High Desert Hangar Stories: Remembering a Vietnam hero; and why we need to pass on the legacy of service

March 29 is Vietnam War Remembrance Day, the day we officially remember all those who served during the war in Vietnam.

Over the years, I have been part of many programs and events paying tribute to the heroes and survivors of America’s most unpopular war.

Over time, I have found myself a bit conflicted. The times and attitudes have me wondering what the future will hold when it comes to the sacrifice of American soldiers and how the remembrance events are reflecting demographic change. The audiences and participants are growing long in the tooth, and young faces are not appearing as much as they did back when family traditions kept the memories alive of those who died in service to our country.

Col. Norman Schmidt (Courtesy photograph)

On a trip last weekend to an old stomping ground from my Air Force days, my soul was touched by a simple park monument at an old, abandoned Air Force base. It made me reach deep into my soul to make sense of a man, veteran, father, and war hero who is fading away, like the young people no longer seen at the events that mark who this monument memorializes.

Yes, there was a time when schools did class projects reaching out into communities. The interaction of young and old would bring fresh new faces to Memorial and Veteran’s Day events and keep the passion alive among classmates looking to share family histories and legacies when it came to military service. Monuments like this one in a park would have regular visitors.

The heartache in this essay comes from my recent observations when veteran events become just another mandatory briefing, and the spirit of the event is lost, with dignitaries and others more concerned about their time at the podium than the veterans looking up from their tables and those not able to attend. That may be a harsh statement, but bear with me as I explain where this feeling comes from.

The name Col. Norman Schmidt will not resonate with many of you, and his lone monument at a fading park at the former George AFB in Victorville doesn’t get many visitors anymore. The only thing that greets his legacy regularly are the sprinklers doing their best to keep his small area green. The park is named in his honor, but with passing time and his diminished presence in the public eye, he faces an uncertain future.

No one is picking up his story and taking it to podiums to share his supreme sacrifice on behalf of a country that has been trying to make amends to those lost in Vietnam for decades. Those troops who survived the war and came home to face various demons living in their subconscious at least had one thing many in Vietnam never got: a life afterwards to try to do something with.

Like many others, Col. Norman Schmidt’s life came down to one day in war, when fate dealt him a hand ending with suffering, grief, and a supreme sacrifice; leaving a family and a nation wondering whether it was worth it.

I recently found a story about Col. Norman Schmidt that his daughter shared with the Glenn Falls, N.Y., Post Star newspaper in 2005, and I will now share her words as she lived it firsthand.

Col. Norman Schmidt’s memorial at the former George Air Force Base, Victorville, Calif. (Photograph by Bob Alvis)

I think it puts the story right into the heart of every American who needs to understand why we remember our citizen heroes.

“I recently found a letter written by my mother just after my dad left for his final tour in Vietnam. ‘It’s been hectic,’ she began. ‘Norm’s afraid he won’t get things done. He tried to fix up the whole house and the corral before he left. I wanted him to forget it, but he had to keep working. He’s had a severe headache which has him worried … It broke my heart to see him climb into that airplane.’”

“I remember that summer — July, Mojave Desert, my sisters and I complaining as we shoveled horse manure into a creaky wheelbarrow, my dad tamping creosote posts plumb in an afternoon wind. I remember touching his shoulder where he knelt to set a tile in his beautiful floor, trowel in hand, the musty odor of concrete and Spanish brick in the air. I recall us all sitting around the table, Dad blowing out the candles of his 40th birthday cake, and the deep silence beyond the tear of wrapping paper and clipped ribbons. I was 11. On the tarmac of George Air Force Base, I breathed in the smell of his flight suit when he hugged me for the last time.

“On Sept. 1, 1966, his F-104 was hit by flak during a mission, and the plane went down. My dad bailed out, drifting toward his last 364 living days, days that separated him so utterly from his life as a son, husband, father, and career test pilot. In his final months he was deemed a ‘war criminal’ beyond our desperate love and worry, beyond the protection of the country he served, and excluded from the regard for human safety, dignity, and life inherent in the articles of the Geneva Convention.

“In an audiotape in 1974, Cmdr. Robert Shumaker shared recollections of my dad. They were in a nine-foot-square cell with two other POWs in the Little Vegas section of the Hanoi Hilton in the summer of 1967. It was a harrowing period for the prisoners, in the wake of a communications purge. Shumaker described an incident on Aug. 21: ‘After Norm had finished washing, he was peeking out [a] crack and trying to get a look at some of the other prisoners. Wouldn’t you know it, a guard caught him.’

“For this offense, my dad’s legs were locked in stocks attached to his bed. Ten days passed before guards released him from this confinement and took him away for interrogation. He was never seen again. Shumaker concluded that ‘[Norm] was subjected to torture and succumbed in the process.’ Other prisoners, in cells down the hall from the interrogation room, reported hearing the sounds of torture: ‘a loud scuffle and then silence.’ My father’s remains were disinterred from the Ba Huyen Cemetery in Hanoi in 1974 and returned to us.”

When I read this, tears filled my eyes as his daughter denounced the actions of the American government known to be using torture to extract information from foreign combatants in a current war. She had a family connection to the worst outcome of such action. Janet Schmidt ended her passionate plea with these words that haunted me this last week as I spent some time at that lone monument at a park.

“But I know that we owe it to our soldiers to treat prisoners of war and conflict humanely, no matter the circumstances that led to their incarceration, no matter the label they are given. Our national hesitation and then silence, our lack of outcry for an independent, thorough investigation into illegal detentions and torture, leave me grieving once again, deeper now for what seems the futility and waste in my father’s honorable service and ultimate sacrifice in the name of the highest ideals of freedom and decency.”

Col. Norman Schmidt (Courtesy photograph)

Colonel Schmidt is buried in Victorville, Calif., and his grave, much like his monument, can only tell only so much of the story about this family man. Programs this month have paid tribute with speeches and applause, and as a sea of gray hair covers those in attendance, we thank them for their service but where does the life of Colonel Schmidt and the many more like him find their way into the programs?

Where are the young people and those who should make an effort to attend such events? Why are we not embracing the Janet Schmidt’s of the world, and having them at podiums telling the stories that every American should hear?

The last breath of Col. Norman Schmidt should be the first breath shared at a podium when his story is shared, all other words are meaningless after the memories of the lost are no longer shared, and more importantly, not embraced by future generations.

Those of us who served, came home, or never went, need to do a better job on behalf of our brothers and sisters who never came home. We were able to live our lives — many more never did, and it’s up to us to make sure that their short lives have more meaning than ours. With that, all I can say is this is my hope and as always,

Peace my friends.

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