Why interior design guru Wanda N. Colon spent the summer touring some of the most remote military bases in the world – and why she wants to do it again
By Chris Gigley
Standing on the blinding white sands of the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA), home of the Reagan Test Site and 2,100 nautical miles southwest of Honolulu, celebrity designer Wanda N. Colon grasped the reality of the military personnel who live on the tiny island. She looked down at her cell phone and saw she had no signal. Not even digital roam.
“It was so funny, because the day before we got there I was texting and calling and emailing all day long,” says Colon, who was part of a group of actors Armed Forces Entertainment sent to several Pacific bases this past summer. “Then when we got there, I couldn’t do anything. I still didn’t want to let go of my cell phone in case I missed a call, but after the fourth day I figured out it wasn’t working and finally put it down.”
Colon, William Sanderson of the popular HBO series True Blood, actor Tim Reid, best known for the early 1980s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, and actress Daphne Maxwell Reid of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air fame traveled to bases in Hawaii, Kwajalein, Guam and Japan. They had the chance to talk one-on-one with military personnel at mess halls, workstations and base schools, experiences Colon called some of the most memorable of her life. She says she has already talked with Armed Forces Entertainment about participating in another tour.
Still, her decision to join the tour this summer seemed odd on the surface. She is an interior designer by trade, hosting the popular TLC show Home Made Simple.
“Initially, I thought what soldier would know me?” she confesses.
More than a few servicemen and women did, however.
“One guy said he had to have his picture taken with me because his mom knew I would be there, and she was a big fan of my show,” she says.
Not only did Colon manage her design business and host the TLC show while on the tour, she also was involved in the film industry, having just produced a short film, Salt, based on her own short story. But she says she couldn’t pass on the chance to honor her brother, Ellis, who served in the Marines for eight years. “I was 11 years old when he went into service,” she recalls. “One day, he was living with us, and the next day he was gone, and we never lived together again. He left and got married and lived in Okinawa for a while. That’s the reality of it. These young men and women, they look so young when they go into the service, but they become adults.
Colon says highlights of the tour for her included a Fourth of July celebration in Okinawa.
“The American spirit was so prevalent that day,” she says. “They had an event called AmericaFest, with fireworks and hot dogs and Gary Sinise’s band playing for hours non-stop. People were dancing and having a great time. It was fantastic.”
But the most lasting memories came from her chats with servicemen and women. She says she was struck by how focused and driven so many of them are. “It made me think about what I was doing when I was their age,” says Colon. “They made a choice to be there and they were thinking about their future at such an early age.”
None of those conversations, she says, were just small talk – they were chances for her to hear their stories and gain an even greater appreciation for what they do. “I’m busy and have a lot going on, but when you look at the big picture, it’s not a big deal,” she says. “Every day, I think about these young men and women out there without their families and what they’re giving up to serve their country.”
Colon says the trip left one other lasting impression, which reminded her of that moment on the beach in Kwajalein. “The day after I got back home to Los Angeles, I left the house without my cell phone,” she says. “I had never done that before. But you know what? It was good for me, because the world didn’t end when no one could reach me on my cell phone.”
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