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.

 

Cool Pictures That I’m In or That I Took: Facebook Cover Photo Edition

I’ve used this photo collage around Veterans Day both as a header for this here blog and for my Facebook cover photo as well.  I call it my “Career at a Glance.”

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I’ve received a lot of kind feedback from people on this collage.  I even made similar ones for other people.*  I chose these photos of me as I passed through the officer ranks of the U.S. Army during my nearly 29-year career.  There’s two of me as a captain because I spent an unusually long time as a captain before getting promoted to major.  Here are the original photos and the brief story behind each.  Click on any one of ’em to see it full sized.

 

Army ROTC Cadet, 1977:

AdvCamp77-editedThis was taken at Fort Lewis, Washington at graduation from ROTC Advanced Camp.  I’m third from the right on the next to the top row.  We had great weather that summer.  It only rained one day and it was the one day we had leave around July 4th.  Our platoon produced one general officer that I know of, Maj. Gen. Megan Tatu, who as a cadet is standing in the front row second from the left.

 

Lieutenant,1980, U.S. Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon:

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I’m not certain the occasion during which this photo was taken.  But here’s a semi-educated guess.  It may have been at the promotion to lieutenant general of the post commander at the time, Maj. Gen. William J. Hilsman.

 

Brand-New Captain, 1984, AFN-SHAPE, Belgium:

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This is me and my dog, Esme.  I’m sitting outside our apartment in the Belgian countryside about 20 miles or so from the office.  My oldest son, Jonathon was born in Belgium some months after this photo was taken.

 

Captain, USAR, 1992, Camp Pendleton, CA:

DANJEAN

This was taken during WOUNDED WARRIOR 92, an Army Reserve medical exercise conducted at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in Southern California. That’s Captain Me and Master Sgt. Jeanie West. We both worked for the public affairs office at the 63rd Regional Support Command at Los Alamitos, CA.  Army Staff Sgt. Jim McGehee took this photo of us as we were sharpshooting Lt. Col. Stan Kensic’s rehearsal press briefing or some such thing.  I remember laughing uproariously during the rehearsal with all of these folks plus Ted Bartimus, who was 63rd’s full-time civilian PAO. I’m pretty sure this is the first digital photograph I ever saw.

 

Major, 1997, AFN-Balkans, Bosnia:

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This was taken outside the Armed Forces Network station in Tuzla, Bosnia.  This was relatively early in the deployment, as I recall.  In the photo with me from left is Capt. Shawn Jirik (now Colonel Shawn Woodbridge), Spec. Darius Sims, Spec. Jennifer Lopez (now Jennifer Lamb O’Cuinneagain, according to Facebook), and Sgt. Jennifer Braden.  Shawn, Darius and I were Reserve Soldiers and the two Jennifers were active component broadcasters on loan to us for a few months from AFN Europe.

 

Lieutenant Colonel, 2001, Army Forces Central Command – Saudi Arabia:

LTC-Wolfe&GENFranks

This may have been taken in 2000.  Hard to tell – it’s always summer in Saudi Arabia.  Anyway, Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. Central Command at the time, paid us a visit. As a one-man PAO shop, I was doing all the photography for the event.  By the time this photo was taken, I think I had room for just one or two more photos in the digital camera’s storage.  Maj. Mike Downs, who went on to retire as a lieutenant colonel, took the camera from my hands and said “Let me take this.  PAO’s never get their photo taken.”  So Gen. Franks and I assumed the “grip and grin” position and Mike took the photo.  That was a terrific assignment and people like Mike made it memorable and fun.

 

Colonel, 2003, Fort Benning, GA:

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This one was a truly special occasion. My nephew, Andrew Kimes, went to the U.S. Army Airborne School at Benning as an ROTC cadet. When he was ready to graduate from the Basic Parachutist Course, my sister and Andy’s mom, Bobbi Jo, invited me to come down to his graduation and pin his jump wings on him. So she and I flew to Columbus, GA where we had both lived for a few months as REALLY little kids while my Dad was in his branch advanced course. I carried an extra set of airborne wings in my pocket so that I could remove mine from my uniform, pin my wings to his uniform, and then replace mine with a different set so I wouldn’t be out of uniform. This photo was taken after the graduation ceremony. Andy went on to have a great career and is currently a major and the acting battalion commander of a unit in Ohio. My sister was recently award a Doctorate of Nursing Practice from Otterbein University. I’m crazy proud of how they both turned out.

 

* The first one of these I did for my Dad:

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Then I did one for Shawn Woodbridge:

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And one for my younger brother, Jefferson Wolfe.  Jeff is now serving somewhere in Africa in support of the Army’s Ebola eradication efforts there.

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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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