Over more than four decades as an engineer and officer in the U.S. Army, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Todd Semonite oversaw hundreds of infrastructure projects with life-or-death consequences, including recovery efforts after major hurricanes and the construction of emergency medical facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Semonite, who retired this month after four years leading the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, remembers a project from before his career, and with a humbler significance, particularly well.
He was born in 1957, the second son of Bill and Jeanne Semonite, who met as students at the University of Vermont, according to a USACE news release. The Semonites lived in Bellows Falls, where Bill helped run the Studebaker car dealership that Jeanne’s father, John Farr, owned.
Semonite said his father started building the family’s Cape Cod house, which sits atop a hill on North Ridge Road, in 1960. The house featured a spiral staircase made of maple that his father bought for $10 from a mansion downtown, he noted fondly.
As construction dragged on for several years, Semonite began to help.
“Every Saturday or Sunday after football, we’d go home and we’d either finish a bedroom or we’d start [another project],” he said. “We built the screened porch, we built the garage, we built the breezeway. My 10 or 15 years growing up were all about building.”
That passion drew him to the Soap Box Derby, a youth car racing competition in which the participants build their own vehicles. Semonite won the ages 11–12 division of a statewide contest in New Hampshire, he said.
Semonite also began to get involved in the Bellows Falls community through his participation in the Boy Scouts of America.
His final project, to achieve the organization’s highest rank of Eagle Scout, focused on helping a community center that supported disadvantaged people in the area. Semonite explained that he cleaned up the center’s facilities, wrote an article in the local newspaper promoting its services and even petitioned town leaders to give the volunteer-run nonprofit more funding. The experience made an impression on him.
“That was a dimension that I had not had,” he said. “To go into an area where you’re volunteering to help out a disadvantaged center like that, I found that pretty rewarding.”
Those two themes — engineering and service — converged after Semonite graduated in 1975 from Bellows Falls Union High School, where he was a three-sport athlete and served as class president.
He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, where he studied civil engineering. Semonite said there were 122 slots for commissioned engineers, allocated based on class rank, in his 1979 graduating class. He was awarded the 122nd slot.
After 41 years of military service, he retired on Sept. 10 as the last member of his graduating class on active duty, he noted.
Semonite’s career began as an operations officer at Fort Drum in upstate New York. It also included stints overseeing infrastructure projects to support military operations in Bosnia and later as deputy commander for Task Force Restore Iraqi Electricity, following the U.S. invasion in 2003.
“I knew that when I went into the Army, it was an opportunity for me to continue to think through a problem and to solve it with an engineering solution,” he said.
In 2006, Semonite was tapped to command the North Atlantic Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a military organization responsible for building and managing civil infrastructure, including dams, bridges and levees, as well as military facilities. In that role, he oversaw USACE-owned sites in the Northeast, including dams at Surry Mountain Lake and Otter Brook, a tributary of the Ashuelot River.
After three years leading the North Atlantic Division, Semonite served as the USACE South Atlantic Division commander from 2009 to 2012, stationed in Atlanta, and then as the organization’s deputy commanding general until 2014. His responsibilities in the latter position included coordinating USACE’s response to Hurricane Sandy, which caused nearly $70 billion in damage after striking the East Coast in October 2012.
After a year-long deployment to Afghanistan, where he helped train the Afghan National Army and secure the government’s financial systems, Semonite was nominated by President Barack Obama to lead USACE in February 2016.
As the organization’s commanding general, based in Washington, D.C., he oversaw nearly 36,000 civilian employees and 800 military personnel, as well as a $66 billion budget, according to the USACE news release.
Semonite said that with a predominantly civilian staff, he focused on encouraging, rather than ordering, them to complete assignments. He added, however, that USACE employees are just as committed to their mission as members of the military.
“They’re just as passionate about our country as soldiers [are],” he said. “They just have decided to be in the Corps of Engineers instead of being in an army uniform.”
One of Semonite’s priorities as commanding general was to expedite USACE projects, especially in emergency situations, he explained. He said that strategy of “ruthless execution” was critical after several major storms, including Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, when the organization was responsible for installing generators and temporary roofing as well as clearing debris.
“What we didn’t want to do was to try to design the 100 percent [perfect] solution and then be three weeks late,” Semonite said.
USACE’s capacity to quickly design and implement solutions was tested again this year, amid the COVID-19 emergency, he noted.
Semonite said he did not think the organization would be needed to help respond to the outbreak until New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo requested its assistance in March. In a matter of days, Semonite and his deputies developed multiple options for new medical facilities to reduce crowding in hospitals and presented them to governors and mayors nationwide.
USACE built about half of the 74 facilities that resulted from those proposals, he said — including, most notably, at the Javits Convention Center in New York City.
“I wanted to make sure it was a reasonable solution that we were able to get done on time,” Semonite said. “I was worried about having the peak of the [positive cases] curve … after when we got the facility done.”
The Army Corps of Engineers is also responsible for construction on the southern border wall, which President Donald Trump has made a feature of his presidency and which has generated much controversy among the American public. Semonite said he urged USACE staff to ignore the political rancor and instead focus on the engineering assignment.
“We understand the mission, and it is not our job to question an order,” he said. “When we got the task to support [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] … I told our guys, ‘This is about concrete and steel.’ ”
Semonite’s four-year term leading USACE was scheduled to end on May 19, but Trump extended it until Congress confirmed his successor, Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon. He retired on Sept. 10.
Before considering opportunities in the private sector or a possible return to government work, the Bellows Falls native said he looks forward to traveling and spending time with family in the coming months.
Semonite said he has regularly returned to his hometown, even as he traveled the world for the U.S. Army. (He estimated that he and his wife, Connie, have moved 25 times in their 38-year marriage.)
In several of those locations, he and Connie acquired and renovated houses that had been, or were close to being, foreclosed. The couple’s most recent undertaking, a house in Stafford, Va,. that Semonite explained had been unoccupied for a couple years, will be their new residence once they move from Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.
One of the restoration projects was particularly meaningful, he said.
In 2014, the couple purchased his childhood home on North Ridge Road — the one he helped build — which he said his parents had sold a few years earlier. The week before his deployment to Afghanistan, Semonite brought them to the house, where their former neighbors were waiting as a surprise.
“My mom and dad were just so overjoyed that the house was going to be back in the family,” he said.
Semonite said he and Connie plan to visit Bellows Falls, where he enjoys skiing and visiting antique shops among other downtown businesses, even more frequently in his retirement. The couple’s four adult children and eight grandchildren will also be able to enjoy the area, he added.
Plus, he said, there is always more work to do on the house. That one is not just concrete and steel.