War Stories

JonMy oldest and Belgian-born son, Jonathon and I correspond infrequently, most often choosing to relay critical elements of information via text message, Skype or Hangouts.   He’s a former chef turned Electrical Engineering student who lives in Portland, Oregon, the setting for the TV show “Grimm.”

A couple of weeks ago on the way home from work (Jon has great faith in my potential texting while driving skills, which of course, I NEVER do) I received the following out-of-the-blue text message about my former Army career:

Jon: “So I told my coworkers about being born in Belgium and some of your military history. They are convinced you were spying on eastern Germany.”

This made me laugh out loud and had I actually been texting and driving (which of course, I NEVER do) I would have swerved dangerously thus providing myself a valuable lesson.

Since I spent most of my career as an Army Public Affairs Officer with multiple assignments with the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, my work was usually about publicly broadcasting (literally) information about the Army. This is antithetical to the whole idea of secrecy and spying.

Keeping both hands on the steering wheel at the 10:00 and 2:00 positions, I replied, eyes firmly fixed on the road because I understand the dangers associated with texting and driving (which of course, I NEVER do:)

Me: “Shoot, I never made it near the border except for [Grafenwoehr, an Army training area relatively close to the former East Germany.] After I left Germany and got to Belgium, I wasn’t anywhere close to bad people. Of course when I was in Bosnia, I was around Russians all the time. But they were all friends by then.”

My phone chimed a new message:

Jon: “You should write a blog about some of your deployments if that is legal.”

Ok, Jon! You asked for it, you got it! Here’s a short summary of some of the cooler things I got to do while in the Army. I assure you, I conducted no spy missions.

So far as any of you know.

And even though today I work adjacent to the CIA Headquarters with the Federal Highway Administration in public affairs, I assure you I am conducting no spy missions.

So far as any of you know.

 

Germany, 1981-1983

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“If you’re going to be one, be a Big Red One.”

After a public affairs assignment at Fort Gordon, Georgia, I took over the Signal Platoon of the 1st Infantry Division (Forward). The closest I ever got to the border with East Germany was when the division trained at the aforementioned Grafenwoehr training area. If memory serves, this happened three times during my 18 months there. We also did a couple of long “deployments” to the German countryside for REFORGER exercises.   One of those was a good four weeks long, and there were other, shorter exercises leading up to it. I don’t recall any of those being perilously close to the border.

Incidentally, of all the assignments I had in nearly 29 years, this was by far the worst. This was due overwhelmingly to my own severe ineptitude as an officer in 1981. In my defense, at the hail and farewell upon my arrival, the commander of the 1st ID(F), Brig. Gen. James R. Henslick, when he heard I was taking over the Signal Platoon, shook my hand and with sad, sympathetic eyes said “I’m sorry.” I wish I had been prepared for the potential failure that he knew awaited me in that assignment. I was not and I failed spectacularly.

Worst.  Platoon Leader.  Ever.

I’m not exaggerating.

I learned a lot in that assignment about myself and about leadership from Master Sgt. John Kingeter. He actually left the HHC 1st Sgt. job to take over our Signal Platoon’s NCOIC job after some real failures in our NCO leadership and mine. By the time I left to go to Belgium in 1983, I had grown considerably as an officer with a far more realistic self-image and drastically different expectations and understanding of the Army.

Toward the end of that assignment, I was on all-night staff duty at Hohenfels training area which was much like the Grafenwoehr training area, but even less luxurious. Master Sgt. Kingeter came into the staff duty office after an evening at the NCO Club which apparently included the overconsumption of spirits. A fairly short conversation ensued after which he awkwardly stood, saluted and with slurred speech gave me one of the highest compliments you can get. He’s said “Sir, you’re a good officer. You’re good.” And he meant it sincerely and in the most complimentary way. Yeah, it might have been the alcohol talking but I chose to believe that he was being tipsily truthful in his compliment. So even if the rest of that assignment was a total disaster – and it was – it ended well.

Master Sgt. Kingeter was the NCO I should have had on my first real assignment and gave me the training I needed to learn to be an officer.

I am forever in his debt.

 

Belguim, 1983-1985

AFN_logoNot a deployment, but an awesome assignment – my first with AFRTS. AFN SHAPE also molded me as an officer (who wants a moldy officer?) and helped restore the confidence that was obliterated during my time with the 1st ID(F). Made some lifelong friends from there as well including Dave Malone, Kim Danek and Kyle Osborne.

It’s also where I was introduced to fatherhood by the aforementioned offspring.

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Chef Jonathon Wolfe BEFORE his palate became sophisticated.

I’d have stayed there forever if I could have.

 

Alaska, 1985-1990

Not a deployment, but a so-so series of jobs in a magnificent setting. Again, made some terrific lifelong friends including Raymond Brady and Ben Sherburne.

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Me, Raymond Brady and Ben Sherburne. Ben is also a fellow graduate of Valley Forge Military Academy.

nomajSince I had two public affairs assignments as a company grade Signal Officer, I was understandably not among the best qualified for promotion to major in the Signal Corps and left active duty for the Army Reserve where I was promptly promoted. (I was considered fully qualified for promotion, just not best qualified.)

The arrival in 1986 of Andy, offspring number two, highlighted this particular assignment. Andy still lives in Anchorage, and I don’t visit him or his brother nearly often enough.

Andy, aged significantly since his birth.

Andy, aged significantly since his birth.

 

Los Angeles Riots, 1992

Not technically a deployment, but probably the most dangerous environment in which I’ve operated.

16991917_1567536365001_vs-1567525197001I have a zillion stories from getting the page in the supermarket that then President George H. W. Bush was federalizing the California National Guard, to my first time ever talking with a reporter from NBC News. So much happened in the days prior to our activation to support Joint Task Force-Los Angeles that was more heartbreaking, disillusioning and downright frightening that a recounting of events once activated are genuinely dull by comparison. We weren’t called up until the third day of civil unrest, May 1st, and so I spent much of the preceding days watching the destruction and mayhem on TV and staying the hell home.

It was awful.

I heard more gunshots in the preceding days in my neighborhood in North Hollywood than I heard in all my deployments before or since. It was a frightening time to be an Angeleno.

On the upside, once I got the page and got on the road, the usually ridiculously crowded L.A. freeway system was empty. And I mean empty. I breezed through the East L.A. interchange at 70-80 miles an hour, not a law enforcement officer in sight. Made it door-to-door from North Hollywood to Los Alamitos in something like 40-45 minutes. This was usually a 90-minute plus trip at best.

The highlight of this was working with a talented group of local Soldiers who I knew well as well as the assembled Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines from the active duty force that President Bush activated to augment the state forces to restore order.

This is a photo of the entire Joint Information Bureau staff from JTF-LA:

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I don’t remember all their names, but here are the names of my Army Reserve comrades who were activated for JTF-LA:

Lt.Col. Stan Kensic, Capt. Rod Anderson, Master Sgt. Jeanie West, Staff Sgt. Jim McGehee, Sgt. Ted Bartimus, Cpl. Kent Ambrose, and Spec. Ralph Streifel.

Jeanie West and I are still in touch and we often talk about this as being one of the more rewarding assignments during our time in the 63rd Army Reserve Command and the great people with whom we worked.

Lt. Col. Speedman, me, Lt. Col. Stan Kensic and Master Sgt. Jeanie West.

Lt. Col. Speedman, me, Lt. Col. Stan Kensic and Master Sgt. Jeanie West.

 

Bosnia, 1997

This was my first real deployment.

SFOR_coloreI’ve written a lot about Bosnia here, so I am not going to rewrite the history yet again. In a nutshell, I was assigned to the Stabilization Force (SFOR,) a NATO-led multinational peacekeeping force deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Bosnian war. We were in close proximity to bad guys and former bad guys, but by the time I and my colleagues got there in late January, the shooting had stopped.

Our mission was to keep the AFRTS radio and TV stations on the air and provide radio programming to the U.S. forces assigned to SFOR. We worked with the public affairs folks from all of the nations assigned to SFOR including the Russians. My interactions with the Russians produced one of my fondest memories.

I took a year’s worth of Russian in college and got a good, solid D for the second semester. I totally earned it, too. But I DID pay attention in class. Fast forward to Bosnia. The Russian PAO major, whose name I regrettably have forgotten, came to the radio station with his interpreter to conduct business of some sort. Summoning up all the courage I had, I said hello to him in Russian based on what I remembered from college nearly twenty years before. The Russian major’s eyes lit up. He smiled broadly, excitedly shook my hand and said through his interpreter, “You greeted me in our language!” It was a magnificent moment for me and proved to me that you don’t necessarily have to have perfect grades to get something valuable out of academics. You just need to pay attention.

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Just a few of the folks from our trip to beautiful Tuzla, Bosnia in 1997.

AFN Bosnia was really a terrific experience and I would have stayed longer, but by law we weren’t allowed to do so. So after nine months, it was back home to Los Angeles.

This deployment generated more lifelong friends than I can list here. But I listed most of ‘em on the original article linked above. Thanks to all of the folks who contributed to our success there.

And I assure you that even with the Russians around, I conducted no spy missions.

So far as any of you know.

 

Saudi Arabia, 2000-2001

Second real deployment.

I can’t tell you much about this deployment. Not because I have secrets or anything, but because not much happened in the seven months I was there.

I was a one-man PAO shop there so I was more of a worker bee than anything else. But it was really a great assignment and I accomplished as much as we could considering that there was no civilian press allowed there without the permission of the Saudi government. You can guess how often than happened. (Hint: zero times.) So I concentrated on internal communications which the Army calls “Command Information.”

I was there with the USS Cole was attacked. While that was in neighboring Yemen, it’s close enough to Saudi Arabia that our alert status shot up.

I was at the gym running on the treadmill when it happened. I was in the middle of my run watching the TV when the Giant Voice, the post-wide public address system, sounded a siren and announced the elevation of the alert status, or whatever the correct term was at the time. Without missing a stride, I ran off the treadmill and just kept on running all the way back to my room. I quickly showered, put on a uniform and headed to the office per our standing operating procedure. Some hours later, we held a staff meeting to discuss the incident and that was about it.

Then Major Mike Downs at the Grand Canyon of the Middle East.

Then Major Mike Downs at the Grand Canyon of the Middle East.

The longer term impact was that we were restricted to the compound where we were living. No more trips downtown to buy gold or rugs from the local merchants in Riyadh. This happened about three weeks into my seven month deployment and they didn’t loosen the restriction until about three weeks before I left. So I didn’t get to see much of the countryside. That was OK though because the countryside was mostly stark, ugly, trash-laden desert. I’ve never seen so much nothing in my life! Sure there were other sights to see, like the Grand Canyon of the Middle East, or whatever we called it. And the capital of Riyadh was magnificent in many respects. Trips like that were infrequent at best. But as far as I am concerned, Saudi Arabia didn’t have much to offer in the way of tourist destinations.

Senior Master Sergeant Ken Adams in Aviano circa late 2000's.  Ken led a distinguished career and retired a couple years back.

Ken later in his distinguished career.

I did run into Bosnia colleague Ken Adams from the U.S. Air Force. He was there for a couple of days for some reason I don’t recall. But he’s a great guy and it’s always good to see a colleague and friend like Ken when you’re locked down and isolated like that.

(I have a photo of me and Ken in Saudi somewhere, but after looking through a half dozen CD’s from back then, I am unable to locate it. Once I do, it’ll go here.  Until then, this’ll have to do.)

In 2002, I “deployed” to the Pentagon and completed nearly six years of active duty doing everything from working in the Army Operations Center to being the temporary military technical advisor on the first Transformers movie.  Other than traveling through some of the seedier parts of DC, I was never near any enemies of which I was aware.  Assigned to the Army’s Office of Chief of Public Affairs, I was involved in telling the public about the Army not keeping any big secrets.

So far as any of you know.

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Just cause I always loved this photo of me, Jon and Andy. Alaska, 1990.

 


Comments

War Stories — 23 Comments

  1. Jonathon Wolfe – Happy to oblige! That’s as close as I ever got to doing anything clandestine. Though in Germany we used to see the Soviet Military Liaison Mission sedans with real Soviets driving around the autobahns. We were supposed to report them when we saw them, and I think I saw them twice in eighteen months. (Edit: We carried these cards and this is pretty close to the one I recall from 1981-ish.)

  2. Thanks Dan. I enjoyed reading your “war ” stories. I spent some time at grad, hoenfels, and did the REFORGER. I was stationed with 1/10 Field Artillery in Schweinfurt. Funny I also earned a D in Russian. Took that at VF with Col. Christiansen. I read your story between clients here at Camp Lejuene where I am embedded with the 6th Marine Regiment as a civilian contracted mental health counselor (MFLC). I enjoy ongoing service helping Marines and families. Take Care

  3. Jeffrey Miller – Col. Christensen wsa my Russian prof as well. I really enjoyed him as a Russian teacher. His Western Civ classes weren’t nearly as fun or engaging. Great guy. I wish he had lived long enough for me to tell him that story. Relatedly, when I was driving around Bosnia, we entered a town in which the signs were in Cyrillic. With some effort, I could read them — at least sound ’em out. As long as the word was close, I knew what they said.

  4. You didn’t talk about that stellar AT we spent at Camp Bob with the 90Worst Training Division. I am still trying to forget it =)

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