- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
In the 22 years Tom Wand was in the U.S. Air Force, he never met someone who was featured in the branch’s “Portraits of Courage,” a book that highlights exceptional achievements of airmen.
He didn’t remember meeting anyone who knew anyone who was in the publication.
“Portraits in Courage” features the stories of 20 airmen who faced extraordinary circumstances to carry out their missions, delivered humanitarian aid, endured combat and saved lives.
Now, Wand, a Welcome resident, does know someone in “Portraits in Courage,” his stepson, U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Kevin Wallace.
Wallace, a 1990 graduate of Thomas Stone High School, entered the Air Force in 1997.
His job as a calibration technician, making sure that every piece of equipment from weapons systems on aircraft to medical apparatus was measured correctly, was one he did for nine years until a decision was made to contract that work out to civilians.
Stationed in Okinawa, Japan, at the time, Wallace learned that he was to report to Fort Meade to become a photojournalist.
He didn’t have a wealth of knowledge, or interest for that matter, in the field, but he wanted to stay in the Air Force.
He was pretty good in English, he took a photography class at Stone, a creative writing class too. That’s about it.
At Fort Meade, he had a four-week class where he learned about Associated Press style and got his feet wet with a camera.
“Initially, I didn’t want to do it,” said Wallace, calling from Idaho, where he is currently stationed. “I found out that I had a knack for it right away. It came natural to me.”
As a photojournalist, Wallace wrote articles and escorted media on base while he was stationed in England.
Married to Ai, and father of three, Maria, 16, Kassidy, 15, and Liam, 10, Wallace has been deployed three times, once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan.
He was part of a combat camera unit — those who deploy to capture images for planning purposes, as well as public relations.
In April 2011, Wallace and a U.S. Navy combat cameraman (who operates video equipment) set out with a group of U.S. Army scouts and their medic in the Bala Murghab Valley of the Badghis Providence in Afghanistan.
The footage captured by Wallace and the Navy cameraman would be used for historic documentation, Wallace said.
That night the group went farther than other forces had before.
The next day, after a night spent setting up a base in the ruins of what was probably once a house, they were joined by a Navy dog handler, his bomb detecting dog, Valdo, some Afghan National Army soldiers and others.
They ventured out to talk to villagers about working with the government and not the Taliban.
The one thing Wallace had seen during his deployments is that most people were respectful, even if they disagreed.
The villagers who they met that day were anything but.
“The village elders became argumentative and accused our team of wrongdoing and trespassing,” Wallace remembered. “Tension grew in the air and the villagers became visually upset, spitting and behaving in a way you rarely see in people who typically put a lot of stock into saving face and respect.”
Moving on, they saw the women and children leaving the village and men of fighting age lining up on rooftops.
The group, Red Platoon, made it back to the roofless mud hut they were calling Observation Post Reaper knowing they were in for a battle.
In the beginning, Wallace was shooting a Nikon D-300 and a gun.
“It depended on the situation,” he said. “I split the job as a photographer and a rifleman.”
As the battle escalated and Wallace was diving on the ground for cover, the camera lens wound up smashed, his backup camera was ruined by a rocket-propelled grenade and all he had was a personal point-and-shoot left. Documenting the events was shelved for the time being.
“It got too bad,” Wallace said. “I reverted to being a rifleman.”
Being in a fire fight is “quite rare,” Wallace said.
Combat camera units usually fly over battlefields taking pictures, he said.
“We don’t have the same level of [combat] training as a Marine or Army infantry guy get.”
After the smoke cleared about one-third of Red Platoon was injured including Valdo, his handler, Ryan Lee, and Wallace, who suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Everyone, including the dog, survived. They were awarded Purple Hearts, an honor given to those hurt or killed while serving the country.
“It was a huge victory for a small piece of Afghanistan that day,” Wallace said.
Wand was a bit shocked when Wallace finally told him about those days in April 2011.
“It was quite a while after before I heard the details,” Wand said. “I was surprised when I found out.”
While he can still be deployed, with his injuries Wallace won’t likely be on the front lines anytime soon.
Now stationed in Idaho where he oversees a staff of public affairs workers, Wallace is pushing for his staff to get as much combat training as possible.
They might spend a lot of time writing press releases, but that’s not the extent of their duties.
Public affairs workers are seen as office workers, Wallace said. But they can be called into dangerous situations.
“We’re in combat,” he said.