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Olympic Mettle

The athletes weren’t the only ones carrying the weight of a nation on their shoulders at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. So was Craig Reistad ’80, only there was no medal stand.

Craig Reistad ’80, center, with the State Department’s supervisory diplomatic security team during a visit to the Olympic cluster in Gangneung, South Korea, which hosted the ice sports.

The gold standard was the uneventful. Be vigilant but unobtrusive—and do it all just 50 miles from one of the most heavily fortified and most mysterious borders in the world, the 38th Parallel between North and South Korea.

Reistad served as Olympic security coordinator for the U.S. contingent of athletes, staff, media, and dignitaries including Vice President Mike Pence, during a 20-month assignment with the Diplomatic Security Service.

The agency is the State Department equivalent to the Secret Service and provides protection at U.S. embassies and consulates around the globe, as well as for U.N. General Assembly week in New York and at major international events such as the Olympics and Paralympics. The agency is also responsible for protecting the secretary of state and visiting foreign dignitaries, and for investigating passport and visa fraud.

“When you’re doing security, there’s a delicate balance between security protocol, allowing things to happen but keeping it safe,” Reistad says.

The 56-year-old U.S. Army veteran is accustomed to geopolitical threats and uncertainty, serving as an infantry officer in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Germany during the first Gulf War. So, too, were the South Korean hosts of Reistad, who was based at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.

But even for journeyman Reistad, a visit last summer to the 2.5-mile wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), to the socalled “Peace Village” was unlike anything he had ever experienced. And he’s got the passport stamps to prove his worldliness, having been posted at embassies in Mongolia, Jordan, South Africa, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Norway.

“So half the room is in North Korea and half is in South Korea,” Reistad says. “It’s historic. You can see over the border into something like a Potemkin village. You’ve got the loudspeakers blaring. It’s kind of surreal to look across the border and be in the joint security area.”

Reistad embarked on his assignment in September 2016. His job: set up and staff a joint security operations office from the embassy, coordinate with his counterparts from the host nation, visit and prepare security surveys for all of the Olympic venues (about 100 miles away), safeguard the Americans, and close up shop.

Reistad ready to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle (shadow drone) that was providing aerial surveillance of the Olympic clusters for the South Koreans. His visit to the UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) Unit was part of the country’s requested assistance from the U.S.

“One of the most difficult parts of any Olympics is getting access to where you need to be to do your job,” he says.

The DMZ was not the only barrier that faced Reistad. There were language and cultural ones. The specter of a nuclear-capable North Korea wasn’t the only one looming over the Games either. His team, which was comprised of about 100 special agents from the Diplomatic Security Service, planned for every conceivable permutation. Cyberterrorism. A drone attack. Unruly fans. Counterfeit credentials.

There was little time to kick back and watch the competition, but Reistad did manage to watch the Czech Republic play Canada in men’s hockey. His wife, Vladimira, is Czech.

While the world watched to see whether the on-again, off-again summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would come to fruition, the couple was preparing for yet another move. This time, it’s back to the Washington, D.C., area, where Reistad will start a 10-month master’s program at the National Defense University at Fort McNair.

It’s all part of the drill for the Reistad family. One son was born in South Africa, the other in the U.S. in between Reistad’s overseas tours and was delivered by his Taft classmate, Marc Alembik. They lived in Mongolia and took a newborn to Jordan. “So they’re third-culture kids,” says Reistad, who has two sons, ages 15 and 13, and a daughter who is 8.

The family would like to plant roots, however. “Right now, we’re going through the hard part, which is packing up 8,000 pounds of household goods and putting it into containers,” Reistad says from South Korea. “It’s your life. It’ll be nice to stop eventually.”

—Neil Vigdor ’95