Herald JournalHerald Journal, Aug. 8, 2005

Local solider tells about Iraq

By Ryan Gueningsman
Staff Writer

Lester Prairie native Chad Wendolek is no stranger to almost 15-hour work days, missing holidays and family functions, and a long hike to the restroom – but that doesn’t mean he isn’t enjoying where he is in the United States National Guard.

On a daily basis, Wendolek conducts physical training at 5:30 a.m., and starts his workday at 8 a.m.

“Most of the time, we can end the day at 8 p.m., but sometimes, the day lasts much longer than that,” said Wendolek, who is currently stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C., but spent time in Iraq.

“Everyone stayed in 30-foot trailers, divided into three, 10-foot sections, where you share each room with one other soldier. Latrines and showers are separate,” he said. “So, if you wanted to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, you had a little hike ahead of you.”

Each trailer had air conditioning and heat, along with electricity supplied by permanent generators, he said. Power is pretty constant, but goes out sometimes. The trailer areas are built on dry lake beds, which isn’t so bad, until it rains, he said.

“The rainy season is in the spring, and we saw rain every day,” he said. During that time period, his unit would have to wade in water over a foot deep to use the showers and bathrooms.

Wendolek’s unit worked in a place nicknamed the “Boat House,” where Saddam Hussein had boats moored. The boathouse was converted sometime last year into the headquarters for corps engineer missions. In the boathouse, his unit has the engineer plans section, which gives direct guidance to the commanding general on missions throughout Iraq.

“I am assigned as the C7 Plans Force Generation/Force Flow officer,” he said. “My main duties are to provide input to the Army on engineer forces needed for upcoming rotations, along with bringing units in and out of Iraq . . . mainly, I meet with corps representatives and other engineers discussing the requirements of future forces needed to conduct engineer operations in Iraq.”

He writes requirements for engineers based on command guidance.

“It is a tedious process, because there has to be a mission for these forces in theater in order for them to pass approval and get a mission designated to them and readied for deployment,” he said. “The fight is to get what the ground commanders in theater want, but make the people back in the states to buy off on it as a valid requirement.”

Current guidance put out by the Secretary of Defense states that nobody will spend more than 365 days in theater, Wendolek said. This period starts in Kuwait, where all forces go through getting the equipment ready and conducting some mandated training before crossing the border and heading into Iraq.

Individuals in the guard and reserve can actually be away from home up to 17 months before coming off of active duty, which is quite a contrast to an active duty unit that will deploy from its home station and be back in 12 months.

Unfortunately, being on active duty does have one downfall, he noted. Since there is such a need for soldiers to support the war, it might be only 90 days upon return from a year-long deployment before they could be assigned to go again for another year.

Along with establishing requirements, the second part of Wendolek’s job is to manage the incoming engineer forces along with the outgoing forces.

“My job is quite different than most of the stories you hear about being deployed. Most of what you hear is troopers on the ground, conducting missions, engaging enemy, and dealing with IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) and VBIED (Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices).

“There are so many ‘behind the scene’ jobs being conducted besides troops on the ground actually fighting the war. The staff and logistical part of this monster over here is humongous. If we all had a choice, it would be to fight the combat part of the war, but that isn’t the case,” he said. “It takes a lot to move the big green machine around the battlefield.”

Choosing the military as a full-time career

“When I first joined the Minnesota Army National Guard in March 1993, my mother was not for it at all,” Wendolek said. “It took my father some time to convince my mother to sign the paperwork, because I had just turned 17, and needed parental consent to join.”

He started to go to weekend drills in Hutchinson, and said he will never forget the first time he came home with an Army camouflaged uniform on.

“My mother said it wasn’t me, and she never pictured me in it,” he said. “My first taste of Army life and life away from home was during basic training. It took some time for everyone to get used to being away from each other.”

“Being away at college in Grand Forks, N.D., was a little easier, but still different,” he added. “I had planned on being an airline pilot, and never in a million years, would I have thought when I was growing up in Lester Prairie, that I would be looking at making the Army a full-time career. But once you get involved with the Army, and start to do things, it gets to you and you develop relationships and a lifestyle that you love.”

Coming on to active duty opened up a whole new door that allowed Wendolek to do things most people only see on television – even though he originally joined the National Guard as a way to get through college.

“I have gotten to conduct missions with some of the Army’s most technologically advanced pieces of equipment,” he said.

Now, being stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C., he is back on jump status, which means being part of the military’s quick insertion plan, which requires him to do monthly airborne operations.

“It is a rush, and you are happy to walk away with everything still attached,” he said. “The way this ties into the family piece is that, knowingly choosing to become an active duty soldier will carry you away from the home area you grew up in and send you to unfamiliar places. I am a small-town kid who grew up minutes away from almost every cousin and immediate family member.”

As a child, Wendolek spent a lot of time on his grandparents’ farm located just west of Winsted, on McLeod County Road 5.

“Having those things growing up was just awesome,” he said. “Family is a huge thing. So choosing a career that would take me away from that was big. However, I met my wife, Jennifer, while in college, and she has taught me that you can still have a great family relationship but do the things you want to do.”

While the couple doesn’t have the opportunity to get in the car and be at every family member’s house within 30 minutes, Wendolek said airplane tickets are cheap, and the opportunity to travel and see something other than the usual stomping grounds is an invaluable experience.

“Now, I am a father of a three-year old boy, and all I want to do is spend every minute with him and my wife, making sure he gets all the great experiences that comes with new places. He has gone on more airplane rides and seen baseball games at different locations at the age of three than I ever did in my first 25 years. He loves the ocean too – something I didn’t even see until I was 18 and in the Army.”

Traveling does have its toll, though, and Wendolek is quick to admit at times he wished his son had the chance to be around his relatives more.

“Sometimes, I feel guilty though, knowing that my friends have kids and they live so close to home that the grandparents get to be a direct part of their life. I sometimes feel like I am cheating them a little. But, things are different; life changes, and goes on,” he said.

Wendolek’s parents lived in Lester Prairie for almost 18 years and eventually moved to a lake home on Lake Jenny, north of Hutchinson. His grandparents grew up farming as kids, married, and have been on their farm for more than 55 years. This past spring, they sold all of their farm equipment, and are getting ready to sell the farmstead and move to a new house in Silver Lake.

“We still get together for holidays, and have a great time,” he said. “I don’t get to spend every holiday with them, but when we do, it is a special time . . . because that is what holidays are meant to be – a time to take a break from work and the wild pace of life, and reflect and blow off some steam. Deployments in the military are the hardest thing to deal with when you are family-oriented.”

He said the hardest thing to do was say goodbye to his wife and two-year- old.

“I have been lucky to go home and see them a few times, and each time he remembered me like I never left,” Wendolek said. “Maybe it is because he is so young, but he knows that when I leave, that I am going back to ‘work.’ I have done some of the hardest training the military has to offer and have now been deployed to a war zone for nine months, but I constantly say that the hardest job in the military isn’t being a solider – it is being an Army spouse, and being a family member of those who are deployed.”

Soldiers can somewhat control the events that happen to them through training, but a family member is just left at home to wonder if their spouse or kid will be OK, he said.

“I am a staff member who doesn’t leave the guarded compound at all. But still, it doesn’t help your family at home. I have grown accustomed to the lifestyle, and feel pretty safe.”

However, he got a reality check last April, when he took a military C-130 flight from Baghdad to Kuwait.

“Before we loaded the plane, two stainless steel crates with American flags draped on them were loaded,” Wendolek said. “Two Marines, 21 and 23 years old, lost their lives in a combat-related incident, were on their way home to the states – that was probably the longest hour-and-a-half flight I have ever been on. All of us aboard couldn’t stop staring at the two crates, probably thinking the same thing I was: what was, what could have been, and what happens now with their families.

“But you can’t think about what might happen to you because you would go insane. You just have to trust your training, make sure you are ready for anything, and take it day by day,” he said.

Wendolek’s background

Wendolek lived in Lester Prairie for several years before his parents moved to a country house in Winsted, near the Winsted Municipal Airport.

“We moved to Slayton in the early ‘80s when my father was transferred by Lester’s Incorporated,” he said. “We spent four years there before my father took a job with Millerbernd Manufacturing. He has spent the last 20 years there, and still works there today.”

His family moved back to Lester Prairie in November 1986, and he attended Lester Prairie High School, from where he graduated in 1994, playing football, basketball, and baseball from fifth grade until graduation.

He was accepted at the University of North Dakota, where he took up studying aviation.

“I had joined the Army National Guard with a high school friend, Wayne Kinneman,” Wendolek said. “That is where I got my start in the military in 1993. At college, I got interested in ROTC. In 1999, I graduated from UND and was commissioned as a second lieutenant as an engineer.

He came onto active duty in fall 1999, attended the engineer school in Fort Leonard Wood, graduated, and was assigned to the first cavalry division.

In 2003, he went back to Fort Leonard Wood to the captain’s career course for engineering. In June 2004, he was assigned to Ft. Bragg, N.C., where he is currently stationed.

In November 2004, his unit deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom 04-06. Wendolek’s current deployment will end in November.

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