Acting and Bosnia (from 1997)

I just discovered a Facebook group for former people assigned to the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS).  I casually leafed through the entries, If one can call browsing a site “leafing” as you would a book.  I saw quite a few familiar names and it reminded me of this piece I wrote back in 1997.  I had been in Los Angeles playing actor when I got called up to go to Bosnia for nine months and at the time, I wanted a way on my actor’s web site to explain my absence.  

Reading about all the AFRTS, history, I was reminded that we made a little AFRTS history of our own but more importantly, it reminded me of all the people with whom I’ve served over the years.  

On January 5, 1997, the world as I new ceased to exist. The wanna-be actor known as Dan Wolfe had to be put on hold. This was coming — I knew it. We all knew it. We had all been well prepared and trained. After over six years of “one weekend a month and two weeks a year,” Uncle Sam called me and the other members of the 222nd Public Affairs Detachment, U.S. Army Reserve to active duty for a period not to exceed 270 days. It was 270 days that changed the way I saw the world. And gave me the mission to safeguard the very lives of six soldiers as they traveled to Bosnia Herzegovina to entertain the peacekeepers.

Bosnia053-medAs a public affairs detachment, we were a reserve radio and TV station, capable of producing broadcast programming for the U.S. Forces 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Only six of us were activated to go with this group, but we were joined by several members of the Active Army upon our arrival in Germany. With about 12 soldiers, we assumed the military radio and television broadcast operation in Bosnia Herzegovina, Hungary and Croatia as the American Forces Network, The Balkans.

afn-e-As the unit’s commander, I didn’t get as much opportunity to be on the air as I would have liked. But my job was to command, make policy and keep everyone safe. I got to be on the air from time to time, practicing precious few moments and exercising the voice over and acting skills taken from that civilian world I left behind. For 270 days, we did the mission and did it well. While it absolutely killed my commercial acting career, I would not trade the experiences I had, nor the relationships I developed for a hundred national spots. (Well, maybe a hundred, but not fifty. Ok, maybe 30 and ten regionals?) In all seriousness, the relationships created when a dozen people share cramped quarters and unusual experiences (rarely, but occasionally life threatening) it creates something nearly magical. The soldiers, sailors and airmen with whom I served were among the finest people that the U.S. Military has to offer. If I were to choose a team to take back into a combat zone, I would choose the same group — no questions asked.

Did this experience help my military career? Definitely! I have been selected for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and assigned as a brigade level deputy commander — a good thing, for those not familiar with the military. Did this experience help my acting career? Nope. In fact, I was doing pretty well right before I left. And those of you in the biz know that if you take a break, coming back is like starting over.

Was it worth it? Yeah, I think so. I saw from the back seat of a UH-60 helicopter, the lush, green valley surrounding the city of Sarajevo bathed in light morning clouds . The beauty and serenity of the vision above belied the destruction below and the eerie presence of 10,000 bodies buried just outside of Zetra Stadium, once sight of the Olympics. I saw American soldiers perform acts of kindness to local children who had been all too young to see anything remotely resembling “ethnic cleansing.” I saw the American sport of baseball introduced to Bosnia (albeit under heavy military guard!) I sent a 19 year old Army journalist to travel with an infantry unit during a period of great tension, and wondered if I had sent him into a situation where he might not come back alive. (He did.) I traveled in a “Humvee” down Sarajevo’s “sniper alley” with two of my colleagues, boisterously displaying our Americanism by playing ” The Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits” CD as loud as we could. Just yards away, I saw the ruins of the former Olympic Village, humiliated by mortar and gunfire, never again to house the living, let alone world class athletes.

Now, in the retrospect of having seen all this, I suspect that I AM a better actor for having experienced all this. After all, as actors, we draw on experiences — ALL of our experiences — to create complex, multidimensional characters that our audiences are compelled to believe in. Some believe that the more life experience, the more rich the acting experience. I agree.

So for those of you reading this who might wonder why I don’t work much after 8 years in L.A., I stepped out of the business for awhile and let that alter ego take over for 270 days. (And this was the third time the Army called me for this sort of thing. Though never to an overseas combat zone.) And while my acting career was just starting to pop, I wouldn’t trade the delays for any less that 20 national spots!

Our Team:

CPT Shawn “Caffeine J.” Jirik MSgt Rick “Thick” Blackburn, USAF
SSG Tom “The Geez” Owens SPC Darius Sims
SPC George “Julio” Lopez SGT Eric “Chuckles” Harding
SSgt Kenny Adams, USAF SGT Jennifer Braden
SPC Jennifer Lopez (no, not THE Jennifer Lopez.) SPC Lloyd “Stretch” Phelps
SGT Mark Parr SGT Pete Pirkle
JO3 Eric Deatheridge, USN PFC Brian Cox
SPC Rebecca Sue Cox SPC Heatherann Bozeman
JO3 Sean Everette, USN SPC Eric Hendrix
SGT Gerald Malec SSG Brian Scott
SSG Hank “The Big Sarge” Minitrez SSG Jimmy Colon
SPC Stephen Wylie SGT Tom Shanks
CPL Cory Check MSG Jerry Grams
JO1 Paula Nowalkowski IC3 Cynthia Shattuck

There are many others who unquestionably contributed to our mission and made our trip an unqualified success.  To those not listed here, who helped us get through the long weeks (and whose first names I don’t have on file,) thanks for a job well done!

Bosnia051-med Bosnia056-med Bosnia055-med Bosnia050-med Bosnia052-med

Where Were You 12 Years Ago Today?

I wrote this back in 2009 because everyone at the office was sharing their “Where we you when the planes hit?” stories.  Even now when I read this or think about 9/11, the feelings are overwhelming. Yet, what we’ve learned about national unity in the long run has been overshadowed by what we’ve forgotten about national unity.

“So, do you think the Army’s going to call you up because of this?”

“I sure as hell hope so.”

That was the big question my supervisor at the E! Channel asked me on 9/11. While I did eventually get called up, I’d gladly give up all the financial and professional gains which resulted if it had never happened. But that’s not what these words are going to be about.

I was awakened that morning by a phone call from my mother-in-law who told us in frantic, disjointed words that something bad was happening. As a native New Yorker, she was understandably shaken at learning that Manhattan was under attack. The message was related to me by my spouse at the time who slammed into the bedroom and shook me awake and said “Wake up! The Pentagon’s under attack!”

I got up, rushed to the TV in a groggy stupor and saw the story as it was still in chaos. Information was rolling into news agencies willy-nilly and much of what was heard and reported was unconfirmed. I dressed and hurried to work in the Wilshire District in LA, near the La Brea Tar Pits. The streets of Los Angeles were relatively deserted – not empty as they were during the LA riots in 1992. But it was clear that people were staying home. Businesses closed for the day and many more operated on essential staff only. Which is why I was going to work.

When I arrived at E!, I could see that many of the national cable networks which shared our satellite space had either gone dark or were carrying coverage from one of the big three networks. It was at that moment that the enormity and the immediate practical impact of this event on this Nation became apparent. Even commerce stopped for a time – shopping networks were carrying round the clock news coverage. Sports channels and others had full-screen graphics up telling people to tune to a network broadcast and follow the news.

One of the positive things about working at a TV network with all measure of high-tech TV equipment is that we could monitor as many TV stations as we had monitors. And we had plenty. CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC all raced to get pictures and firsthand accounts of the unfolding tragedy on the air. I flipped back and forth from moment to moment and channel to channel trying to find the best pictures. No one had a lock on the best, so it was back and forth from channel to channel.

As for what I was doing in between times, E! was trying to decide whether to take coverage from a major news network or stay with the on-air schedule without regard to the situation. My job was to design on-screen graphics in support of either option. Ultimately, E! chose to stay with their own programming rather than switch to one of the majors. I will not debate that decision, but I will observe on my own behalf that I had no interest in entertainment fluff at that point, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else feeling differently.

From the moment it sank in just what was going on, my heart was heavy, but my fists clenched in preparation. When my terrific boss, Ken Mason, asked me if I was going to get called up, not only did I hope so, but I was hoping it would be within the hour. For the rest of the day, most of us sat in network control going about our business with about as much feeling as the machines supporting us. It was quiet and the sounds of our air signal were mixed with the sounds of the coverage coming from ancillary equipment racks where the carnage of the day was being replayed over and over.

I would be many months before I actually got called up and reported here to Washington, D.C. in January, 2002. I spent the next 71 months assigned to the Pentagon in various assignments, some 9/11 related and others not.

A year after the attacks, our office moved into the rebuilt section of the Pentagon and shortly thereafter, the small indoor memorial and chapel was opened. Whenever I thought I was being unfairly put upon, I’d stroll the 30 seconds down the E-ring to the 9/11 memorial and stand for a minute or two.

It gave me perspective in two profound ways. It made me recognize that getting picked on that day wasn’t really so bad, and that any one of these people whose biography and photo were in one of two books would give anything to be in my predicament. Alive. Within reach of those about whom they cared. And it humbled me. Standing there for only a moment made me remember why I was there and that I had better do the best job I could.

Eight years have passed since the attack on our Nation. Today, while driving into my civilian job, I listened to replays of the coverage from that day and remember what it felt like that day. How shocked and horrified. How angry. How resolute. I suspect that will never change. I suspect that I’ll always feel the intense mix of emotions on this day. And I’ll fight back the tears on this day just as I did on this day eight years ago.

For many, the feelings we experienced that day have already escaped us, relegating the horror of the day to a collection of historical facts, figures and stately memorials to those who perished. It is right that we recall the facts and honor those who were murdered that day. However, it is my wish that somehow the shock, horror, anger and resolution I felt – that most everyone felt that morning – stay with us and unite us as it did on 9/11 and in the shadows of that day.

Eight years hence, we find ourselves a divided Nation when in truth, there’s so very much more about us that is alike than those things which divide us.

I wish we weren’t so divided and I have no solution as to how to unite us. I just know that we have it in us. The days following September 11, 2001 were some of America’s finest.

Remember what that was like. Not just today on this horrific anniversary. But every day.

It would serve us all well.

A “Shot Across the Bow” is a Waste of a Perfectly Good Missile

I don’t know if it’s my libertarian leanings or I’m just sick of it all but I’m fast becoming an isolationist.  And by “sick of it all,” I mean the alleged U.S. Middle East policy which for the last ten years or so, has been cloudy at best.

I was good with Afghanistan.  The war in Afghanistan started out with clear objectives and netted good results.  The Taliban were removed and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan dismantled.  While I never made it over there, I came to more clearly understand the rationale for and the planning and execution of the war as a member of the Army’s Crisis Action Team.  That was my first job when I came back on active duty.

Then came Iraq.  I heard all the arguments and saw all the justification that the rest of the world saw.  I didn’t have any special access to any information beyond that which everyone else in the world saw.  I trusted that our national leadership at the time was presenting the world with factual information.  There are a zillion reasons why the information turned out to be less than factual, the biggest of which I call the fog of bureaucracy — spinning bad news so that the boss can draw his desired conclusion anyway and still not be 100% wrong.   I saw this so often that it’s a wonder anyone in authority could ever make a decision with real “facts” because no one was willing to present real “facts” if they were contrary to those which were expected.   And there were those who just plain lied for personal gain.  So it’s really no wonder that the real situation with WMD’s in Iraq never made it to the highest levels of the Administration.

Anyway, that’s a tangent.  Back to the story.

Now we’re likely going to attack Syria.  I don’t believe a word that’s coming out of my TV set except for the fact that hundreds of thousands are being slaughtered over there by another jackass dictator in another god-forsaken place I’d never want to visit in a million years.  To say that the massacre there is a horrific act is an understatement.  I won’t argue that nor should I.  And yes, killing is killing, but chemical weapons are so indiscriminate in their targeting that they deserve a rightful place as far worse than conventional weapons.

But folks, a “shot across the bow” from a U.S. Naval vessel is not going to accomplish a thing.

If we are the engage Syria to prevent the slaughter of innocents, then that’s what we should do — prevent the slaughter of innocents.  Sending a warning shot is a waste of effort, money and won’t prevent a single death from the continuing use of chemical weapons.

Only one thing will do that:  denying ANYONE the ability to deploy and use chemical weapons now and in the foreseeable future.  If you want to keep the bad guys – regardless of who they are — from doing bad things, destroy their capability.  A warning shot is as useless as a strongly worded letter from the United Nations.

Do we have national interest there?  Beyond the defense of Israel, I’m not yet sure that we do.  And yes, I get the whole proxy war argument, but haven’t we been down this road before?  Haven’t we learned anything?

Apparently not.

Look, if we’re going to do this (and the jury’s still out on whether this will happen or not) please let whatever action we take have a real effect on saving the lives of innocents.  After all, that’s what this is supposed to be about, right?  Lobbing missiles over there as a “we have to do SOMETHING” response is not the answer.  If we’re going to shoot the missiles anyway, let’s aim that so that it will HELP.  Destroy the ability within Syria for ANYONE to use chemical weapons.

So yeah, I’m still not convinced that the U.S. has any business there.  There’s that whole isolationist thing again.  But if we’re going to go to war to prevent the slaughter, then we ought to do something that will have meaning.  Something meaningful and effective that will let the world say “This time, the U.S. saved lives.”  Something that will accomplish our stated goal.  From my position here at Fort Living Room, Virginia, a “shot across the bow” won’t do a damned thing.

Gather Round, Children!

Long before Instagram…

Long before Picasa…

Long before Google+, Photobucket, Mashable, Tumbr…

…and long before the Internet had a capital “I”, there was was a web site that I started way, way back in the mid 1990’s.  You know, the Dark Ages of the internet.  (No capital. See?)  Back when seeing a Uniform Resource Locator on a TV commercial was rare.  Back when dial-up modems screamed at you every time you tried to connect and often didn’t.

The server on which it ran lived in my spare bedroom in California at first. It was built from spare parts gathered from all corners of my world.  For a time, the computer case in which WolfeScrapbook lived was from the computer that automated all of E! Entertainment Television’s programming for something close to a decade or so.  (To all of my former E! colleagues, remember TAS? I still have a 3 ½” disk with the TAS software on it that my friend and fellow surf tech, Ron Baer presented me with long ago.  It’s a cool souvenir.)  There were probably some other parts in there from the E! channel, but I only remember the case.

WofeScrapbook was my family web site on which I posted pictures, coded in HTML by yours truly, so that my family could access them from their computers up in Alaska.

So why am I telling you all this?

I post a lot of photos on Facebook and talk a lot about Nate and Garrett, my significant other, Beth’s kids. From all the attention they get, you’d think they were the only kidlings with whom I’ve had the opportunity to share space.

Well, this isn’t the case.

I have two boys of my very own who are now grown up and who I love and miss very much.   They don’t get a lot of Facebook time from me because of course, they’re not around for me to photograph and dote over as I would if they were in the same area code.  But they’re not, and they suffer from a temporal disparity that allows me to share my experiences with Nate and Garrett far more easily than when this whole Internet thing was still in its commercial infancy.

So anyway, I’m making this opportunity to tell you all about my older boys, and let all of you know that they are ridiculously awesome!  And they should be – they’ve been all sorts for awesome for nearly three decades now.

Jonathon Wolfe was born in Belgium while I was stationed there.  For a time during high school, he took to all things Japanese like a fish takes to water.  Toward the end of his high school career, he decided to go to culinary school and worked as a chef in Portland, Oregon for close to ten years.  He’s in the middle of a career switch and is studying Electrical Engineering enroute to a bachelor’s degree.  The dude can cook like crazy and the dude can fix PC’s almost as well as dear ol’ Dad can.

Andrew Wolfe was born in Anchorage, Alaska and has remained in his hometown.  He is largely self-taught, academically speaking, and writes splendidly about all sorts of thing.  He works in the Alaska film industry behind the scenes mostly, but occasionally appearing on camera.  His nickname is “Sauce,” and I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores of that name’s origin.  But if you address him as Sauce, he will answer.

Both of them are talented gamers and know their way around their computers.  They get that technical stuff from me, I suppose.  Then again, some degree of technical savvy is necessary these days just to navigate life, so they are well prepared for that.

Jon is Android.  Andy is iPhone.

Jon is a little bit country.  Andy’s a little bit rock ‘n roll.

(That’s not true.  I just thought it was funny.)

They are as close as brothers can be and I think that’s the thing I love most about them.  Even though Jon’s been living in Portland for many years now, they still stay in touch almost every day using Skype.  They regularly play together online MMO’s and FPS’s (Massively Multiplayer Online & First Person Shooter for the uninitiated.)  And they help each other when their computers malfunction.  (They only call me for tech support when things get really bad.)

The bottom line on all of this is that Facebook has given me the opportunity to share fun moments with Nate and Garrett.  But I’ve been sharing far more fun moments with Jon and Andy over the years, but without Facebook, y’all never saw it.

To Jon and Andy:  You guys rock!  You’ve always made me proud.  You’ve always kept me laughing.  And you’ve always been there when I needed to lean on you – even when you were far too young to be leaned on.

Thank you for all of that.  And thank you for being exactly who you are.

I’m so proud to be your Dad.