Undeterred Soldier Returns to Afghanistan


WASHINGTON – An explosive ordnance disposal technician from Fort Drum, N.Y., is back in the country where he almost lost his life two years ago.

Army Staff Sgt. Steven Wentzell is training Afghan army explosive ordnance disposal teams in techniques, tactics and procedures.

Wentzell said the Army wasn’t always in his career path, even though he is the grandchild of a Medal of Honor nominee. At first, he said, he simply was looking for something that would give him a marketable skill for a civilian career. But after joining the Army, he added, he found he enjoyed military life.

“I wanted something more stable,” he said. “My grandfather was in the Army Air Corps in World War II. He was one of the men to drop the first bombs during the war, then he was a [prisoner of war] in the Korean War.”

His grandfather steered him toward the military, Wentzell said. “But I only wanted to do four years and get out,” he added. “So I talked over my choice with my wife, and she agreed. Three days later, I was in the Army.”

Wentzell originally chose to become a heating, ventilation and air conditioning mechanic, thinking that this profession would be a lucrative career choice. But he soon realized it wasn’t the job for him, he said.

He later deployed as a motor transportation operator in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. This didn’t give him the feeling he had hoped for when he joined the Army, he said. But on several missions, he saw explosive ordnance disposal technicians at work. Intrigued, he attended a question-and-answer session and decided to give EOD a shot.

His curiosity sparked a new job interest, Wentzell said, but he wasn’t sure early on if he wanted to continue on the path he had started. He gave EOD a chance, completing contract extensions to finish EOD school, and finally found what he was looking for, he said.

When the time came to use his EOD skills in combat, he didn’t hesitate to complete his mission. In March 2011, Wentzell was deployed to Regional Command South, where he cleared improvised explosive devices and unexploded ordnance. He finally got that rush of adrenaline and excitement he had been searching for all along, he said. With a child on the way, he re-enlisted during his deployment.

Just days after the birth of his daughter, the unthinkable happened. A flash of light, heat and a sudden jolt of energy threw his body backward. He’d stepped on an anti-personnel mine attached to a 25-gallon jug packed with homemade explosives. The mine exploded, but the jug didn’t. Still, Wentzell broke his tibia, fibula, heel, ankle and toes, and he was medically evacuated.

“When I came to, I was angry; I wouldn’t be able to keep my guys safe,” Wentzell said. “I got depressed, because I was leaving my dudes. I knew I could keep them safe -- I wasn’t sure about the next guy.”

But he added that he considers himself lucky, noting that others had been killed or had lost limbs in explosions of similar mines.

The recovery process was long and hard, Wentzell said, but wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be. He credits his determination and fighting spirit for cutting down his recovery time.

Now deployed to Regional Command East, Wentzell said he has decided not to allow that one accident to define him.

“I decided to come back here because I felt my time was cut short and I needed to do this,” he said. “[If I didn’t come back], I never could have known if I could handle it.”

The time away helped him see how much Afghanistan has changed, Wentzell said, and the partnership with the Afghan soldiers has brought a new sense of commonality. “I’ve realized that the Afghan and coalitions forces have a common goal: a better Afghanistan,” he said.

His current deployment has piqued another interest: instructing.

“I’m trying to be an instructor at Fort Lee, Va., for the pre-EOD course before the actual course at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.,” he said. “I want to stay in the Army and hopefully one day become a command sergeant major.”

For those who have been injured in combat and still want to serve, Wentzell has a message to share.

“I really respect their decision,” he said. “It’s going to be hard, and at times, extremely hard. But if you have the will and determination to continue on, you’ll be successful.”

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