Face of Defense: Soldier Carries on Predecessors’ Work
By Army Staff Sgt. Mark Burrell
210th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan, Nov. 16, 2010 An infantry squad leader from Decatur, Ill., finds inspiration from U.S. soldiers of past wars as he serves here with Company C, 2nd Battalion, 237th Infantry Regiment, Task Force No Slack.
During a firefight with insurgents in the Shal Valley in eastern Afghanistan's Nuristan province, Army Sgt. James T. Schmidt checks on his soldiers from his fighting position on top of a mountain, Nov. 8, 2010. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Mark Burrell
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“I remember coming down to Fort Campbell [in Kentucky] a couple times and going to the park and seeing the big guns, and I was like, ‘Whoa,’” Army Sgt. James T. Schmidt said.
“When I think about those guys in the 101st [Airborne Division] during World War I and World War II, I mean … we have so much better equipment and technology these days,” said Schmidt after spending four nights on a remote mountaintop in the bone-chilling cold.
“It just amazes me that those guys went through the same thing we did, but with so little,” Schmidt continued. “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 to join the Army, Schmidt said, but it was a calling he just couldn’t refuse.
“I was 24 and working at a gas station,” he said. “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 deployed with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley here. He wears a memorial bracelet every day to remind himself of the nine friends from his platoon whom 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,” he said. “It goes back to why I joined. I think we’re doing good things here and we’re helping the people. 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, Army Staff Sgt. Clint J. Lyons from Gibsonville, N.C., said Schmidt always tries to put the best face on things.
“He’s always got a smile on his face and tries to make the best out of all situations,” Lyons said.
Schmidt’s mettle was tested earlier this month 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 noncommissioned officer on the ground, he’s that senior guy,” Lyons said. “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 four and half years in the military, Schmidt said, he has decided to try to make a career out of the Army. He said he wants to do it for his wife, for his 11-year-old daughter, MacKenzie, and for his fellow soldiers who wear the Screaming Eagle patch.