A young James T. Schmidt often went down to visit his grandfather at Fort Campbell, Ky., years ago. Schmidt’s grandfather was a master sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division and enjoyed taking his grandson to the parks.
“I remember coming down to Fort Campbell a couple times and going to the park and seeing the big guns and I was like, ‘Whoa,’” said Schmidt, now a U.S. Army sergeant with Company C, 2nd Battalion, 237th Infantry Regiment, Task Force No Slack.
Deployed to eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province, Schmidt, an infantry squad leader from Decatur, Ill., follows the footsteps of his forefathers.
“When I think about those guys in the 101st during World War I and World War II, I mean … we have so much better equipment and technology these days,” said Schmidt after coming down from spending four nights on a remote mountaintop in the blistering cold. “It just amazes me that those guys went through the same thing we did, but with so little. We were sitting up on a mountain yesterday cold, pretty cold, but we had cold-weather gear. I was thinking about Soldiers in Bastogne just sucking in the snow and the trees not knowing when they’re going to get relieved. It must have been tough.”
It wasn’t an easy choice for Schmidt to join the Army, but it was a calling he just couldn’t refuse.
“I was 24 and working at a gas station,” Schmidt recalled. “I wasn’t really doing much with my life. Joining the Army was always something I wanted to do. After years of seeing the war go on, I didn’t want to grow old and not be able to tell my grandchildren I participated in this. It would have upset me. I was feeling like I was sitting on the sidelines when our country was doing something like this.”
Shortly after joining, he was called in from the sidelines and deployed with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat team in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in the Kunar province. He wears a memorial bracelet every day to remind himself of the nine friends from his platoon he lost during that deployment.
“It’s just something to remind myself of them and remind myself why I’m here,” he said. “I think that’s why I re-enlisted. I was thinking about getting out after the last deployment, but I didn’t want to give up after these guys gave it their all. They lost their lives doing something they believed in and I think it would have tore me up the rest of my life if I would have just stopped and not come back here … It reminds me of why I’m here.”
He said this deployment to Afghanistan has been a little different.
“I’ve been down to Forward Operating Base Joyce in 2007 and the roads have improved,” Schmidt said. “A lot more wells dug, most of the villagers have electricity and they seem happier to have us around. There was a lot of just getting rocks chucked at us my last deployment and I haven’t seen much of that this deployment.”
With a congenial smile and a disarming laugh, Schmidt said he tries to find the good wherever he is.
“I’m just glad to have done something. It goes back to why I joined. I think we’re doing good things here and we’re helping the people,” he added. “I hope it gets better because there are good people here, there’s just a select few that ruin it for everybody.”
His platoon sergeant, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Clint J. Lyons from Gibsonville, N.C., also assigned to C Company, 2nd Bn., 327th Inf. Regt., Task Force No Slack, agreed.
“He’s always got a smile on his face and tries to make the best out of all situations,” Lyons said.
Just a few days ago, Schmidt’s mettle was really tested when his squad was bogged down on a mountain with heavy enemy fire.
“When the initial contact happened, I was pinned down behind rocks,” Lyons said. “[Schmidt] was in contact and already starting to engage and giving out commands to his guys … His knowledge really helps me out and makes things easier. I don’t have to worry about him while I’m taking care of other things.”
Throughout the firefight, Schmidt’s intuition kicked in and he made sure all his soldiers were being taken care of and doing their jobs.
“Being the non-commissioned officer on the ground, he’s that senior guy,” said Lyons. “A lot of these guys haven’t been in contact before and it was pretty intense. Some of his guys were afraid to shoot at first … so being that NCO, he helped them … He was doing his thing and he laid down some rounds himself to show them where the enemies were.”
After just four and half years in the military, Schmidt has already decided to try to make a career out of the Army. He wants to do it for his wife, his 11-year-old daughter MacKenzie, his forefathers and for his soldiers with the screaming eagle patch to the left and right of him.
Article by Combined Joint Task Force 101