Warrior Legacy: Army Veteran and Silver Star Recipient Gerald Wolford

Trust member reflects on shared hardship, legacy building and the power of the past
Sgt. 1st Class Gerald "Jerry" Wolford with action figures

Sgt. 1st Class Gerald "Jerry" Wolford

“The Army made an action figure out of me. I'm worth like seven bucks on eBay.”

While Gerald “Jerry” Wolford’s action figure might carry a single-digit value, his story of service and sacrifice is priceless.

His goals in joining the Army straight out of high school were twofold: “I wanted to jump out of airplanes, and I never wanted to go back to Oregon.” And so began his journey with the infantry, serving with what he describes as all the “cool units” — first the 101st Airborne, then the 82nd Airborne Division.

“We were the first vehicle from the 82nd into Iraq during the invasion. My soldiers were great. As part of the invasion, we got into a really bad fight, and all of my men received awards for valor. I received the Silver Star.”

That incident was the early April 2003 firefight in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah. The award citation for then Staff Sergeant Wolford notes he put himself in harm’s way to help the wounded, redistribute weapons and equipment and coordinate fire for the machine guns.

That first deployment lasted a year before the 82nd returned to Fort Bragg. The sojourn stateside was temporary, and they redeployed prior to the January 2005 democratic election. “It was so great to see that this was their first shot at democracy, and it is something that we all take for granted in the U.S. It really struck home for me because it’s like, ‘Oh, well, that’s why we did everything that we did.’”

Upon returning home a second time, Wolford decided to become an officer — a goal that translated into long days of classes on top of his regular duties. “I would leave class at night, go to a night jump, get off the drop zone … and THEN go to class the next morning.” The hard work paid off: After Officer Candidate School, he went to “another famous unit” — the 1st Cavalry Division. “And then from there, I ended up in the Pentagon” — the last stop in his Army career.

Today, Wolford has traded his symbolic sword for a figurative quill and teaches school in Maine, alongside his wife, a fellow Army retiree and Iraq War veteran — and supports the cause of battlefield preservation.

What sparked your interest in American history and the mission of the Trust?

If we don’t save it, and if we don’t remember what happened to those men, what happened to our country — and not just the conflict itself, but society at the time — we’re just going to slip into a pattern of erasing the past and reliving it. With the Trust, we need to save these areas so that people can go and learn.

As a veteran, do you feel a connection with service members of our nation's past?

The best way to describe it is a brotherhood. Every war is different, but there's always shared hardship — there’s cohesion built through “collective suck.”

When you go farther back, like with the Civil War — everybody in that war was an American. You see what everybody went through; it changes with every conflict, but there’s always the same. Back then they walked for days at a time — they walked and walked just to stop and get shot at. And we didn’t have to walk as much because we had trucks, but we drove all night and then stopped to get shot at.

And then there are the connections experienced when coming home. When I came home … I was okay, but I realized I had changed. But the guys in previous wars — look at the Vietnam guys — many of them came home only to be treated as social outcasts. I know men who received the Distinguished Service Cross and didn’t even tell people they were in Vietnam. And that’s right below the Medal of Honor. Look all the way back to the Civil War: Those guys came home and had PTSD before it was PTSD. They had no way to deal with it, and there was nobody to talk to except other vets. It was that way then, after WWI and WWII, Korea and Vietnam, and it’s still very much the same today.

What has been your favorite battlefield to visit? What was your first?

Andersonville was my first “battlefield” visit. I went on a staff ride when I was in Officer Candidate School and, I know it’s not technically a battlefield, but when you look at the size of it and the population that was in there — over 45,000 prisoners on just over 500 acres — you wonder, “How could anyone make it through that?”

Gettysburg is definitely my favorite. It was awesome to be able to walk around and … put all those things together and make it real life.

Is there anything you would like to convey to other veterans or active-duty service members with an interest in American military history?

Save your uniforms. If you don’t want them, put them in a box, bury a time capsule, do SOMETHING. But save your uniforms because they’re going to be priceless. I don’t have mine anymore. Even if they don’t mean something to you, or even if they bring back bad memories, they’ll mean something to your kids, and they’ll mean something to the people who come up behind us. You can buy a reproduction, but if you can, give them something that’s priceless.

What comes to mind when you hear “Warrior Legacy”?

I served in all the cool units — they all have history, and I know their history. I learned it because it was important to me, and I’ve always felt that adding to those units’ histories is the only way to honor that “Warrior Legacy.”

My wife retired from the Army Reserves, so we’re obviously an Army family. Our son is in the Virginia National Guard and is deploying to Africa this fall. There’s the legacy that we’ve laid the groundwork for — with the history of our units and what we’ve done — but the lessons, the morals, the code we live by… that’s the legacy that I’m proud to be able to leave for our kids.

The whole idea of a legacy is multifaceted for me because I can see it … historically, with the units in which I served and now passing those lessons on to the students I teach, as well as our children. No matter what — our kids, our grandkids — can always look back and say, “Dad was there.” or “Grandpa was part of that.” It’s good to know that we’ve stepped into the shoes of the people who worked so hard before us, and we did it well enough to honor them while also leaving room for future generations.