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!

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