Combat Medic! Jay Wempe

Meet former Army medic, Jay Wempe.

Jay was one of eight kids - and six boys - raised in Parkston, South Dakota.  

Military service in Jay’s family was something of a tradition.  Jay’s Dad, Milt, served in the Pacific with the Army Air Corps in World War II before taking his GI Bill, and his new bride, Genevieve, to the University of Minnesota to pursue Veterinary Medicine.   He and “Gen” then relocated to Parkston in 1956 and ran a large animal practice.  For Jay’s parents, their military experience throughout World War II was a culminating event often discussed around the dinner table.

Robert “Milt” Wempe and his soon-to-be wife, Genevieve, in the early 1940s.  Married for 66 years, the couple operated a Veterinary practice out of Parkston, South Dakota for over 41 years where they raised a family.

Jay’s decision to join the Army was uniquely, if not ironically, timed in the late 1970s.  Vietnam was not far in the distant memory, and was the regular headline of Jay’s youth.  Jay’s oldest brother, Jerry, who was currently serving as a pilot in the Air Force, had very nearly found himself deployed to Southeast Asia.  The country in many ways was entering a new era.  

Jay, the then 18-year old, was dealing with his own teenage issues in 1978.  

He had just recently managed to wreck not one, but two(!) of the family cars that winter.  He and his brothers were enroute to Kansas in a two sedan caravan - for Thanksgiving turkey in Manhattan -  when Murphy’s Law struck.  Jay slid his sedan on the icy highway into the backend of the other family sedan his older brother was driving.  There would be no Turkey dinner as the caravan never managed to cross the South Dakota state line.

Signing a US Army enlistment contract two days after “the crash” - with a delayed entry to go to basic training right after high school graduation - curtailed some of the ribbing from his brothers. 

The Wempe family siblings standing around their youngest sister, Jill, in 1965.  Jay, four years old, is pictured at the bottom, far right.  Parkston, South Dakota.

Jay knew college was in his future, but as a high school senior, it didn’t seem the practical next step. Jay was drawn to the career path of what was then a 91B (now a 68W), combat medic.  

The career track would help him decide if healthcare, and particularly Nursing, would be his eventual calling.  Enlisting for three years would also give him the opportunity to leverage what was known as VEAP (Veterans Education Assistance Program) to pursue his Bachelor's degree.

Jay reported to Fort Dix, New Jersey in the summer of 1979, for basic training.  Following basic, he went to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for Advanced Individual Training with a follow-on assignment to Hawaii.  

A snafu in processing had the new medic reporting to Schofield Barracks with the 25th Infantry Division, when in reality, he was contractually assigned to Tripler Army Medical Center.  Standing in the humid island air, Jay was faced with one of his first real world, adult dilemmas, one that would determine his fate over the course of his entire enlistment.  

A Human Resources (HR) Sergeant at Schofield listened as 18-year-old Jay Wempe described the mix up - that he was supposed to be assigned to Tripler.  The HR Sergeant then gruffly said, “that is not going to happen.”  

Wempe pulled out his enlistment contract indicating his assignment guarantee to the major military medical hospital.  Calling the NCO’s bluff, Jay responded, “Tripler or let me out,” meaning he would pursue leaving the military for breach of contract.

Jay was on the bus to Tripler the next day.   

Upon arriving at Tripler’s inprocessing office, another HR Sergeant there said, “this is ironic, I was sure he had a 91B that was needed at the medical unit attachment at Schofield Barracks.”  

Jay was not amused, but the HR staff member apparently was quite amused, while albeit seeming indifferent to Jay’s original terms of enlistment.  The NCO then proclaimed, “Let’s let a coin decide where you go!”  

The NCO reached into his pocket and flung a quarter into the air.  Apparently, after a couple of bus rides and ping ponging between HR sergeants, Jay still only had a 50/50 shot of going to Tripler Hospital after all.  As the quarter tumbled end over end, Private Wempe wondered if this was how things were really decided in the military.   

Apparently they were.  “Heads” sent Jay to Tripler as originally planned.  

The Pink Lady, aka Tripler Hospital as it is known, sits on the Moanalua hillside overlooking Pearl Harbor to West (Leewardly direction), and East (Windward direction) to Downtown Honolulu and Waikiki.  Completed in 1948, the enormous Hospital serves a mix of patients - some 400,000 - across the Pacific Basin.

Jay was first assigned as medic in a Female Surgical Ward and, within a matter of months, routed to a 43 bed Neurosurgical Ward.  Jay found himself with only a Registered Nurse (RN), Licensed Practitioner Nurse (LPN), and a mounting caseload of patients from Samoa, the Marshall Islands, and other archipelagos throughout the Pacific.  

Witnessing brain and maxillofacial injuries firsthand, and often short-staffed, Jay quickly realized that getting the mission accomplished in Army Medicine meant getting used to being uncomfortable.   

Private Jay Wempe.  Soldier of the Month, circa 1980, Tripler Army Hospital.

Being involved in patient care for the seriously injured imparted an incredibly powerful lesson on a kid who only months before had been in high school in Middle America.  The stakes were high and that was a real motivator for Jay to do a good job and to always be better than the day before.  

Being in Army medicine helped Jay mature in ways no college atmosphere could possibly mimic.  He learned to hustle, a quality that was no doubt innate having been ingrained in him growing up in a rural household of eight kids, but he was certainly more appreciative of it now being ‘on his own’ out in the middle of the Pacific. 

Jay and his parents, Gen and Robert, on Oahu’s North Shore, circa 1981.

So much of the job of the staff medic was the enforcement of relentless record-keeping often with senior officers and physicians.  Recall, this was the era before computer automation, or at least when automation systems were just beginning coming into play.  Jay had few qualms about poking into Doctors’ offices after hours to wrestle up the appropriate paperwork to ensure protocols - and standards for upcoming inspections - were met.  

When his active duty enlistment ended, 21-year-old Jay Wempe returned to his home state and enrolled at South Dakota State University in Brookings.  He opted not to major in biology or lab science, but instead, in Math.  

While healthcare was appealing, ultimately his active duty enlistment helped Jay realize that he had a knack for managing systems and data sets.  He improved processes and removed timely obstacles that the worker bees - like himself - had to deal with on the ward as a young medic.  But he also understood the broader Commander’ Intent, the strategic implications of mishaps as well as the force multipliers of fixing issues at their source.

It was during that first year of college, that Jay decided to continue serving by joining the National Guard.  Eventually, he transferred to the Army Reserves, and the 5501st US Army Hospital headquartered in Minneapolis. 

By 1988, Jay had achieved two degrees - one from South Dakota State, and another in Education from the University of Minnesota.  Jay also managed a minor in Computer Science - that ironically came in most tested during his Reserve time. 

While on drill or mobilized, Sergeant Jay Wempe would often find himself in places like Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Colorado or the Presidio of San Francisco.  Still in his early and mid twenties, he was getting a broad exposure to various manual and pseudo-automated systems of healthcare and soldier management.  

Jay was increasingly recognizing and applying his computer programming skills in the late 80s and early 90s to create menus-based systems that would automatically pull and update databases for the sake of mission readiness.

As Jay puts it,  “I learned way more about computer science and more about the practical application of computer languages in the Army than I ever did in the classroom.  At that time, there was always a need for it and the Reserves let me use my programming skills against real world problems.”  

In 1990, The 5501st Army Hospital was mobilized in response to Desert Storm.  The unit’s role was essentially to augment, and in some cases, outright replace Army Medical functions at Fort Sam Houston - the home of Military medicine - so those active duty members could forward-deploy to The Gulf.  

Jay rapidly set up operations first at his reserve headquarters in Minneapolis, creating menus-based systems and databases to mobilize a 1,200 person unit that had not supported an operation of this scale since the Vietnam Era.  

Sergeant Wempe found himself calling and inprocessing people on Inactive Ready Reserve (IRR) status who themselves had no idea they even had a military service obligation.  Men would report to the unit with hair down to their shoulders believing “their call” was a mistake - they were certainly surprised to learn it was not!  Jay would continue his operations in support of Desert Storm in the fall from Fort Sam.

By 1993, Jay had spent over 11 years between the Active Duty, Guard, and Reserves.  Now a full fledged civilian, he landed a career in computer programming, first as an analyst and then a software development manager.  He would work for 21 years in the field eventually becoming a senior Vice President.  

In 2014, Jay pivoted careers when he saw an opportunity to buy an Ice Distribution Company, American Ice LLC, with a footprint in Mitchell, South Dakota.  This was a highly calculated risk.  Jay ran and reran numbers to ensure the opportunity was profitable and further scalable. 

Temporarily enlisting the services of his oldest brother, Jerry, a retired Air Force and airline pilot, the family business began to expand its footprint.  

Happy to be away from a desk and computer screen, Jay shook hands with vendors throughout eastern South Dakota while managing a fleet of trucks and services.  

Within a few years, and after thousands of rural highway drives, Jay had grown the revenue of the business five-fold.  At that point,Jay decided to sell the company to a competitor, only to be immediately rehired by the same parent company to have Jay continue to run the distribution service.

Jay is a blessed family man.  He has been happily married to Deanna for 35 years.  He has raised four kids in Mitchell, South Dakota and is currently training his son-in-law, Blake, to take over American Ice LLC in the years to come.

Jay, his wife Deanna, and son Matthew with one of their American Ice Vehicles.

Jay credits much of his career agility and business acumen - whether in IT management or running an Ice Distribution Business - to his collective military experiences both on active duty and thereafter in the reserves.   

“I have zero regrets about joining the Army,” Jay says.  “It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”


Jay Wempe in the Witch Doctor Collection "Medic" T Shirt in Olive Drab.

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