Lieutenant General Elvin Ragnvald “Vald” Heiberg III, former Chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Retired), died on September 27, 2013. He left an outstanding record as a civil engineer, as a military engineer, as a manager, and as a strategic planner. He set, for himself, high standards of professional achievement, ethics, and leadership and always exceeded those standards.
Vald was inducted into the National Academy of Construction in 2002 for “exemplary leadership in both the private sector positions and the highest level of management.”
Vald was born at Schofield Barracks, Honolulu, in a third generation military family with West Point traditions. His family moved frequently and while at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Vald attended high school, met his future wife, “Kitty” Schrimpf, and successfully competed for a Congressional Appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He graduated fifth in his class of 512.
After graduation, as an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1953, he earned a master of science in civil engineering at MIT (1958) and a master of arts in government (1961) from George Washington University. (Vald completed the MA in Government to qualify as an Assistant Professor in the West Point Social Sciences Department.) He later earned a master’s in administration at George Washington University in 1971. Vald also graduated from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, U.S. Department of Defense Senior Business Program in 1971. He became a Registered Professional Engineer in 1975.
In his military career, Vald’s assignments varied from a water supply system in Greenland to the Nixon White House as Executive to the head of the Office of Emergency Preparedness (now FEMA) to the Pentagon as Executive Officer to two Secretaries of the Army and to manage the Ballistic Missile Defense Command “Starwars” Defense Program. These widely varied assignments in the civilian sector were in parallel with his military engineering career commanding troop units in Korea, in Germany, and in Vietnam, where he commanded a Combat Engineer Battalion blocking North Vietnamese resupply routes. These assignments demanded leadership, courage, a wide range of military engineering skills, and strong management ability.
The capstone of Vald’s military career was his selection in 1984 to be the 46th Chief of Engineers of the U.S. Army, the youngest Chief since 1838. As Chief of the Corps of Engineers, he led the integration of new environmental skills, technology, and awareness into a huge global engineering and construction agency. He led the planning for many emergency decisions in floods and natural disasters, and was the “front man” for the Corps in funding and environmental issues. He displayed keen judgment and political acumen before Congress and the public at all times, showing the leadership and example needed to run the Corps. He was tireless in industry advancement efforts and championed the involvement of the Corps in the Construction Industry Institute. He personally participated in its research teams.
After retirement from the Army in 1988, Vald joined Rollins Environmental Services as a Senior Executive, moved to JA Jones Construction Company, headed the Jones Construction Services Company, and then started a new company, JA Jones Environmental Services in Charlotte, NC. He also was on the Board of Directors of Stone & Webster Inc. In 1993, Vald moved back to the Washington, D.C. area and founded his consulting firm, Heiberg Associates. One of his more interesting assignments was moving back into the Pentagon for a year to recruit staff for the Coalition Provisional Authority in support of the Iraq Ministry of Transportation.
Vald was selected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1995 “for contributions, both professional and managerial, in civil, environmental, and space technology across national and global horizons.” He was very active and served on multiple committees.
He also was on the Board on Army Science and Technology, the Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems, and was an ex officio member of the Transportation Research Board Executive Committee.
It is not surprising that in such a varied and distinguished career, Vald received many special rewards and recognitions. To mention only a few: The Order of the Crown (Commander) from the King of Belgium, 1985; The Order of Military Merit (Grand Commander), Brazil, 1986; Manager of the Year, 1988, American Engineering Management Association; Edward J. Cleary Award for Excellence in Environmental Management, 1987, American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists; Public Works Leader of the Year, 1987, American Public Works Association; and Chairman’s Award, 1987, American Association of Engineering Societies.
Added to this impressive list are many military awards: Army Distinguished Service Medal, 1983 and again in 1988; Silver Star; Distinguished Flying Cross; Legion of Merit, three separate awards; and a Meritorious Service Award by the White House.
Accomplishments in the National Academy of Construction are also defined in part by the members’ active participation in other professional organizations. Some of these are listed here, but organizations in which Vald received an award (see above) are not re-listed: National Research Council Memberships ― Federal Facilities Council, Board on Infrastructure and the Constructed Environment, Commission on Engineering & Technical Systems; Permanent International Association of Navigation Congresses ― Head of U.S. Delegation, International Vice President, and Honorary International Vice President Consultative Committee (permanent). Others include the Mississippi River Commission, Society of American Military Engineers (past president), Coastal Engineering Research Board, U.S. Committee on Large Dams, American Society of Civil Engineers, and National Society of Professional Engineers.
On the lighter side, Vald lettered in track at West Point. Later he became an avid and―some say―fierce but gracious competitor on the handball and racquetball courts until his late seventies. He also was a lifelong philatelist.
Near the end of his professional career, Vald joined the fray on one last major issue, the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the question of who had responsibility. In a letter to The Times-Picayune, Heiberg stated “as too many continue to rush around to find someone to blame for the Katrina engineering failures, they can blame me. I gave up too early.” Vald explained that in the 1970s, when he commanded the New Orleans Engineer District, he led the fight for special flood barriers but lost the fight to strong local opposition. Then when the “barrier battle” erupted again and he was Chief of Engineers, he decided to stop fighting the local and federal opposition. He wrote, “In retrospect that was the biggest mistake I made during my 35 years as an Army Officer.” That topic is still being debated. As reported in The New York Times, “Alfred Naomi, a former senior project manager for the Corps…agreed that the barriers might not have made a difference for Katrina…but he expressed admiration for General Heiberg’s public stand. That showed integrity and moral certitude that you don’t find a lot in today’s society…Right or wrong, he took the hit―and took some responsibility.”
Throughout his career, Vald did the right thing―took the hit, accepted the responsibility, and moved forward in the best interests of the Army and the nation.
Vald is survived by his loving wife of 60 years, Kitty, the former Kathryn Louise Schrimpf, and four children and five grandchildren: Kathy Heiberg-Browning (husband Guy); Walter Heiberg (wife Heike Kessler-Heiberg and grandchildren Andrew and Corinna); Elvin R. Heiberg IV (wife Beth and grandchild April); Kay Heiberg Bransford (husband Todd and grandchildren Cole and Carly).