By Nathan DeenMay 22, 2013
FORT BENNING, Ga., (May 22, 2013) -- "Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of Maj. Gen. H. R. McMaster and Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmy Carabello, the commanding general and command sergeant major of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, we welcome you to today's ceremony."
When Steve Thiele served as a chaplain's assistant at Fort Benning in the 1970s, a Catholic nun told him he had a great voice and he needed to share it with people.
Thiele said he never forgot that.
Thiele's official title at the Maneuver Center of Excellence is visual information specialist with the Directorate of Training and Doctrine. He designs graphics for training manuals and has been doing so since 1985.
But to most people, Thiele is known as "The Voice of Fort Benning." Since 1992, he has narrated countless ceremonies for the Army on Fort Benning, from retirement ceremonies and awards presentations to the MCoE quarterly breakfast and Doughboy football games. He can cause audiences to roar with laughter or have them reaching for tissues when the situation calls for it.
After serving Fort Benning in different capacities for 39 years, Thiele will retire June 1.
"I knew I was going to retire in the next couple of years," Thiele said. "I wanted to make it to 40 years. I got to 39."
With sequestration ongoing, Thiele decided to apply for a buyout package in March through the Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments program.
This program isn't offered often, he said, so he took it while he could.
On May 29, Thiele will narrate the change of command ceremony for 1st Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment, at Harmony Church and "The Voice" will be heard for the last time.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the playing of the National Anthem and the Invocation by Chaplain Capt. Robert Elkowitz."
Think back to your grade school years and you may remember having a teacher call your name to read a paragraph aloud from your textbook. Then the teacher would move on to the next student to read the next paragraph.
Unlike most students, Thiele couldn't wait to hear his name called -- and he was frequently asked to keep reading, he said.
When Thiele joined the National Guard, he was required to take a class on sexual harassment. The instructor called on him to read an excerpt from the text, and by the end, he received a standing ovation.
"The Voice" made himself heard.
"It was just natural," Thiele said. "It was me being me."
Before Thiele took over as a narrator, Jimmy Treston, an inductee to the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame, had the title of "The Voice of Fort Benning." Tim Spain, a producer with the MCoE's Training Support Center Video Production, said Treston had an extensive career in commercial radio before becoming a video narrator and eventual narrator of ceremonies. But when MCoE moved Treston to help manage range operations, Spain said, he couldn't continue narrating.
At that time, retired Col. Jim Kvicula was producing a video on the history of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and had planned for Treston to narrate, Thiele said. But when Treston was unavailable, he approached Thiele with the idea. Kvicula had already recognized Thiele's voice from his work as a public announcer at Golden Park, which he had been doing since 1989 when the park was home to the Columbus Mudcats, a AA Houston Astros affiliate.
Thiele agreed to do Kvicula's project, which was his first voice-over narration for a video.
"I was so nervous and made so many mistakes," Thiele said. "It was a long, painstaking process."
The more he did it, the easier it got, Thiele said.
Spain admitted the feeling around Fort Benning when Treston ceased as narrator was that he could never be replaced, but those doubts were comforted when Thiele began to show his talents.
"We were very nervous about that," Spain said. "Jimmy, by virtue of experience, was really polished. It took Steve a little bit of time to get through the learning curve. He was a lifesaver. He was able to come in and help everyone keep going."
Thiele said he doesn't remember what his first ceremony was, but after the Bradley video, the requests started pouring in and narration became part of his job description. The new "Voice" had been found.
"Marvin was in the hospital on his death bed and his family called a preacher to be with him in his last moments. Marvin's condition seemed to worsen and he motioned for someone to quickly pass him a pen and paper. Before the preacher had the chance to read the note, Marvin died. The preacher felt it wasn't the right time to read the note, so he put it in his jacket pocket. While speaking at Marvin's funeral, the preacher suddenly remembered the note. He reached into his pocket and said, 'I'm sure Marvin wrote something inspiring that we can all gain from.' The preacher read the note, which said, 'Hey, you are standing on my oxygen tube!'"
Telling jokes is one of Thiele's favorite things to do at ceremonies, he said. He usually opens the quarterly excellence breakfast with one. They're not written in the script, but Thiele keeps a file of them on his work computer.
But sometimes the humor just comes all on its own.
Thiele has pulled some rabbits out of his hat to get through some ceremonies where things went awry or that he wasn't fully prepared for.
For outdoor ceremonies, he learned the hard way to always remember to put each page of the script in plastic sleeves, especially on a windy day. At a Fourth of July ceremony rehearsal, Thiele's script blew out of his hand and dislodged the pages -- and chronology was vital to the event.
"We were having to read the script and put it together by wars and by years," Thiele said. "Thank God it was during rehearsal."
At the dedication of a POW/MIA statue in Phenix City, Thiele and Cliff Davis, director of ceremonies for the MCoE, realized six crucial pages from the script were missing. Davis pulled out his BlackBerry and the pair went to the original email file to transcribe the missing pages and finished moments before the ceremony began.
"(Thiele) can react to changes so fast, it's unbelievable," Davis said. "There are always changes at the last minute."
Other times, he's just had to laugh at himself along with the crowd.
His most embarrassing moment, he said, happened just last year at the Ranger Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. The sentence he read was supposed to tell how a three-star general nurtured his Soldiers. Thiele, however, used a different word for "nurtured."
"Right after I said it, I said, 'Neutered?'" Thiele recalled. The audience burst into laughter.
Thiele said he was thankful that general had a sense of humor.
"I apologized afterward to him, but he thought it was great," he said.
"As a result of his gallant actions while engaging the enemy, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Through his selfless service and dedication to duty, he made the ultimate sacrifice in upholding the highest traditions of the Ranger Creed, 'I will never leave a fallen comrade.'"
Surprisingly, "The Voice" admitted he's not a very good speller.
"I just read the words," he said.
Fortunately for him, he doesn't have to worry about spelling the names right; he just has to pronounce them right.
"A good announcer will learn how to pronounce an individual's name, whether Soldiers, baseball players or hockey players," Thiele said.
Usually, Thiele will get his script the day before the ceremony and the first thing he'll do, he said, is highlight the names he might have trouble with. He finds those names on his seating chart and then asks the individual to pronounce his name. He writes it down phonetically in his notes.
"They may have Family members who say, 'That was your shining moment and they butchered your name,'" he said.
Some mistakes aren't as funny as saying "Neutered!" In fact, Thiele said he has had his share of mistakes that require sincere apology afterward. His own reaction will tell the difference between a light and a serious mistake. If he tells a joke about himself, it's no big deal. But when a big mistake is made, in his experience, the best thing to do is to act like it didn't happen.
"If you make a mistake, keep going," he said. "Don't harp on it. If it's something serious, I'll just keep going."
The ceremonies where Thiele must be on his A-game, he said, are the medals of valor presentations. These sometimes involve a Soldier getting a posthumous medal that is accepted by a Family member.
"Those are really emotional," he said, "especially when I read about what the individual did and what they sacrificed."
"Please stand for the benediction given by Mr. Parker Pierce and please remain standing for the playing of the Infantry Song and the Army Song."
No one may miss Thiele more than Davis. As the director of ceremonies, Davis has made Thiele his go-to man. When Thiele hasn't been available to narrate, Davis' job gets significantly more difficult.
"I've gotten my butt chewed when Steve's not available for any reason," Davis said.
Davis has the seemingly impossible task of finding a replacement for Thiele, who he has worked with since 1994.
Davis has dealt with Thiele not being available for a ceremony every once in a while, but it was different when Thiele announced his retirement.
"What am I going to do now?" Davis recalled himself thinking.
The job will be strictly on a volunteer basis, Davis said, and he will keep a list of interested replacements handy so if someone isn't available, another can step in. But Davis will tell them upfront just like it is: Don't try to be Steve Thiele.
"They'll never be the same as Steve," he said. "He just has the voice."
Thiele, meanwhile, will concern himself with spending more time with his grandchildren, golfing, bowling and enjoying baseball.
He didn't rule out the possibility that he still might be heard as a public announcer at a local game.
"If baseball ever comes back to Columbus, that's where you'll find me," he said.
The last ceremony won't be anything out the routine for Thiele, but he will make the same commitment to getting names right and providing the best experience possible for the Soldiers. He will wrap it up the same way he always does, but with the emphatic kick only "The Voice of Fort Benning" can provide:
"This concludes today's ceremony. One force, one fight."