As a small-town high school sports star, Wolf Weninger left his native Ohio to play college football but by age 23 found himself searching for a purpose that would guide him through life.
Weninger found that purpose when he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Five years in, Weninger had emerged from uncertainty to join special operations and channel his confidence as a leader into a mission that motivated him.
Marine Sgt. Wolfgang Kyle “Wolf” Weninger, 28, was set to graduate June 19 from the U.S. Army Airborne School at Ft. Benning, Georgia, where he went to learn how to become a paratrooper. On June 16, he was killed during a training jump.
Hours after his death under circumstances the military has not yet detailed, two Marines in uniform pulled up to the home of his father, Ernst Weninger, in Concord, Ohio.
“When I saw two uniformed Marines get out of the car, I knew instinctively that something had happened,” Ernst Weninger said.
Marine Forces Special Operations Command said the incident is under investigation. Col. Travis Homiak, the commanding officer of Marine Raider Training Center, called Weninger “an incredibly smart, dedicated, and dependable Marine.”
Ernst Weninger still has pictures of his son’s youth sports exploits in his office, accomplishments they celebrated in the moment. But to the father, the important thing is that the son had found himself.
“The thing that you want as a parent is that your kids grow up to be a decent human being and to find their niche. To have the fullness of life and explore all these things that God gave you the talents to do,” Ernst Weninger said in an interview. “And he did, he found his niche that he’d always been looking for.”
Wolf Weninger’s on-field exploits were regularly featured in The News-Herald, the local newspaper that covers the village of Chagrin Falls, Ohio. One article from his senior year recounts Weninger crediting his Kenston High School teammates for victory over rival Chardon High School. He also was a hockey standout who as a youth traveled to Russia to play for his local club team.
“I believe you find leaders, you don’t build them,” said Jim Revak, Weninger’s former hockey coach. “He was a natural leader and was our most valuable player.”
Weninger attended the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., to play football, then transferred to Valparaiso University in Indiana, where he was a backup quarterback.
Despite his imposing physical size — 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds — and obvious athleticism that could mean an inflated ego, his father said he was a kind heart and deeply loyal.
“He loves his family and his friends,” Ernst Weninger told The Associated Press, before joking that, “He was not a saint, I mean, I think he holds the record for the most traffic tickets in the history of Geauga County, Ohio.”
Drifting through his early 20s, feeling lost, Weninger struck upon an idea: join the Marine Corps.
“I thought I was going to pass out,” said his father, who tried talking his son into becoming an officer or joining the U.S. Air Force, like he did. “Nope, had to pick the toughest deal and I couldn’t talk him out of it.”
Weninger excelled in the Marine Corps from when he joined in May 2015, and was selected as an honor graduate from boot camp. He then served as an armory custodian for several years but struggled with feeling stuck in an unfulfilling job, his father said.
“At some point, he begins an acquaintance with some of these Marine Raiders down at Camp Lejeune and he tells me that these guys are different,” Ernst Weninger said.
Wolf Weninger reported to Marine Forces Special Operations Command in North Carolina in January 2019. He completed the grueling, seven-month Individual Training Course in October and earned the coveted Marine special operator insignia.
“Wolf was a larger-than-life personality that drew everyone in the room to him,” Army Green Beret Staff Sgt. Nicholas Guy told the AP. “He was charismatic and boisterous, self-deprecating and convivial when he was with the people he loved most. His deadpan delivery of silly-one liners melted away when he couldn’t keep a straight face any longer.”
Guy added: “We lost a brother and friend; America lost a son and patriot.”