A researcher with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently reached a double milestone: Dr. Lyn Hales was presented a Bronze de Fleury Medal as well as a certificate honoring 55 years of federal service.
Hales, program manager for Monitoring Completed Navigation Projects, was honored among his peers during a recent town hall meeting at the Engineer Research and Development Center’s Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory. Col. Bryan Green, ERDC commander, presented the de Fleury medal, and Jose Sanchez, director of CHL, presented the service award.
Hales started his career with the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) at the age of 17 in 1957 as a student trainee, while earning his bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State University in 1962. Initially working in the Mississippi Delta, Hales was transferred to Starkville, Mississippi, where he had the opportunity to continue his education with graduate school at Mississippi State.
While attending grad school, one of his professor’s associates established a coastal engineering program at Texas A&M. Hales later joined that program for his doctoral study, where he met Clark McNair. McNair was a Waterways Experiment Station researcher attending Texas A&M as part of the Long Term Training Program. McNair saw promise in Hales, and recommended him to his supervisor as a potential employee. Hales conducted his PhD research at WES in Vicksburg, now home to ERDC headquarters. That opportunity led to a career. More than 55 years later, Hales attributes his career at WES directly to Clark McNair.
“I came here with a slide rule in June 1971 to work for the Coastal Branch of the Hydraulics Lab,” Hales said. “When I started, we had only one computer, an early version that used punch cards and took up the north side of the headquarters building, including a room full of vacuum tubes.”
Early in his career, Hales focused on coastal studies, including beaches, ports and harbors, and working on some of the many physical models for which WES would be famous. He also spent 15 years as part of different dredging research programs, focusing on various aspects of inland and near-shore dredging, including dredge material placement, physical properties of dredged material, and new technology to improve planning, monitoring and operations.
Hales’ journey eventually led him to the technical director’s office of CHL, where he serves as program manager for ERDC’s Monitoring Completed Navigation Projects program. In this position, the needs of navigation infrastructure are prioritized by USACE at the national level, and ERDC provides teams of experts to support those needs in the lab and in the field through monitoring.
“Many of the projects are approaching the end of their design life,” Hales said. “A significant portion of the work being done pertains to rehabilitating our existing navigation infrastructure and structural health monitoring.”
In addition to his role in civil works, Hales also provided his expertise in support of the military, including research to enhance the Army’s ability to offload container ships over a beach without port facilities, known as Logistics Over the Shore, which are critical in contingency and emergency response operations.
“I think I’ve walked every foot of southern California’s beaches from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara while assisting the Los Angeles District,” Hales said, citing a perk of being a coastal researcher.
Hales’ recognition comes at a pivotal time for ERDC and its seven laboratories. ERDC researchers take on diverse missions – military engineering, environmental quality, water resources, geospatial research, and information technology, to name a few. ERDC’s most important factor for success in current and future challenges is maintaining a world-class team of experts. Accordingly, ERDC is reinvesting in people, hiring 500 scientists and engineers and additional support staff over the next four years. According to Jeff Eckstein, deputy director of CHL, Hales' story can hold special meaning for those new teammates.
“Lyn is very modest about his time with the Corps of Engineers, but our quiet professionals make a world of difference," said Eckstein. “A generation of young engineering and scientists should know they can build a lasting, fulfilling career here and be able to impact the Corps and the nation the way Dr. Lyn Hales has."
Hales remains humble about his time in service to the nation. He attributes much of his longevity to a work ethic instilled in him early in life.
When asked about his background, he produced from his wallet a black and white photo depicting a young boy in overalls, his bare feet dangling astride a mule. Hales is just a boy in the weathered photo, posing in front of a small house where his parents farmed 40 acres in southeastern Mississippi in the 1950s.
“I grew up on a small farm,” Hales said. “I feel if I don’t get up and go to work every morning, I’m being lazy.”
Hales turned 77 years old the day he sat down for this interview. Even with a lifetime of service, he has no immediate plans to retire, just taking things one day at a time.
When looking at the young engineers joining ERDC today, Hales is very optimistic, recognizing their talent and enthusiasm even as the faces at work become younger.
“There are a lot of new people coming here that are young and very energetic. They are exceedingly talented and know what they’re doing. They are an absolute inspiration to me,” he said. “The best part of working here has been the people. I get to associate with very knowledgeable and intellectual people. There is a personal satisfaction to being aware of all the things in our nation – the wide variety of challenges – the Corps is responsible for.”