LESTER PRAIRIE, MN Major Chad Wendolek, now well into his second decade of military service, fondly remembers spending his formative years in Lester Prairie.
“It was great,” he said. “Leaving for college in the fall of 1994, I didn’t know if I was prepared to handle the transition from high school to college.”
It turned out he needn’t have worried. “What I found out is that the math and English (learned in high school) was more than enough.”
Wendolek says his career was born from the desire to pay for his own aviation degree from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
He joined the Army in March 1993. He chose the “Split-Option” program, which allowed him to complete Basic Combat Training (BCT) the summer before his senior year of high school, and then follow up the next summer with Advanced Individual Training (AIT).
Wendolek says BCT was a bit of a shock. “You have to re-learn pretty much every basic life skill in order to meet the expectations of the Army,” he said. “The instructors taught you how to eat, sleep, walk, clean, and provide answers to their questions.”
He remembers it was a grueling nine-week experience. ‘We were perpetually tired,” he recalled, “and always getting yelled at for everything we did.”
Wendolek says he realized he was getting to do some cool things not every person gets to do. “I got to throw a live hand grenade and shoot fully-automatic rifles,” he said.
The hardest parts of his initial training were being exposed to riot control gas, and guard shifts in the wee hours of the morning.
Wendolek endured, and started college in autumn 1994. He learned about the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), and began to seriously contemplate a military career.
He entered the Army’s Airborne School at Fort Benning, GA, in 1996.
He described his education there as “three weeks of non-stop running and jumping and practicing falling and hitting the ground.”
Finally, the students got to jump out of airplanes five times.
Wendolek contracted as an ROTC cadet prior to his junior year of college. He said cadets learned leadership skills necessary for service as an Army officer.
The Army decided that Wendolek had the right stuff to become an engineer officer.
The combat engineer position tasked him with providing mobility, counter-mobility and survivability on the battlefield.
Wendolek was promoted to captain in the spring of 2003, while stationed in Texas.
He took the Captain’s Career Course at Fort Leonard Wood, MO.
Wendolek quickly found himself in charge of approximately 150 Airborne engineers.
“There is an analogy that the company assumes the personality of the commander,” he said, “and that is completely true.” Wendolek said his personality as a company commander really came through.
“You are in charge of these soldiers 24-hours a day, seven days a week, for the entire time you are in command,” he said.
“They need to succeed, and you need to be personable with them, and understand what is going on in their lives,” he said. “When you are dealing with guns, explosives, and jumping out of airplanes, their minds cannot be thinking about an issue at home.”
Wendolek was first deployed to Iraq at the end of 2004. He worked as a staff officer with the 18th Airborne Corps, in charge of all Iraq operations. Specifically, he was tasked with planning the rotation of engineer units in and out of Iraq.
Wendolek was deployed again at the beginning of 2009. This time, he served with the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), for which he went into Iraq and ran construction projects. Initially, the majority of his work was in or near the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad. Wendolek described the Green Zone as “a safe area. Somewhat safe, besides rocket and mortar attacks.”
Wendolek worked on State Department projects for the United States Embassy, including building a barracks complex and a helicopter landing zone.
In August of 2009, Wendolek began running operations from Camp Victory, which is Saddam Hussein’s former Al Faw palace.
He spent nearly a year overseeing all of the Army’s construction projects in the area.
“At the height of construction, I managed $535 million of the $1.2 billion of active construction in the entire country of Iraq,” he said.
At the end of 2012, Wendolek led a 12-man team to Afghanistan. His team provided feedback to the Theater Engineer commander about route clearance proceedings.
“We would report back to the commander the findings of the units clearing the roads on changes to the enemy’s tactics towards defeating our capabilities,” he said.
Following his return from Afghanistan, Wendolek was assigned to the Pentagon.
The work focused upon developing plans for procurement of equipment.
“We would look at the type of equipment we were using, and then study what the battlefield looks like today, and what it may look like in the future,” he said. “You analyze possible adversaries and see what they have for equipment and measure it compared to what we have in our force today. The difference between the two is called the capability gap.”
Senior leaders use the capability gap information to inform their own funding and procurement decisions.
Currently, Wendolek manages military funding, and tracks old and new systems through their useful life cycles.
Wendolek said every job in the Army is a building block to the next. “I don’t think any job can prepare you for working at the Pentagon,” he said.
He likes to give tours of the Pentagon, and show people sites not seen on the regular tour.
Wendolek said the Pentagon operates much like a city the massive building houses food vendors, coffee shops, clothing stores, a barber shop, banks, a post office and a full gym, complete with a running track and a pool.
Wendolek admitted a military career was not his intention or goal during his final high school years.
“I was looking for a way to not saddle my parents, Mike and Sue, with my college bill,” he said. “A few friends from Lester Prairie were joining the Guard and got me interested.”
He encourages people to join, or at a minimum, to talk to a local recruiter.
“The Army is the nation’s most versatile force,” he said. “It’s adaptive in size, structure and skills to meet the ever-changing challenges of today’s environment.”
Wendolek knows the Army makes a difference in the lives of the individuals involved, as well as the nation and world at large.
“We are one of the world’s most elite teams, comprised of intelligent, adaptable, and professional soldiers, who make a real difference in the world and for this nation every day,” he said.
And while Wendolek is happy with his winding career path, and his years of service, he is also keeping an eye on his home state.
“I still keep in touch with a number of people from my graduating class,” he said.
He enjoys coming back to Minnesota to hunt in the autumn. “Minnesota is awesome in the fall, with the colors changing, the smell of farmers harvesting, and fireplaces burning,” he said.
“Once my Army career is over, my family will be moving from North Carolina back to Minnesota.”
Wendolek’s family includes spouse Jennifer, and children Chase, 14; Cullen, 10; and Jori, 4.
In the interim, Wendolek is satisfied with his current career trajectory.
“There is nothing greater than the sense of pride of having served your country,” Wendolek said. “Serving is a way to show patriotism and pride and give back a little to something that is bigger than you.”