Dennis Wolfe, a retired U.S. Army sergeant major, received U.S. Special Operations Command’s 2018 Bull Simons Award April 18, in Tampa, Florida. His remarkable five decade career in and out of uniform pioneering explosive ordnance and disposal tactics for special operations was the basis for the award. His expertise established a world class program to counter weapons of mass destruction becoming the standard for the United States government and our international partners.
The lifetime achievement award recognizes recipients who embody the true spirit, values, and skills of a special operations warrior. Col. Arthur “Bull” Simons, whom the award is named after, was the epitome of these attributes.
Wolfe was born in Port Trevorton, Pennsylvania and raised in humble surroundings where there was not much of a chance to make a decent living and travel.
“It was 1962 following graduation from high school and there was very little opportunity where I grew up and was raised and I always had this dream of seeing the world and knew there was a lot out there and probably the way to do it was to join the service,” Wolfe said. “I, of course, had no idea what I was getting into.”
During basic training an unfortunate injury would turn out to be a fortunate career opportunity for him.
“My basic training was in Fort Gordon, Georgia and I wanted to go airborne, but I injured my knee so they put me in a garrison unit. The guys in the garrison unit convinced me I should go to explosive ordnance disposal school, which I did,” said Wolfe. “In the EOD field I was on presidential support, VIP support, supporting the secret service.”
After serving more than a decade, he became a mentor in the EOD career field and was teaching future conventional Army EOD specialists. Then his career took an unexpected turn.
“One of my assignments in the EOD field was as an instructor at Redstone Arsenal and that is where I got a call to come to Fort Bragg for an assessment and selection process for a unit that was starting up,” said Wolfe.
The assessment and selection was for a unit whose mission would be hostage rescue and counter-terrorism. During the assessment and selection process he was noticed right away by future USSOCOM Command Sgt. Maj. Mel Wick.
“The assessment and selection process that Dennis went through was one of the toughest mental and physical selection processes in the world,” said Wick. “There were several reasons Dennis was chosen. We did some psychological testing. We did a lot of interviews with people he had worked with and he had a very important skill that was missing in the group we were assembling. It didn’t take him long at all to earn the respect of the other more experienced Soldiers that he was in the training course with.”
Another famous special operator from that era, former USSOCOM Commander Gen. Peter Schoomaker, and 2016 Bull Simons Award recipient recognized that Wolfe was a unique asset. “Dennis was a little different than most the rest of us because he came with a specialty [EOD] that wasn’t familiar to us which in the long run was fortuitous,” said Schoomaker.
It would not be long before Wolfe would take part in some of the country’s most dangerous missions, among them the invasion of Grenada, and the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt known as Operation Eagle Claw.
“We got word that the embassy in Iran had been taken over by terrorists. They said that probably was going to be a mission that this unit was going to be involved in,” Wolfe said. “That mission eventually became Eagle Claw where we planned to rescue 52 hostages.”
“When we were preparing for Eagle Claw Dennis was able to provide a lot of assistance there for the planning and preparation for that,” Wick said. “He was heavily involved in figuring out the breaching charges for the walls. He was also going to be key to looking for and disarming booby traps.”
The failed Iranian hostage rescue during Operation Eagle Claw had an impact on many special operators and Wolfe was no exception.
“I think the experiences of Eagle Claw had a deep impact on everyone that was there. I think that was definitely shown throughout the rest of his career with the lessons he learned there,” Wick said. “His ability to analyze things, to anticipate things, to always look forward, and to always be considering the broader picture rather than the small technical piece that he was focused on.”
Wolfe was noted for his calm demeanor in any stressful situation. The years of training dealing with weapons of mass destruction gave him the ability to keep his teams focused.
“In a crisis situation he was also a very steady anchor that people could hang on to, to calm themselves down by looking at Dennis,” Wick said. “I mean if Dennis can be calm in this situation, well the rest had to be.”
Wolfe became much more than an EOD specialist for the special mission unit and learned to master the essential special operator skills.
“Of course when you learn when someone has this extraordinary specialty you figure that would limit what they do. The truth is Dennis ended up being an extraordinary operator as well,” Schoomaker said. “He went through what all of us went through and became extraordinary operator in the special mission unit. He ended up being a team leader and eventually being the sergeant major of the selection and training detachment.”
Being an operator means you have to take on many personas and Wolfe was very skilled at going from noticed to unnoticed.
“Dennis was able to fit into whatever conditions he was faced with. He could be out in the mud and two hours later he’s cleaned up in a suit in front of an ambassador or a senator giving a briefing. One hour after that he is with a bunch of scientists going through the very technical details of disarming a nuclear weapon,” Wick said. “I’ve seen him sit on the corner in dirty ragged clothes with a bottle of wine while he is observing a target. He could adapt very rapidly in his speech. He could sound like a redneck or he could sound like a scientist and he could switch from one to the other very easily.”
Retiring from the Army, Wolfe became a civil servant and carried on the special operations EOD mission that eventually would have a global impact.
“Even after he retired we retained him in a civilian capacity where he could put his full time effort into developing a full scale program as the field evolved,” said Schoomaker.
In his civilian capacity, Wolfe would go on and write the tactics, techniques, and procedures that would greatly enhance the security of the United States.
“When Dennis Wolfe and I met the Soviet Union recently collapsed and there was a big concern about the loss of control of weapons of mass destruction,” said James McDonnell, Assistant Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office. “Dennis was the guy that brought EOD into special operations. So he had the vision to understand how the terrorist threat was evolving and that vision was absolutely critical because all the planning had to be done in advance. All techniques, tactics and procedures had to be done in advance and they really didn’t exist.”
Wolfe was a master at dealing with people who weren’t in special operations and incorporating their expertise into a special operations mission.
“So for example, scientists had all kinds of tools they thought were great, but you couldn’t necessarily jump out of an airplane with. You couldn’t dive with them,” McDonnel said. “So what Dennis was able to do was bring that into this national laboratory complex and say ‘if you take this tool and modify in this particular way then we can use it.’”
Echoing Secretary McDonnell's sentiment, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. James Bonner, who today is the commander of the 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Command, and was as an officer who served with Wolfe, thinks he has had lasting, legacy impact on the entire EOD community.
“When we talk about weapons of mass destruction we are talking about chemical, biological, nuclear, it can be radiological, it can have an explosive element to it and when you look at an explosive ordnance disposal technician it takes about one year to go through EOD school, just to be able to work basic EOD problems. Then if you are fortunate to be assigned to the special mission unit, the training plan Dennis incorporated with the national lab takes another year of training before you are ready for a role in the special mission unit. That is the level of expertise and capability that Dennis was able to build.”
“Dennis was able to bring highly technical skills into the special operations community that it didn’t have before and build that capability literally over decades into a national asset that is globally unique,” said McDonnell.
Reflecting on his fifty years of government and in special operations, Wolfe’s humility is readily apparent.
“I never turned anything down. I never planned anything specifically. The unit said they needed me because of my skills. I couldn’t refuse. I’ll go. I never thought I had all those skills people were looking for. Sometimes they had more faith in me than I had in myself. I felt as a Soldier I couldn’t turn anything down,” Wolfe said. “During my time SOF has gone from reactive to proactive. I think we are still there today. At least I hope we are.”
“He had the courage to do some really amazing things and has made contributions that are just unmeasurable to the security of the United States,” Wick said.