By Don KramerJune 4, 2010
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. - Google Sgt. James Valdez of 9th Financial Management Company, and eventually you'll find a connection to show business.
In December 2008 while deployed to Camp Arafjan, Kuwait, Valdez met model and television personality Leeann Tweeden. signing autographs while traveling with the Sergeant Major of the Army's 2008 Hope and Freedom Tour.
"We should do some crazy things," he suggested to her as a departure from the repetition of standard grip-and-grin photos. Tweeden enthusiastically complied and thanks to the Internet, Valdez was immortalized as the Soldier with the model's boot on his jaw.
If he has his way, the photo opportunity will not be Valdez's last brush with the business.
In fulfillment of a boyhood dream, he was recently accepted to the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. Filmmaking has been in his blood since growing up in San Diego, he said, when he cut and spliced together the family movies or later working in a movie theater, ripping tickets, manning the concessions and finally, graduating up to the booth to see "how things work behind the scenes."
He matriculates at UCLA as a junior in September, which is also his ETS month, but will take 71 days terminal leave to prepare for his next two years of concentrated film study.
Lori Johnson, the education specialist who worked with Valdez at Stone Education Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, said he has reason to be proud of his admission to such a selective program. Johnson assisted with the application process and throughout his associate degree studies with Pierce College. He earned one of only 15 transfer slots per year to the school. Only 8.4 percent of 3,688 applicants were recently admitted.
"According to the 'Princeton Review/Gourman Report,'" the school's Web site says, "the undergraduate programs in (theater), film, and television are ranked first out of 500 nationally, while the graduate programs are usually found within the top three, according to the 'U.S. News & World Report.'"
Valdez's achievement is good for morale among the staff, Johnson said, as well as the students and faculty at all the schools hosted by "Stone Ed."
"We see a lot of people who graduate, go on and get other degrees," she said. "We see them every once in a while, but getting into one as picky as this one is, that's (special)."
Apart from submitting a transcript and flying to Los Angeles for a personal interview, Valdez wrote three papers - a personal history, a critical essay about a film (his discussed "Dirty Harry") and a creative writing sample (about a Soldier).
"I was crazily excited when I found out I had gotten accepted," he said. "When I went to the campus and took the tour, I felt like 'This is where I belong.' I knew I wanted to major in film and be a great film editor."
His aspirations sounded impractical to his parents at first, Valdez said, who cautioned him to have a plan for his future. In that, he was way ahead of them.
He said he will likely start out doing darkroom editing unless he gets lucky by "getting noticed" early. UCLA students demonstrate their skills with senior projects entered in film festivals, screened annually at Geffen Playhouse on campus. People in the industry are known to attend, on the hunt for young talent.
"You have to stay within a budget and you work with some other people and build your story," he said. "That's how you're noticed ... I always hear that a lot of this industry is about who you know unless you're very good."
As motivated as he is now to make his name in filmmaking, Valdez admits he wasn't ready to follow his dreams immediately after high school. The Army helped him mature and provided him the opportunity to earn his associate degree.
"Even though it was my family's goal that I go to college, I wouldn't have been ready," he said. "It would have been too new, partying like crazy, grades slipping, instead of the 3.337 I have. The Army gave me that extra time to grow up a little. If it weren't for the Army, I wouldn't be able to go."
His time in uniform has helped him build momentum and set a direction. Those around him at the education center are confident Valdez's drive and enthusiasm set him up for success.
"I think he'll do well," Johnson said. "He seems to be raring to go, ready to get out of the Army and start this new career. I'm going to be watching the credits to see if his name comes up ... (I told him) you've got to recognize Joint Base Lewis-McChord education when you win your first Golden Globe, Emmy or Oscar."
Don Kramer is a reporter with Joint Base Lewis-McChord's weekly newspaper, the Northwest Guardian.