The town of Monroe, New York, on May 18th honored its fallen son, former Directorate of Operations* (DO) officer Gregg Wenzel, with a unique tribute. By an Act of Congress signed by President Obama, the Monroe Post Office was dedicated to Gregg’s memory, with a plaque that reads: “This building is named in honor of Officer Gregg David Wenzel, National Clandestine Service of the Central Intelligence Agency, by Act of Congress, Public Law 113-209, December 16, 2014.” According to the US Postal Service website, since 1967 more than 1,500 postal facilities have been named in honor of individuals: Gregg is the first CIA officer to be afforded this distinction.
Gregg was a member of the CIA’s first clandestine service training class to graduate after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In his short time with the Agency, he made a huge impact on those who knew him. He was known as quite a character – smart and hysterical – and always had a smile on his face. He was a warm, caring individual who believed in random gifts of kindness for all. Two years after joining the Agency, Gregg was killed on July 9, 2003 in a car accident in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was 33 years old. His is the 81st star carved into the Memorial Wall in the CIA Headquarters lobby.
A Call to Public Service:
Gregg was born in The Bronx in New York City. He graduated with honors from Monroe–Woodbury High School in Central Valley, New York, in 1987 and attended the State University of New York (SUNY) in Binghamton. While at SUNY, Gregg went on a six-month study abroad at Tel Aviv University in 1990, and during the summers, he worked as a lifeguard and a waiter. He graduated from SUNY in 1991 with a B.A. in history and continued his education at Miami University in Florida, where he obtained his J.D. in law in 1994.
Gregg then became a defense attorney in Miami, handling an extremely heavy caseload—more than 100 cases—and arguing twice before the state Supreme Court. Gregg also taught law at the Miami-Dade Community College Police Academy. Known for having a wicked sense of humor, Gregg’s colleagues said that often, before going into court, Gregg could be heard belting out the theme from “Star Wars.” Once, when he found himself in court on Halloween, he claimed—with a grin—that his client was the victim of a witch-hunt.
Gregg was a big bear of a man, who enjoyed swimming, biking, running, photography, and playing Bob Dylan tunes on his harmonica—or the kazoo. He trained for marathons and triathlons with his Dad, racing in several, and completed three Ironmans. Whether it was a tough legal question, a swim around Key West, or a run up the steps of the Empire State Building, Gregg loved a challenge.
Once, he was asked by a friend to secretly take candid photos of the friend and the friend’s girlfriend as part of an elaborate engagement plan. Gregg agreed. The friend, after proposing to his girlfriend (who accepted!), looked around, but saw no sign of Gregg for hundreds of yards. He was disappointed Gregg wasn’t able to come, but understood that it was a lot to ask of his friend. Just as the couple was leaving the beach, Gregg showed up out of nowhere with a huge smile on his face.
“What Gregg did was unbelievable,” recalled his friend. “During the entire pre and post proposal time, which lasted about an hour, he had positioned himself in various places on the beach, using every means possible to go undetected. He took numerous photographs while hiding on top of the lifeguard stand, partially burying himself in the sand, and hiding behind other beach items like stacked lounge chairs. We had no idea that he was there. He was able to silently take some of the most cherished photos that we own.”
No matter his professional or personal pursuits, Gregg sought to make a difference in people’s lives. He was always involved in the communities he served, whether acting as the “un-appointed” mayor of Miami Law School, as one friend fondly remembers, to taking stunning photographs in Africa. Gregg used his photography as a vehicle to help provide an honest glimpse into the lives of people too often forgotten or ignored by the rest of the world.
“He was kind, funny, intelligent,” recalled another friend, “but most importantly he had the deepest strength of will I have ever seen in another person.” Gregg was an inspiration and friend to many who knew him.
Joining the CIA:
After the tragic events on September 11, 2001, Gregg joined the CIA. Success as a case officer in the Directorate of Operations demands more than technical skill and, in exercise after exercise, Gregg was described as the heart of his team, who, more than anyone, pumped up the morale of his colleagues. When he injured both of his arms making a parachute jump, he made a second—successful—attempt wearing bandages and a splint.
In July 2002, Gregg was enthusiastic about his first overseas tour as an operations officer in Africa. There, his assignments were daunting; he provided insights into a variety of critical targets, ranging from countries hostile to the US to extremists spreading messages of intolerance and hate. By all accounts, Gregg was a strong operations officer with hustle and character and, combined with his excellent training, he cast a wide net in the Horn of Africa. Within months of his arrival, Gregg achieved a number of initial operational successes.
Colleagues remember Gregg as “the guy who went roaring off in his Jeep, the top down, a smile on his face, and a joke at the tip of his tongue.” They added that, “Gregg was the giver of parties legendary for their fun and warmth, the doer of things for their good and worth.” Gregg was even asked to serve as a celebrity judge in the Miss Ethiopia 2003 pageant.
At 7:45 PM on July 9, 2003, Gregg Wenzel was killed in an automobile accident on a dark, two-lane road in Ethiopia. A car attempting to avoid a horse carcass in the road struck Gregg’s vehicle head-on. Gregg was 33 years old at the time of his death, and he was posthumously awarded the Agency’s Intelligence Commendation Medal and Exceptional Service Medallion. He is survived by his parents and three sisters.
Honoring Gregg’s Memory:
Gregg received a star on the CIA Memorial Wall, but it wasn’t until 2009 that his name could be unveiled in the Book of Honor. Former CIA Director Leon Panetta spoke about Gregg’s service and sacrifice during the annual Memorial Wall ceremony at CIA Headquarters in May 2009.
“During months of rigorous training, Gregg stood out as a leader, for his talent and for his intellect, but also for his great sense of humor and a great penchant for fun,” said Panetta. “He helped unite the class and kept its spirits high in the toughest moments… We find some measure of solace in knowing that Gregg achieved what he set out to do: He lived for a purpose greater than himself. Like his star on this Wall, that lesson remains with us always.”
In a letter to Gregg’s family following the 2009 Memorial Wall ceremony, President Obama wrote, “His brave service exceeded all measures of selflessness and devotion to his country. We honor him not only as a guardian of our liberty, but also as a true embodiment of America’s spirit of service to a cause greater than ourselves… Our nation will not forget his sacrifice.”