Soldiers to Scholars

Umpqua Community College forestry student Wade Christensen was aware as a child that he wanted to join the military; his family knew he’d likely make it his career. They were right. He served 23 years in the Army, and 18 of those years were spent in Special Forces as a Green Beret.

“My dad was a Vietnam vet,” said Christensen, “I think I saw his old duffle bag when I was probably in first or second grade.” Family members of Christensen had a sense of his future career before he knew it himself.

In spite of the military’s attraction to Christensen, he initially planned on a minimal period of service. “I think early on, I just wanted to join the Army. Originally my plan had been to do just three years, and I was going to get out and go to college. A couple years ago, I was talking to my sister, and she said that I was the only one that didn’t realize I was going to spend a career in the military,” said Christensen.

No time was wasted by Christensen once he was eligible to enlist. “I joined the Army June of 1993. So, six days after I graduated high school I was heading to Basic Training. That was my summer break,” he said.

Christensen received his initial training in the Missouri Ozarks: “I went from Basic and AIT at Fort Leonard Wood– AIT is Advanced Individual Training– and that’s where I got Combat Engineer.”

After being enlisted in the Army for more than three years, Christensen tried his hand at entering the Special Forces while he was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “You go through a three week selection process, and it’s pure misery,” he said.

“Your first phase is a lot of your physical fitness tests, and certain road marches, and that kind of stuff,” said Christensen, “and … psychological evaluations, they’d put us on trucks and truck us, ’cuz we’re out in this little camp the woods in North Carolina, and we’d truck back to Bragg and then they’d set there and give you a 600 question, psychological evaluation. Because you know, they want to make sure you aren’t gonna crack. Then you have a week of Land Navigation. It’s day land navigation, night land navigation, it’s all cross-country– it’s just an intense land navigation training.

“And then the last week is everyone’s favorite, it’s Team Week. So, they do… crazy things. They’ll give you a jeep with three wheels, some pipes, and tell you that the brakes don’t work, and that you’ve got to get all of these 55-gallon drums moved, ’ya know, six kilometers. So, you’ve got to figure out how to strap these things on to this jeep, to where you can push it down a sandy road, out in the middle of the North Carolina swamps… with only three tires. Or they’ll give you a bunch of wheels and a telephone pole, some steel pipe and some lashing, and you’ve got to figure out how to move this thing nine kilometers.

“And then, you get there, you take a break for a second and they come in, and are like ‘Move over to this area.’ So you might move a couple of kilometers, and they set you up and are like ‘OK, well here’s your next task.’ And it could be something simple like you’re just gonna carry ammunition crates for ten kilometers,” recounted Christensen on the selection process.
Candidates would get a maximum of four hours of sleep. “The idea behind it is that you’re not getting any more sleep than anybody else, whether you finish first or you finish last. Whenever you come in, they set you down, and they would give you a test. Like, they would throw out a blank map of the world, and tell you to fill in countries and capitals. I think they probably just throw them away after you’re done,” said Christensen.

At the conclusion of selection and subsequent training, Christensen was selected as a Special Forces Engineer. He was deployed three times to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. Two of these deployments were six months in length, and two others were ten months long. The first of these deployments was at the end of 2004, and the last deployment he spoke of ended in 2014.

Christensen explained a couple of the unique challenges to Special Operations that civilians often take for granted: “So a Special Forces team is usually 12 guys. It’s usually a pretty tight-knit group, because you’re gonna be in some crazy places. Especially with this war going on, you’re stuck with these 12 guys in a small little area that– you can’t necessarily go downtown and get an ice cream without suiting up your whole team and being ready to fight your way into the ice cream shop.”

Christensen continued to stress that synergy and cooperation are pivotal to the career of a Special Forces operative: “You have to be able to be work well with other people, even if you’re tired, you’re hungry, you and another person don’t get along. You need to be able to compartmentalize that for the betterment of the team. And going through something like Team Week emphasizes that, because you’re tired, you’re hurt, you’re hungry. If you’re sittin’ there snappin’ at your teammates, you’re probably not going to be a very good team member on a Special Forces team in Afghanistan.”

Christensen gave advice to prospective military recruits: “Go into it with an open mind. There’s certain things that are going to suck. Like, the military is very regimented, and you can say something, you can look at some problem, and say ‘there’s an easier way to do it.’ But the military has got this huge machine that is running straight ahead, and will power through that problem, in maybe not in the most efficient way, but they’re gonna get through it.” Nevertheless, Christensen said that the Army, and the Green Berets in specific, value multiple perspectives when they pertain to achieving the team’s objective or objectives.

“You want everybody freethinking. Because, collectively, you can solve that problem more efficiently. But in the end, it’s your decision,” said Christensen in reference to his service as team sergeant, which has the corresponding rank of master sergeant. “I loved that job, I miss that job and that was the pinnacle of my career. And if you talk to any Special Forces guy that has held that position, no matter what rank they have gotten to, that job is their favorite– every one of us.”

“My rank was first sergeant. If people ask me what my title was I usually say I was a Special Forces operator,” said Christensen. Only one first sergeant can exist per battalion at a given point in time. Christensen said that leading and successfully bringing each one of his Green Berets back to domestic soil was his most beloved work.

Christensen grew up spending time in the woods locally; he spent much of his youth exploring the local forests hunting and fishing. As a person set on doing what he loves, Christensen is pursuing a civilian career in forestry.

He expressed his thankfulness for the time he can now spend as a second-year forestry student: “I look at it as the taxpayers are giving me a gift, of paying my tuition, and the least I can do is make the most of that gift in school.” Christensen is scheduled to receive his associate’s degree from UCC in Forestry this spring, and he plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Forestry at Oregon State University.

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