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.