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American Inspirational Creative Nonfiction

The first time I saw Schmidt was my first day of basic training. We were transported in “cattle cars” to our new home away from home in Fort Benning, Georgia. 


When the doors opened, there were what seemed like an infinite number of drill sergeants—although in reality, there were only eight. They greeted us using names many of us had never heard before. We were “maggots” and “shitheads” and “faggots.” We were all devastatingly scared—all of us that is, except for Schmidt. It seemed that no matter how much the drill sergeants tried to break him down, Schmidt just kept smiling. Among the chaos, he just seemed happy to be there. 


Schmidt looked a lot like Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. He had a freshly bald head courtesy of Uncle Sam, ears that flopped like oversized pancakes, googly eyes, and a uniform that seemed a size too big.


“Wipe that smile off your face, you piece of shit!” yelled one of the drill sergeants. And Schmidt gave it his best shot. He contorted his face into an exaggerated scowl, but it was obvious to all that he was still smiling on the inside.  


Infantry basic training lasts fourteen weeks, and, for the most part, you do almost everything within your company. I was in Alpha company and Schmidt had been assigned to Charlie company, so I only saw him during meals and when the whole battalion cleaned weapons. The one thing I noticed when I was around him was how poorly the other soldiers in his company treated him. It was common for the drill sergeants to degrade the troops, but Schmidt got it just as bad from his peers.


“Nice job, retard” and “Hey Stupid” seemed to be the insults of choice, but over time his fellow soldiers settled on “Einstein.” It was derogatory in every sense of the word. Schmidt, you see, was intellectually disabled. He had graduated high school as a result of grace, not grades. He didn’t have the normal social skills as his vocabulary was limited. He wasn’t afraid to talk, but when he did, he spoke slowly. The only time he would speak quickly was when he was agitated. Agitation didn’t happen often, but when it did, he would usually mispronounce words. “Cut it out or I’m gonna ‘splode,” he would yell when the taunts finally got to him. His verbal gaffes were always followed by derisive laughter. No one, including myself, ever stood up for Schmidt in those early weeks of basic training. It was bullying at its worst.  


From the beginning, Schmidt also struggled with the physical demands of the army. His mind didn’t work as fast as the other soldiers, so he was always a little slow, a little late, and a little off step. This was never more evident than when we would move from place to place as a unit. One of the first things you are trained to do in the army is to march in unison. Legs rise and fall together and arms swing in time with the cadence. A well disciplined marching unit is a sight to behold, but not Charlie company, not with Schmidt. Somehow Schmidt was always able to be perfectly in rhythm yet also perfectly off step. His right foot would strike at the precise moment all the other troops were leading with their left.  


Fourteen weeks isn’t very long in the real world, but in basic training, it borders on forever. It’s also transformative. You lose a little of your individualism and it is replaced by a sense of oneness with the whole. It’s one of the reasons why we wear uniforms. It was also long enough to change the collective opinion of Schmidt. There was never a moment during the hell he was put through where he stopped being himself. He smiled through it all, and it was slowly discovered that Schmidt had one indispensable skill: he knew just about everything about the army. He could recite rules, regulations, and customs from memory. He was an encyclopedia of army information and he shared his knowledge willingly. He was never good at the physical tests, but he was unmatched in his knowledge. It made him the man to see when a written test was on the schedule. There was more than one recruit who owed his success in basic training to Schmidt, and by the end of the cycle his nickname, Einstein, was no longer pejorative. In fact, when Charlie company marched in for its graduation ceremony, not a single member cared that Schmidt couldn’t keep step. He was a brother and he was theirs to protect. No one from the other companies laughed at Schmidt because it would have meant incurring the wrath of the entire Charlie company. 


I didn’t completely understand the transformation. That came later when Schmidt and I were both assigned to Alpha Company, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry regiment at Fort Wainwright Alaska.


Schmidt and I were newcomers together and arrived at a time when the company was out in the field. We were temporarily assigned as roommates, and that's where I learned his secret.


Schmidt was a talker, if he was awake—he was sharing. He told me how he was the fourth of four sons from a military family in Michigan. His grandfather was one of the troops that stormed Normandy Beach on D-Day and his dad did two tours in Vietnam. From the time Schmidt was old enough to know what a soldier was, it was all he wanted to be. All of his older brothers were soldiers, and whenever he had a chance, he would sit and listen to their stories and ask every question he could think of. He was a slow but dedicated learner, and he was famous for telling anyone who would listen that he would be a soldier one day. 


His dad and brothers did all they could to talk him out of his dream as they were convinced he could never pass the army entrance exam, but he had the last laugh, passing the first time. “I fooled them all,” he said without a hint of self-righteousness. He was just as proud of himself as his family was of him. 


For two weeks, we became inseparable, well, almost inseparable. Schmidt, you see, embraced everything about being in the army. He was always the first in formation and to volunteer. I might have wanted to be upset that he was so gung-ho, but how could I ever be mad at that smile?


I can’t remember the last time I saw Schmidt. I do know that whenever it was, I didn’t know at that moment that it would be the last time. I only know that a few months after we got to Alaska, I noticed he wasn’t in formation a few days in a row. This was unlike Schmidt, so I mustered the courage to ask my squad leader if he knew what had happened. It was then that I found out that during a routine exam, an Army medic had noticed some bruises on Schmidt’s arms and legs. It was assumed that they were a result of the rough training endured by infantry soldiers but to be safe Schmidt was sent to Anchorage for additional tests. Those tests showed Schmidt had advanced stage leukemia. 


The revelation was a gut punch, but only a mild one compared to the news we received a few weeks later. Private Schmidt, the young man who most thought never belonged in the army, had succumbed to his illness. 


As a soldier, it is a sign of weakness to cry, but I had no choice when I heard the news. The only solace I found then as today is to recount the story of Private Schmidt, or as I remember him, Einstein, a soldier in every sense of the word.


March 18, 2022 19:49

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28 comments

Sharon Hancock
02:04 Mar 20, 2022

Beautiful touching story. Reminded me of Rudy, and Forest Gump and Gomer Pyle all rolled into one. It’s amazing how one person can touch another’s life just by being himself. Thanks for sharing this! 😊

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Thom With An H
13:39 Mar 23, 2022

Thank you Sharon. You are so kind.

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Mister X
19:52 Mar 18, 2022

I hope this is a true story. It should be a true story.

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Thom With An H
13:39 Mar 23, 2022

100%

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Calvin Kirby
17:28 Mar 22, 2022

Wow, Lee, great story again. Having been in he Air Force and going through basic training, I could relate somewhat to the trials and tribulations faced by Schmidt, although I wasn't picked on or laughed at--at least to my knowledge. The story made me feel deeply for Schmidt. Great job.

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Thom With An H
18:46 Mar 22, 2022

It was over 30 years ago and he still has an impact on my life. This is a story I’ve told 1000 times but this is the first time I wrote it down. Thanks for reading. It means a lot.

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00:02 Mar 19, 2022

This is an incredibly moving tribute to a good man. Wonderful construct of using basic training to show division and unity, men (eventually) coalescing around one another for an honorable cause. Private Schmidt comes across as an decent, generous soul, one who accomplished the one thing that made his life meaningful: becoming a solider and making his family proud. Well done.

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Thom With An H
00:05 Mar 19, 2022

Christine you see all the levels of this story so clearly. You get me perfectly. 100 percent.

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Maggie Gibbs
21:02 Mar 18, 2022

🥺 This is a sad one. Poor Schmidt. Well done, Lee! Another triumph as usual!

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Thom With An H
21:18 Mar 18, 2022

Thanks Maggie. I just checked your page and I’m falling behind. I am looking forward to reading all I've missed.

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Maggie Gibbs
21:20 Mar 18, 2022

Thank you! I always appreciate your feedback! If you get a chance. ☺️

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11:26 Mar 24, 2022

This is a very well written story. Maybe a few more really specific details about what you experienced at basic training might have been interesting. Schmidt's character is described really well. Great work and a touching story.

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Thom With An H
23:33 Mar 25, 2022

I think you’re so right. I forget not everyone knows what basic is like. If I submit this to any other contests I will most assuredly take your advice.

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23:51 Mar 25, 2022

I meant the other way, we have the basic gist of basic training from movies... shouting drill sargeants and so on, what's specific about your training and experience there. The punishments and so on are pretty unique! One of my high school friends was forced to wear his sunglasses and sing john lennon every morning in his underwear in front of everyone while they got ready. Another guy had a medic inject him with saline every time he fell over in the heat at camp pendleton and ordered to get back up. It sounds as if every base has their ...

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Mike Panasitti
04:59 Mar 24, 2022

Roberts, with these words, Schmidt lives on. You've shared the affection you felt for him with readers, who can now feel it for him as well.

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Thom With An H
23:34 Mar 25, 2022

What a fantastic thing to say. Thank you so much for the encouragement.

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Chris Campbell
06:29 Mar 23, 2022

Lovely story, Lee - and well told. Everyone in life has something to give or say. You've proved that by telling us about your friend. Well done!

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Thom With An H
13:40 Mar 23, 2022

It's been more years than I'd like to admit but he still impacts me today. Thank you for your feedback.

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S.M. Brown
04:04 Mar 23, 2022

This actually brought tears to my eyes, wow. I'm a navy veteran so I didn't do the same drills, but I understand how close bonds can get with the people you're out there serving with. I'm sorry for you loss. This was a beautiful tribute to him and I'm glad to know he eventually got to fulfill his dream and stay true to himself.

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Thom With An H
13:41 Mar 23, 2022

As a veteran I know you can relate. The drills might be different but we are all connected. Your feedback made my day. Thank you so much.

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Hen Neralany
01:13 Mar 23, 2022

Schmidt is such a great character, I connected with him and by mid-story, I have already grown a feeling of protectiveness over him, so the ending threw a punch. He is an Einstein truly. I also really liked how you first described him in the story, especially this line. "Schmidt looked a lot like Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves."

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Thom With An H
13:41 Mar 23, 2022

I wish I had a picture of him. He really looked like that, in a good way. He just made me smile.

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Okashi Kashi
22:00 Mar 22, 2022

I can see this story winning. You have a talent for taking realistic (or in this case real) scenarios and experiences and forming digestible, interesting narratives. The description and prose was great, helping develop a sense of realism and authenticity in the story. The idea/theme of individuality and 'being yourself 'was brilliant. The army being this uniformed, unified group and environment where soldiers' individuality diminishes, yet Schmidt continued to be true to himself, and guess what? They accepted him. Just awesome. Thank you f...

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Thom With An H
13:42 Mar 23, 2022

Winning is so subjective. Schmidt may not win the contest but he's winning the public and that's the real victory. Thank you so much for being so kind. It really means a lot.

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Francis Daisy
21:14 Mar 22, 2022

21 gun salute to Schmidt. He deserves this. Glad he was able to make his dream come true before he died. You are lucky to have met such a wonderful man. God Bless. Well told tribute, Lee!

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Thom With An H
13:43 Mar 23, 2022

Hey there Francis. I always look for your feedback. I'm so glad you liked it. It has helped me to write it down. And I think it's helping other people to read.

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Luis Cruz
16:21 Mar 22, 2022

When I started reading your story, I thought for a moment that we had served together, but I didn't go through basic in Ft Benning, I went to Amarillo Texas with the Air Force. My Pvt Schmidt was named Airman Schoop. They are identical in every way, down to the ever-present smile. Unfortunately for Schoop, he didn't have a hidden talent to bolster him, and he succumbed, not to illness, but to the rigors of military life. He was rotated out and didn't graduate. I enjoyed your story very much, it was nice to be taken back to my time in Amarillo.

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Thom With An H
13:45 Mar 23, 2022

We did serve together just not in the same place. Thank you for your service and thank you for taking the time to let me know what you thought about the story. Three cheers for Airman Schoop.

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