE and U.S. Army

Published June 21, 2024
Four soldiers in uniform stand with trees and a concrete path in the background.

From left to right, Maj. Christina Lawson, contracting officer, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Adam Isdale, project engineer, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Derik Liebenstein, project engineer and Sgt. 1st Class Francis Frenette, contracting specialist, all with the Kansas City District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, attend the Northwestern Division’s Officer Introductory Course in Portland, Oregon, in November 2022.

Behind almost every project at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is at least one contracting action. Depending on the size of the project, there could be dozens. Behind every contract is a dedicated team of professionals ensuring contracts are prepared within federal regulation. Most of these contracting professionals are Department of the Army civilians. But a select few are active-duty military serving in USACE as contracting officers, also known as 51 Charlies.

51 Charlie is what’s known as a Military Occupational Specialty. Every job within each branch of the military has its own Military Occupational Specialty designation, a number followed by a letter. For contracting officers in the Army, the designation is 51C.

“51 Charlie is the Acquisition Corps,” said Maj. Christina Lawson, contracting officer at the Kansas City District. “It’s a functional area of the Army that you have to apply to become a part of.”

Contracting officers, both civilian and military, act as business advisors and must possess extensive knowledge of industry processes and procedures. Knowledge of Department of the Army contracting requires education, training and experience. For military contracting officers who come to USACE as part of what is known as a broadening assignment in the Army, learning how USACE contracting works can be a challenge.

“The contracts here in USACE are much higher [than in the Department of the Army] and they are much more complicated,” said Lt. Col. Doug Brownhill, deputy commander of the Kansas City District. “They’ve got to pay attention to a lot of detail.”

Not only do military contracting officers have to learn brand new processes and procedures when they come to USACE, but they are also expected to maintain their readiness as soldiers. That means adhering to the Army’s physical fitness standards and remaining deployable. For the military contracting officers at the Kansas City District, having a supportive team of civilian counterparts is vital to their career development.

“The civilians have that resident knowledge, longevity and continuity,” said Lawson. “So, while we do the same job, I would say we really look to our civilian counterparts as our experts.”

Having military contracting officers working in tandem with Department of the Army civilians is mutually beneficial for both USACE and the Army. For USACE, bringing in active-duty soldiers means bringing diversity into the workplace — diversity in thought and experience. Civilian contracting specialists might not understand how the military works so having a military contracting officer in the same office allows the soldiers to draw on their experience to successfully complete the contracting action.

“[Soldiers] understand change, they understand leadership, they understand processes, they understand goals and intents,” said Brownhill. “There are a lot of things that [soldiers] inherently understand that maybe a new contract specialist won’t.”

For Lawson, the benefits of having soldiers working alongside civilians go far beyond completing day-to-day contracting actions.

“The Army invests so much in its non-commissioned officers and officers with unparalleled, world-class leadership training,” she said. “When 51 Charlies and Army engineers bring their leadership training and experience with them to USACE, they become immediate assets, force multipliers and are welcomed additions to the team.”

On the flip side, when the military contracting officers working at USACE return to the tactical Army, they bring with them experience and knowledge that few others possess. Sgt. 1st Class Francis Frenette, a contracting specialist at the Kansas City District, has been with the district for almost three years. Prior to coming to USACE, he had over 11 years of Department of the Army contracting experience. However, learning how USACE conducts business was a new challenge.

“Before I came to USACE I knew nothing about Army construction or USACE construction,” said Frenette. “USACE has its own way of contracting, which kind of opens up our eyes and when I go to another unit [in the Army], I will be able to share that experience.”

As a commander, Brownhill sees the value soldiers gaining experience in a predominantly civilian organization will bring back to the conventional side of the Army. Beyond the contracting experience they gain, Brownhill hopes soldiers with USACE experience will tell other soldiers about why the organization is a good choice as a broadening assignment. 

“I think 51 Charlies who have USACE experience share their experiences with their counterparts who have not been in USACE, hopefully getting them interested and wanting to try something new and challenging, but very rewarding," he said.

Although learning both Army and USACE contracting processes has not always been easy, both Lawson and Frenette appreciate the opportunities that joining the Acquisition Corps has afforded them. Lawson, previously a logistics officer, recalls meeting a contracting officer while stationed at Fort Irwin, California. His extensive knowledge inspired her to change careers.

“I worked with a contracting officer, and he seemed to know all this stuff and had this wealth of knowledge … that was very impressive to me,” said Lawson. “It was exciting to work with a contractor … so that intrigued me.”

Similarly, Frenette met a contracting officer who convinced him to apply to the Acquisition Corps. For Frenette, previously an infantry soldier, becoming a contracting specialist has been challenging, but an overall positive experience.

“If soldiers want a more mentally challenging job, I would say definitely [join the Acquisition Corps] because it’s a different type of stressor,” Frenette said. “We don’t go to the field all the time and don’t do combat related functions. It’s more mental. It’s just a different type of challenging; it’s great.”

From Brownhill’s perspective as a commander, having military contracting officers working to complete the mission has had a positive impact on the Kansas City District. So much so that the district is highly sought after as a broadening assignment for military contracting officers.

“We are a full-service district … we get very complicated projects. The challenges that are put in front of them are unique,” said Brownhill. “I think the experience [the military contracting officers] bring to USACE is different. They are leaders; they really help shape the culture within the contracting branch.”