Four days after graduating from Akron Central High School in 1987, Earl M. Schmidt enlisted in the Army, but he could never have imagined he would lose four members of his platoon some two decades later in a place as far away as Afghanistan.
The 17-year-old, inspired by his paternal grandfather’s military service, believed that he, too, had an obligation to serve America.
“I felt it was my patriotic duty,” Schmidt says. “I was ready and willing.”
After the forces of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, a U.S.-led coalition retaliated and drove the invaders back into Iraq in 1991. Schmidt was in the thick of it.
“We flew into Saudi Arabia and drove into southern Iraq and engaged Iraq’s ragtag army. We were moving so fast that they started dropping their arms and walking the other way,” Schmidt recalls.
The 100-hour Persian Gulf War ended for Schmidt when he and other members of the Army’s 7th Group secured Safwan Airfield, where the cease-fire treaty was signed.
He then returned to the United States and served with the Army National Guard’s 27th Infantry Division, a member of the 101st Cavalry Unit at Buffalo’s Masten Avenue Armory.
When the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred, Schmidt and his unit were activated for Operation Noble Eagle. “We had teams securing all the vital infrastructure, airports, air bases, power plants, and, believe it or not, I was assigned to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station for two years,” he said.
As the war on terrorism progressed, Schmidt was again activated in 2007 to train soldiers for the mission in Afghanistan. A year later, he was deployed there himself, and it was a tough time.
Four soldiers from Schmidt’s 42-member platoon were killed, and for him, the loss of his buddies was devastating.
“The platoon’s squads were scattered in different provinces, and three were killed in the same attack on June 21, 2008,” Schmidt says. “The other soldier was killed on Oct. 13, 2008.”
What made their mission so dangerous?
“The squads provided the security for the Afghan soldiers and police while they did their jobs often in desolate provinces,” he says. “We were in imminent danger all the time. You see the bullets hitting the vehicle in front of you – you know you’re in danger.”
Schmidt emphasizes that the fallen soldiers had made a positive impact.
“In the hearts and minds of the true Afghanistan citizens, they know that the American people are always there to help them strive for their freedoms,” he says, adding that he would not think twice about serving again.
But after 23 years in the military, he retired in the fall of 2010 and took a job as a Niagara County veterans service officer in Lockport.
“We do benefit claims and counseling for veterans and their dependents,” Schmidt says. “We honor the fallen by serving the living.”