By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on August 8, 2020
After two decades in the U.S. Air Force, a distinguished career of service that has earned him a number of honors including the Bronze Star with Valor as well as a Purple Heart, retired Senior Master Sergeant Kevin Wallace has officially become part of the Outer Banks community with his recent move to Manteo.
While COVID-19 delayed Wallace’s move to the Outer Banks after accepting an offer for a mortgage-free home from the non-profit Military Warriors Support Foundation’s Homes4WoundedWarriors program, he was able to relocate in late June. A few days later, he began working as a bartender at Poor Richard’s Sandwich Shop.
The position at the popular downtown restaurant, he says, is the perfect job for getting to know local community members “when you’re the new guy in town.” Wallace does acknowledge however, that his distinguished military service is rarely something he mentions to patrons.
Currently an ambassador for the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, Wallace spent six years of his Air Force career as a combat photojournalist and then, as public affairs chief of the 89th Airlift Wing out of Andrews Air Force Base.
Between 2006 and 2012, attached to Army and Marine Corps Special Forces Units in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locations, Wallace documented the battlefield not only for reporting purposes but also for psychological operation and intelligence gathering as well as historic documentation.
One of his personal missions has been to travel the country and share with wounded veterans, advocacy groups and communities with high military populations his experiences in battle zones and their residual impacts of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His intention, Wallace says, is to provide support and hope for those affected by the condition.
At the tail end of his career with the Air Force, from 2014 to 2016, Wallace was assigned as public affairs officer for the Air Force One mission out of Andrews Air Force Base, representing the fleet that moved the highest elected and appointed officials in the country.
“It was almost like the Oval Office in the sky,” Wallace noted. “What that wing provided was the same, or very close to the same capability these people had…in the White House or in whatever office they were hailing from anywhere on the planet.” He served as official photographer and spokesperson for that wing and while former President Barack Obama and other dignitaries had their own spokespeople, any questions related to the aircraft itself or the capabilities the wing provided went to Wallace.
“I threw my heart and soul into that diplomacy mission,” he asserted, but added that at the same time, the experiences he had in Afghanistan and their impact back home were taking an increasing toll on his mental health.
“I think I pushed it as hard as I could until the day the gentleman who was serving in that administration left office, and then I said, ‘Okay, I surrender,’” noted Wallace, who served in the position until Obama’s term was complete.
Along with the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Valor, Wallace has received a long list of other honors that include the Marine Corps Combat Action ribbon, Army Combat Action Badge and Air Force Combat Action Medal, among others.
Also an artist, Wallace is currently working on an exhibit related to the German U-352 shipwreck near Morehead City using underwater digital photography. He also creates sculptures, using paper pulp he makes himself, mixed with pieces of his military uniform. In doing so, Wallace says he can sculpt the uniforms “into something positive to transition from this token of brutality and war to something more beautiful.”
His own struggles, including a suicide attempt and coping with PTSD, has led him to dedicate time to public speaking with the hopes of making a difference in the lives of others suffering from the mental health disorder. He typically schedules speaking engagements in military towns or places where there’s a higher chance of a lot of people with PTSD.
“I just try to raise awareness to some of the invisible wounds of war and try to use a platform and some of the medals I’ve been awarded, and situations I’ve been in, to elevate my voice
beyond my five-foot, six-inch stature…to turn the spotlight off myself and onto the other people who are suffering in silence,” he explained. “And try to build empathy for them in their communities, advocacy groups or among people who could better support them.”
One of the experiences he shares and one for which he earned the Bronze Star with Valor, was an April 2011 operation in which Wallace’s team of 12 U.S. soldiers was detected by opposition forces in the Badghis Province of Afghanistan and came under attack by roughly 140 armed Taliban. Many of his team, including himself, were wounded but were able to defeat the opposition against all odds, and without losing one of the team’s soldiers.
That operation, and the tactics his team used to defeat a much larger enemy force, have been made a part of Army Field training manuals. And sometimes Wallace will begin his talks by playing the intense audio from his helmet camera that survived the brutal confrontation.
Although COVID-19 has temporarily put Wallace’s speaking engagements on hold, he plans to visit communities again when it’s possible to continue his effort to help build understanding of some of the demons that veterans may be battling.
“A couple of times, I look at myself and thank God that I’m alive and think about some of these other people,” he says. “I just really want to do my part to help keep them alive in any way I can.”