SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Dec. 29, 2017) -- Philip R. Tilly, a program manager with the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was making final plans in September for a promised road trip he and his wife, Jeanne, of 35 years, would take to Acadia National Park in Maine, and a week-long retreat to Hocking Hills in southeastern Ohio.
But the call to serve, to volunteer, deeply engrained in him from decades of faithful service, tugged at his heart strings.
Tilly, a 26-year U.S. Army combat veteran, was closely following the one-two, destructive punch wrought by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, as they began striking the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Texas and Louisiana.
As the media reports of utter devastation flooded in on Puerto Rico, Tilly went to division Emergency Operations Center Chief Bob Burnside, and said: “Bob, if you need me, call me. I promised my wife I would take her on a couple of trips but, after that, I’m ready to deploy.”
That call to duty landed Tilly an assignment as the operations chief, Task Force Power Restoration, on Oct. 18. The TF Power Restoration’s mission in Puerto Rico, as directed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is to: scope, coordinate and execute interim repairs to segments of the electrical grid to allow temporary restoration of grid segments until a comprehensive restoration of the overall power generation, transmission, and distribution systems of Puerto Rico can be implemented.
Tilly has been at the division for eight years. Prior to his role as a program manager, he was the executive officer. He is also the glue that keeps the TF Power Restoration team focused and on track.
“One of the great things about Phil Tilly was the leadership he showed during his time here with Task Force Power,” said Col. John P. Lloyd, Task Force Power Restoration commander. “What I mean by leadership is not just being out front in many cases, but that ‘taking care of people’ persona that he displayed really epitomizes and sets him apart.
“It’s not a bumper sticker with Phil. He went above and beyond what we would expect of anybody during his daily routine. Just checking on everyone whether it was a subordinate of his or even someone like myself. He meant a lot to the task force; he was always a steady hand amongst many cases of very chaotic conditions; very challenging conditions at the end of day. Phil brought a sense of camaraderie, family and taking care of people here.”
Tilly earned his undergraduate degree in communications from the University of Kentucky. He also holds two master’s degrees, both from Fort Leavenworth’s Army Command and General Staff College: Master of Advanced Military Studies and a Master of Military Arts and Sciences.
The retired lieutenant colonel spent six months working with private industry at Dell Computers, when later that year the Army asked him to return to active duty and command a headquarters at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Two years later, he retired again from the Army before joining the Corps.
Tilly’s many Army and civilian service awards range from the prestigious Legion of Merit to multiple awards of the Meritorious Service Medal to a combat patch, 1st Cavalry Division, 1st Team, to a Commander’s Award for Civilian Service.
An Army ‘brat’, Tilly was born in Frankfurt, Germany. He calls home a little town in Texas.
“My dad and grandparents came from De Leon, just like the street, Ponce de Leon, in front of our TF Power Restoration district,” said Tilly. While he never lived there, Tilly says the local residents say De Leon in Texas refers to the Leon River, not the Spanish explorer.
He and wife Jeanne have two children, son Army Capt. Brian Tilly, stationed with the 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; and daughter Alicia Ausere, mother of their only grandchild. Capt. Tilly, a medical service corps officer, has completed two combat tours in Afghanistan.
Tilly serves on the executive committee of the USO, Cincinnati; performs volunteer work at the University of Cincinnati’s Society of American Military Engineers chapter; dedicated “cleaner” of the Little Miami River adopt-a-river program; and helps maintain the Little Miami Trail’s 73 miles of bike path. Phil, his preferred nickname, had just completed a triathlon prior to arriving in Puerto Rico.
Tilly loves to read and some of his standout books are: "Duty", by former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates; Army Gen. Colin Powell’s biography; and "Flavor of Texas", by J. Frank Doby. “It’s a book about Texas folklore and history; Sec. Gates examines leadership style; and Sec. Powell talks about values, said Tilly.”
A worldwide traveler, Tilly has visited dozens of countries on practically every continent on the planet.
On the eve of his departure, 73 days into this mission, Tilly fondly remembers the Catholic Christmas Eve mass he and a couple of team members attended.
“We went next door to the Catholic church right outside the back gate, located in a Dominican neighborhood,” said Tilly. “Beautiful church, wonderful service. Mass was delivered in Spanish, but we could recognize different pieces of the service. At the end of the mass, a lady walked up to the lectern and pointed at the three of us. She said in perfect English, ‘Thank you three, thank you all for being here and helping the people of Puerto Rico. We are so grateful.’ Everyone in the church, about 200 parishioners, then stood up and applauded. It was very powerful … their gesture of kindness makes all this worthwhile.”
Tilly also shared one of his main frustrations during this mission.
“It’s easy to take a rumor or talking point that someone just randomly throws out there without doing the research, without doing the investigating of what the real hard facts are,” Tilly said.
“That’s why I appreciate our public affairs team here, who do a great job capturing the numbers and the people. What is the truth? What is the, no kidding, here’s how many transmission lines we have up; here’s how much distribution we have going on; here’s the total number of electrical poles that we issued yesterday; these are the number of transformers that we are issuing from the warehouse.
“It’s very easy to say, well, we don’t have all the material we need. What specific material do you need to do your job? Well, I just need more material. Well, tell me what the item stock number is, because the guy that handles that works with me and I’ll call him up right now and we’ll tell you what warehouse that’s in, and when you can go get that issued,” said Tilly.
People are down here working at a feverish pitch to get the lights turned on, Tilly continued. “They have left their homes; they’re down here over Thanksgiving; over Christmas; they’re living away from their families; away from the things that define their lives, and they volunteer to be down here.
“And when you volunteer for a job like this and you’ve got some skin in the game, you have invested yourself – your heart, your soul, your professional and personal being; left your family to come down here to help your fellow Americans. And yes, we’re frustrated, too. We like to be doing so much more, faster and sooner.”
As Tilly prepared to board a Delta flight Dec. 29, for a return trip home to Cincinnati, there are so many thoughts rushing through his mind, most of them spiritual.
“At my farewell, I repeated holy Scripture, which says, ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’ I have had more opportunities; I have been blessed by more things than I should ever had the privilege and the joy of realizing; and the Lord has provided well for me and my family.
“I think I’m called to give back. I think much is expected of me and you and everybody else here to help our fellow citizens … so gracious, so grateful, so hospitable, genuine good and decent and caring folks. I can’t imagine anything better to do than to help them recover from this tragedy and get their lights back on and their lives back on track,” said Tilly.
As Philip Reed Tilly said his final goodbyes to his teammates and departed the TF Power Restoration team district, he was overheard saying, “I promised Jeanne that when I returned home we would vacation in Key West, Florida, and frolic along the sandy beaches.”