By Debra Holtz
Steve Wackowski signed an ROTC contract to join the military on Sept. 9, 2001. Two days later “the whole world changed,” he says.
Now a first Lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve, Wackowski, 26, has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he’s not deployed, Wackowski is special assistant to U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who has been “completely supportive” of him leaving for missions. Last year, Wackowski was on duty for more than 100 days, including three trips to Afghanistan. In October 2005, he was deployed to Iraq.
“I feel pretty blessed to have the perspective, on one hand, in my civilian job working for a U.S. Senator to see how policy decisions are made at the top and, on the other, to execute those decisions on the ground in a war zone,” he says.
Based at the Pentagon, Wackowski’s unit includes about 20 active-duty troops and 20 reservists. Because he has no wife or children, he often volunteers to replace active-duty personnel in combat zones. In Afghanistan, Wackowski trains British, Australian, Canadian and other allied troops on how to use portable Air Force weapons systems.
A few days after returning from Afghanistan last year, Wackowski’s unit was called up to help battle Southern California fires. He led a team of technicians to the fire lines to download real-time images from a circling navy plane. “The same technology (thermal imagery) we use to fight the bad guys in Afghanistan was perfect for identifying where the fires’ hot spots were,” he recalls.
One of his proudest accomplishments overseas was bringing winter clothing and toys to Afghani children in refugee camps through the military’s operation care. Recently, he brought 20 soccer balls donated by SMC’s Brother Glenn Bolton and the Christian Brothers community.
“These kids are so poor and have nothing. You give them a soccer ball and their eyes light up,” says Wackowski. “You hope when you show them some compassion and some warmth that in 10 years they’ll think twice when someone asks them to pick up a gun and shoot an American.”
The U.S. military now faces “a whole new paradigm” from when Wackowski, the son of a career Air Force pilot, initially approached the ROTC in 2000. ROTC support, combined with Sabatte and football scholarships, enabled him to attend Saint Mary’s.
“One of the greatest moments of my life,” he says, was when he walked up to receive his diploma at the 2005 commencement and the announcer told the audience that Wackowski was immediately leaving the ceremony to be commissioned as an Air Force officer. His classmates gave him a standing ovation and ran up to shake his hand. Wearing his Air Force uniform under his cap and gown, Wackowski drove to Berkeley to receive his commission.
“Saint Mary’s mission is to train you to serve,” Wackowski says. “The school gave me a great education and enabled me to serve our country. Wouldn’t you want more officers with a Saint Mary’s education in the military?”