Raised in the traditions and customs of the Tsalagi Native American Indians (more familiar as the Cherokees of North Carolina), Peter Elizabeth Wolfe was destined to shatter stereotypes and bring down the walls of the most exclusive Boys’ Club in America — the United States military.
Her father Earl Wolfe served his country during World War II in the Pacific with the 136th Infantry as a truck and ambulance driver. One souvenir of hand-to-hand combat Earl willed to his daughter was a Japanese 7.7mm Arisaka Type 99 infantry rifle, which she brought to the interview.
Wolfe said, “My father never told me the whole story, but he did make the comment that either he or the Japanese soldier would be taking home souvenirs. I’m glad my Dad won that squabble.”
Her parents’ first son Peter Allen, died at the age of 3 months. Wolfe said, “Some part of Peter’s spirit needed to be passed on to the next child so Peter can live, so here I am, Peter Elizabeth Wolfe.”
Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., her father served as a police officer in Chattanooga and the family spent their summers in Florence, S.C., bringing in the crops of cotton and tobacco. Wolfe also spent time with her grandparents on an Indian reservation in Tahlequah, Okla., the Cherokee National Capitol. Asked about reservation life, Wolfe said, “Very depressing. The people were sad, their spirit broken, they did not want to live there. You could see it in their eyes; a sadness deep in their soul.”
Her mom’s brother and all the males from her dad’s family served in the military. One of her uncles served aboard the ill-fated USS Indianapolis that was torpedoed on July 30, 1945. She sank in 12 minutes, taking 300 men with her. Another 900 sailors went into shark-infested waters; only 316 were rescued. Wolfe’s uncle had been transferred off the Indianapolis a few days before her final cruise.
With a family steeped in law enforcement and military tradition, Wolfe wanted to join the police force. Her father gave her a resounding “No!” She said, “Dad said I didn’t comprehend how mean the streets could be, so he agreed to let me join the military after college.”
While attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Miss Peter Elizabeth Wolfe became the first woman to sign up for the ROTC program that had recently been open to females. She said, “I had to wear male cadet clothing, pass a male physical training test, and live with a lot of animosity from the all-Boys’ Club. It was interesting, to say the least.”
Commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in the reserves, Wolfe would spend the next 27 years in the reserves and active reserves serving her country when called, whenever she was needed. Her valuable assets included proficiency as a transportation movement officer and logistics expert, experience as a platoon leader of training and maintenance with ¼ ton, 2.5 ton, 5 ton trunks, as well as the monstrous 10 ton Dragon Wagon tank hauler. When the Gulf War was cranking up and America had to move an entire military to the Persian Gulf, even seasoned military leaders were asking, “Uh, how do we do this?” Wolfe had the answers.
While active duty quick-response teams and combat-ready elements like the 82nd Airborne could quickly be deployed to the Persian Gulf to hopefully block Saddam Hussein’s next military foray, reserve units faced almost insurmountable troubles gearing up for a major war. By now a captain, Wolfe said, “Most reservists had their monthly meetings and two weeks of summer training without considering they may actually have to go to war. The lack of preparation was unbelievable.”
Wolfe was assigned to the 2nd Army as a transportation movement officer at Fort Gillem to starting turning the cogs of America’s reservist war machine. Troubles began almost immediately. She said, “It takes a lot more than a soldier or airman grabbing an M-16 and marching off to war. All the water purification units were in the reserves so we had to gear up that entity. Some units had outdated equipment and weapons, others didn’t have enough of either, outdated or not. We merged units, which caused cat fights between commanders. We were pretty much in the ‘oh, crap’ mode.”
Working 16 to 18 hours a day, sleeping under her desk, staying on the phone day in and day out fighting with state governors for their reserve units, calming down shell-shocked administrative supervisors, and deciphering inaccurate ‘status’ reports, became the norm.
And that was just the beginning. Wolfe said, “It was hard enough moving equipment to the war zone, but think about the personnel, the people who are going to fight the war. Reservists were overwhelmed. Doctors were concerned about their civilian practices and patients. People wanted unanswered questions solved concerning their mortgages, the leases on their apartments, what about my car? What about the kids? Who has power of attorney? We had to call in JAG people to update wills and insurance, some reservists had divorced which made their personal information obsolete, we didn’t have enough uniforms, even the Pentagon…or as we liked to call it, the Puzzle Palace…was shocked by the lack of coordination.” Sighing to catch her breath, Wolfe said, “Let me put it this way, it was like a herd of turtles racing across a field of peanut butter.”
Once the shooting started, people like Capt. Wolf had to start planning to bring the personnel and equipment home when the shooting stopped. Adding to their responsibilities, 2nd Army helped plan the Heroes Parade in Washington, D.C.
Wolfe served at the Pentagon and in Bad Kreuznach, Germany with the 3rd Army. She had a command position at Sunny Point, N.C., yet her most vivid remembrance is the young victims of the internal strife known as Bosnia. “The children,” Wolfe said. “All those precious children. I served in Bosnia for two months before I saw a complete kid with all the fingers and toes and arms and legs. The land mines took a horrible toll on the kids.”
Major Peter Elizabeth Wolfe officially retired from the Army reserves on the same day she graduated as a Rockdale County Deputy Sheriff. “I always wanted to be a law enforcement officer, so I’ve been doing what I love for 12 years.”
Wolfe lost her husband Lt. Col. Robert Timian of the 82nd Airborne, in January 2012 of complications resulting from over-exposure to Agent Orange during three tours in Vietnam. Herself a cancer survivor, Wolfe continues to serve the people of Rockdale County as a fifth generation law enforcement officer from the proud Tsalagi Tribe of North Carolina.
Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist and free-lance writer. Contact Pete at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his website at aveteransstory.us.