A Daniels connection helped Noel Pace and Peter Hjelmstad excel in a high-pressure environment

Noel and Peter stand outside Fort Liggett in full uniform

Noel Pace and Peter Hjelmstad at Fort Liggett (Photo courtesy of Noel Pace)

For 14 days in the California desert, the U.S. Army’s 176th Medical Brigade from Dallas, Texas, prepared for war. An intense exercise simulated setting up a network of care facilities, treating a cholera outbreak, enduring a chemical attack and managing a surge of victims overwhelming the hospital.

Colonel Noel Pace (MBA 2002) knew it would be trying. He knew it would be intense. He knew he would need the highest quality people for the job.

So, to build the best team possible, he logged on to LinkedIn and searched the Daniels College of Business MBA alumni network.

“I know that a graduate from DU has been through rigorous enough of a process that we can count on them when it’s a tough job,” Pace said. “It all comes down to the people. If you have the right people, put them in the right seats on the right bus, we [can] provide world-class health care.”

Pace went through that DU gauntlet in the early 2000s. He came to the Daniels Executive MBA program looking to add a finance and technology foundation to a master’s degree in health administration. During the week, he was stationed at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, completing his health care administration residency. But, every weekend, he was at Daniels, sharpening his skills and building friendships he maintains to this day.

Twenty years later, he still remembers grinding through Mac Clouse’s finance class and learning valuable lessons in management from Cindi Fukami. When he saw that Major Peter Hjelmstad (MBA 2014) had gone through the Professional MBA program and was looking for a new Army Reserve job, Pace invited him to Fort Carson for a cup of coffee.

“Based on his background, I knew Peter was someone we could probably count on,” Pace said, recalling their meeting. “He was going to be getting a tough job—we’re the largest medical brigade in both the Army and the Army Reserve. We had a lot of units that are on the Army’s Response Force. Our goal was to take the unit from good to great.”

Soldiers stand around a table during an Army exercise

Noel Pace, left, and Peter Hjelmstad, standing at left, participate in the Command Post Exercise Functional. (Photo courtesy of Noel Pace)

The Command Post Exercise Functional (CPX-F), as it’s known, is a high-pressure, round-the-clock test to ensure the brigade is meeting the Army’s performance standards. In a simulated conflict, Hjelmstad, Pace and their team reacted to casualties and medical events that could come up on the battlefield, strategically reallocating resources, mitigating crises and navigating technology failures.

“They try to push the limits of everyone involved,” Hjelmstad explained. “They have people who can adjust the intensity level based on how the team is reacting. The intent is to keep it pretty high stress and poke holes in the system that need to be identified so, ideally, you can get them corrected before you have to go do it for real.”

Pace knew Hjelmstad had a wealth of experience as a health care administrator, so he entrusted him as the leader of the operational night shift, normally a colonel’s job. Hjelmstad, in turn, had full confidence in Pace who, as the medical brigade commander, was in charge of multiple field hospitals and several thousand soldiers.

After all, Hjelmstad also knew the value of a Daniels education. The MBA program taught him valuable lessons in statistics, managerial accounting, budgeting and human relations policies. Plus, it endowed him with a group of friends he still sees monthly, almost 10 years after they graduated.

With Pace and Hjelmstad leading the way, the 176th Medical Brigade passed the exercise with flying colors, receiving all “T”-level ratings—the highest possible grade. Both men attribute a good portion of their success to their shared DU background.

“It really just helps with that trust factor when you’re doing kind of high intensity or high-risk kind of work,” Hjelmstad said.

Pace agrees: “Could we have done it OK without me going to DU or Peter going to DU? Sure,” he said. “Did we go from good to great [because of it]? Most likely.”

The Army Reserve tends to bring people together for short, but meaningful assignments, Pace said, which is exactly what happened here. The two are changing jobs and will no longer call each other coworkers, but the experience together is something they know they can lean on in their future endeavors.

“Our connection was something that helped make us be successful together,” Hjelmstad said. “It was a DU connection that brought us together and we did great things.”