For two years he has been “mayor” of Fort Bliss, responsible for more than 160,000 people and a $350 million budget.
But Col. Joseph Simonelli, or “Col. Joe” as he is known, serves his last day as garrison commander of Fort Bliss on May 24.
Like a mayor, the garrison commander is responsible for running the “city” of Fort Bliss, everything from replacing burned-out street lamps and filling potholes to the construction of multimillion-dollar buildings.
He hands control of the post to Col. Brant Dayley during a time of transition for Fort Bliss. The years of massive growth have quickly come to an end as the Defense Department works to make do with less.
Simonelli, 47, grew up in New Jersey, but over four tours, has probably spent more time at Fort Bliss than in his hometown.
“It’s almost my second home,” he says of El Paso.
Simonelli was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where he played football for two years before injuring his knee.
He was commissioned in the Air Defense Artillery in 1987 and his first assignment was Fort Bliss. Most recently, he served as director of operations for the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq.
He also earned a master’s degree in national security strategies from the National Defense University, National War College.
An outgoing, affable guy, Simonelli’s use of social media in El Paso has garnered the attention of senior Army leadership. They’re using his Facebook page – Col. Joe Wants to Know – as a model for other garrison commanders.
What his next assignment will be is still a mystery to Simonelli, but he says he has been nominated for some positions in the Pentagon.
El Pasoan Tom Thomas, the civilian aide to the secretary of the Army in West Texas, speaks highly of Simonelli.
“If he gets a good assignment at the Pentagon and does well, he can make the list (for promotion to general). He deserves it. He is smart, hard working and is totally dedicated. He would make a great general,” says Thomas. “I hope he comes back (to El Paso) and runs for mayor.”
El Paso Inc. sat down with Simonelli one last time and talked about social media, shrinking budgets, the TV show “Army Wives” and the future of Fort Bliss.
Q: How did you start giving pep talks to the UTEP football team?
I called coach Mike Price’s office and said who I was and that I wanted to be the senior Army mentor/motivator for the team. He opened his arms to me and now I come to practices. It’s one of my fond memories.
I also acknowledge every week the scout team player of the week, because I was a scout team player at West Point and I know the importance and significance of the scout team. Coach Mike Price is a great coach, and I just enjoy being around them.
Q: You’ve really pioneered the use of social media in the Army with the Col. Joe Wants to Know Facebook page. Why did you get so involved?
People live off social media. If you can’t get the information out to them as quickly as possible, the information is useless.
And I consider my site to be an actionable site not an informational site. Somebody can send me a message that there is, say, a light out on a corner and I can get that information, send it to the organization that needs to resolve it, and within a few minutes they can have somebody out there to solve the problem.
Social media is also a great tool for bringing the community together. We’ve had house fires where the community came together using Facebook and provided key things for the family, and I am talking within minutes.
Q: The Lifetime TV show “Army Wives” uses you as a model for how the garrison commander, Col. Joan, uses social media on the show. How did that happen?
“Army Wives” came here late last year for a week; they were trying to get some ideas for the upcoming season. They talked with a lot of individuals and organizations on the installation and the Col. Joe Wants to Know Facebook page caught their attention. They asked to use it on the upcoming series and I said yes.
They really portray exactly what we do here. It’s a way for us to get information out to the community, but it is also a way for the community to interact with us on the things we are doing right, the things we are not doing right and some of the things we never thought about before.
Q: Now do you think social media needs to be part of any garrison commander’s job?
I do and that is the challenge right now. For me it was easy because I had the name and I kind of had the marketing – Col. Joe Wants to Know. We are in the process of developing a new site for the new garrison commander.
Really it should be something that works no matter who is sitting in this seat, as long as it is an actionable site. It doesn’t take over for the chain of command, but it helps the chain of command. We still want people to go through the chain of command for the personal issues.
Q: Could this go Army-wide?
We, the Army, would like to go that way but there are still a lot of concerns and issues mainly with OPSEC.
Operational security. You don’t want individuals to know your vulnerabilities, and social media can show your vulnerabilities. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but in the line of business we are in that is something you always want to try and protect.
Q: It really seems radical that the Army, which has traditionally operated within a strict chain of command structure and tends not to be as open and public, is a leader here in social media.
I don’t know if it is really radical – a lot of organizations do it. It’s just an innovative way of going after business. And it’s not me; it’s the community.
Right now, I probably don’t answer 80 percent of the posts on the site because the community does, somebody else who has been in a certain situation. It’s especially important in this new fiscal environment. We have been forced to cut back on a lot of things so now we have to rely more on each other.
Q: How are Army budget cuts going to impact Fort Bliss?
Several ways. No. 1, personnel. We don’t have the amount of personnel we projected we would be at, but it doesn’t take away from what we are doing here on the installation.
The other thing is we just need to look at how to be more efficient in what we do. We find out a certain service is being done by three or four different agencies, only a little different. Instead of having three do that, maybe it’s time that one organization that does that.
Q: Any challenges unique to Fort Bliss?
We have expanded so fast over the past six years, but our civilian personnel for the garrison has not expanded at the same clip. So we have to be smarter about how we do things, and we really need to look at some things we don’t need to do anymore.
Q: I imagine it’s a challenge deciding what to cut.
Everything is important to somebody. If 50 people use a certain service, do we keep it and if two people use it, do we get rid of it? Well, what if those two people really rely on that service?
A great example is our autistic and special needs group. It’s a group of families who share a common issue. They work together to help each other.
The only thing they came to me and asked for – they didn’t ask for money, they didn’t ask for help – was a place to meet, and that’s what we did. Now my Exceptional Family Member Program coordinator does not necessarily need to provide all the support that was required before.
Q: You’re known in El Paso as an outgoing people person, not the stereotypical Army guy who’s impersonal. Is that intentional?
That’s kinda just the way I am. I grew up in New Jersey in an Italian-American family. My father owned his own electrical company, and I grew up doing things for people.
My father got me my first car and, you know, he did a job for a friend who did something for another friend who owed him money so I got a car relatively cheap. That’s the area I grew up in; you do things for each other and for the community.
Q: I hear you do a great Frank Sinatra impersonation.
I do dabble in a little bit of karaoke. I also sing Elvis Presley. I tried country western once and my wife told me, “Don’t ever do that ever again.”
It’s about getting out into the community and getting to know people. Like you said earlier, I am not the Army officer – left, right, left, right – standard way of doing things kind of guy. People have got to be able to communicate with me. Yes, I’m an Army officer, but I am also a human being.
You’ve got to have good relationships, you have to have trust and confidence and you need to be honest. For instance, the first big budget thing we had last year was closing some of the gates that allow access in and out of Fort Bliss. They are manned by Department of the Army guards and we drastically reduced our funding in that area.
So we put it on Facebook and there was an uproar, but when I laid out why we were doing it and some of the things we were mitigating, it quickly went away.
Q: What gates were closed and how much money did you save?
It wasn’t so much money saved but that we went to a lower number of guards. We were only given a certain amount of money so we could only do so many things. One of the things was Pershing Gate that used to be open seven days a week from 5 in the morning until 6 at night.
Now it is only open five days a week, three hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon.
Q: How big is the budget you oversee?
A little over $350 million, when you include all the different types of assets.
And that came down from $450 million the last two years.
Q: How has Fort Bliss changed since you’ve been here?
Well, since 2006 we’ve grown from 9,500 soldiers to 30,000. We went from 16 million-square-feet to 31 million-square-feet in infrastructure. It’s just grown so much and so fast.
Q: Did Fort Bliss get everything it wanted?
The sad thing is we weren’t able to grow all the quality-of-life type of infrastructure. So we don’t have the softball fields or the sports fields or some of the athletic complexes that we should have had, given the original plan, but that was all because of the budget crunch.
Now that we have a little over 20,000 soldiers on East Bliss, how do you keep them physically fit and motivated, other than running them around the installation all the time?
The next challenge is becoming a net zero installation for waste, water and energy. We have to do it without spending a single dime of the Army’s money because the Army and the DOD really don’t have a lot of money to invest in these things.
Q: Is the goal still to be net zero by 2015, Fort Bliss generating all of its power with renewable energy sources? I’ve heard 2020 as well.
The goal is 2015 for energy and we are looking at 2018 to 2020 for waste and water.
Q: Did the city’s settlement with El Paso Electric that will lower electric bills by $15 million annually impact Fort Bliss?
No, our agreement with El Paso Electric has been solidified through the Department of Defense.
Q: People who worked with you in El Paso say you have a knack for getting things done and became the go-to guy. For instance, I understand that El Paso Community College had tried for a few years to get approval for a campus on Fort Bliss before you became commander. How did you do get it done?
I didn’t really do anything other than make things move along that were going on in the past. El Paso Community College had been working on the project for a long time; I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be able to influence getting it over the goal line. We were able to really push things forward harder and get them to where they needed to be.
I’m not the go-to guy. I like to say I’m the input guy. It’s the team that really did it.
Q: And recently you resolved issues with new ramps and overpasses that the Texas Department of Transportation is building on Spur 601.
We realized, after finally we got everybody here at Fort Bliss, we had some major congestion issues where Spur 601 and Loop 375 meet on the Far Eastside.
Rep. Joe Pickett is a staunch supporter of Fort Bliss and the transportation system we have. He was my go-to guy to get TxDOT in line to talk about the transportation issues.
Q: How are they going to fix it?
They presented us with several different options on flyover ramps and adding some additional lanes.
Q: Do you know what your next assignment is?
It’s the first time in my 25-year career that I have not known somewhat in advance where I was going.
Q: It will be a position in the Pentagon, though?
I don’t know. I have been nominated for some positions within the Pentagon. I am just waiting for notification.
Q: I understand a good position at the Pentagon can lead to a star. Do you hope to become a general?
I’ve lived my entire Army career saying whatever job and rank I attain, I want to do the most for the most people. So if the Army has said that colonel and garrison commander is the highest I am going to be, I am perfectly fine with that.
If the Army decides that my talents are needed at higher-level positions, I won’t say no. I’m hoping my next position is one that will give me some more things in my kit bag, so that I am truly a benefit to the Army senior leadership.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.