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A day many remember for its terror is but the starting point for this Willmar family's journey of sacrifice and pain

The loss of their son Joshua in Iraq in 2007 has been difficult for Kim and Greg Schmit of Willmar. They have come to know lots of sacrifice and pain since Sept. 11, 2001. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

Specialist Kyle Miller's death while serving with the Minnesota National Guard in Iraq on June 29, 2006, was heart-breaking and unnerving news for Kim Schmit. She worked with the fallen soldier's stepmother and knew the 19-year-old soldier's boyhood ties to Willmar and Bird Island.

From her home in Willmar, she relayed the tragic news by telephone to her son Joshua as he served with the 1451st Transportation Company in Iraq. He sought to calm her nerves.

"Well mom,'' Kim recalls her son telling her: "Lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place. It won't happen. It won't happen for me.''

Sgt. Joshua Schmit was two weeks from returning home after his 11 months deployment -- and on his last mission as truck commander on a security convoy -- when the improvised explosive device exploded directly under him in his Humvee outside of Fallujah, Iraq, on April 14, 2007.

Schmit, 26, and Sgt. Brandon Wallace, were killed as the Humvee was launched into the air and landed upside down on them, bursting into flames.

Wallace had volunteered to take the place of Sgt. Jackie Blaylock, who had usually ridden with Schmit and had survived other near misses with him. Blaylock said the tension had gotten to him, and he had asked if he could take another place in the convoy instead of his usual spot as gunner in the front Humvee. He pleaded with Schmit to do the same.

Just a few weeks later, he was in Willmar with eight other soldiers who had served alongside their friend Schmit. Blaylock told Kim how Joshua refused his pleadings not to take his seat in the lead. "No, it's my truck, I'm the truck commander. Nope, I'm going to stay in this spot.''

Blaylock had tried to pull his friends from the burning Humvee that incinerated them, and his fellow soldiers had to wrap him in a blanket.

Kim said Blaylock cried in her arms and said it should have been him in that Humvee.

On Dec. 9, 2007, Blaylock took his own life in Houston, Texas.

More than four years later, the storm clouds that brought the tragic loss of their son have yet to leave the lives of Kim and Greg Schmit.

At the time of their son's death, Greg Schmit was at Fort Ripley standing in his final line-up for paperwork needed for his deployment to Iraq in two weeks with the Minnesota National Guard. He was escorted to an office where he waited by himself for what seemed like an eternity. When two soldiers in dress uniforms opened the door, one a chaplain, he knew.

Today, Sgt. Schmit is waiting for what he hopes will be a parting of the clouds. He is at Fort Riley, Kansas, undergoing an evaluation that could take 30 days, maybe 90 days or longer. It could lead to a medical discharge from his military duty.

Schmit has been diagnosed with depression and post traumatic stress disorder, and is currently on active duty, medical extension.

He attempted suicide on March 25, spent three weeks in local medical care and seven subsequent weeks at a Veterans Administration hospital in Colorado.

He had served as the escort to return his son's remains from Dover Air Force Base to Willmar. He was the source of strength for those who grieved Joshua's loss those years ago, said Kim.

The loss of his son was only the start of his ordeal. Then-Governor Tim Pawlenty wrote a letter that spared Schmit from deployment to Iraq in the wake of his son's death.

But Schmit, now 52, said his military duties were later yanked from him by three superiors, and his accomplishments and awards subsequently ignored by others in the pleading of his case to superiors.

Kim believes the tension began while Joshua was serving in Iraq, and her husband applied for deployment to serve with his son's unit instead of his own. Schmit managed supplies, and his son's unit was without someone in that role.

After Joshua's death, Kim said that some of the officers complained about the photos of Josh that her husband put up in his office.

Greg said that despite the attention Major General Larry Shellito had placed on identifying PTSD and the possibility of suicide, his own mental health issues were ignored.

"It totally took me by surprise to have me removed,'' he said.

His removal from his duties represents the loss of all he has believed in and that he served, said Kim. He has been devastated by it, she said.

Now he is in a sort of limbo, needing mental health care normally provided discharged veterans through the Veterans Administration at no cost. Classified as active duty, medical extension, he's required to make co-payments through his insurance. He said he has not been reimbursed for accumulated leave and expenses that he is entitled to, and left with Catch 22 options.

He could apply for unemployment, Schmit said he was told, but since he is medically unable to work he would not be eligible for compensation since he could not accept a position offered him.

He's also been told to consider a part-time role in the Minnesota National Guard, but said doing so would almost certainly require him to a take a downgrade in his rank as Sergeant E6. It might also obligate him to drill with units that could be far from home.

He's left without his normal income as the bills mount.

U.S. Representative Collin Peterson is assisting him in his ordeal with the military, and an attorney has offered his service pro bono after hearing how compelling a case he has, said the husband and wife. His military-appointed attorney is serving in Afghanistan.

Like everyone, Kim and Greg Schmit have vivid memories of the terror attack on the Twin Towers 10 years ago.

Joshua Schmit was serving with the military in Germany on Sept. 11, 2001. He was gung ho and loved the military life, said his mother.

She said her knees buckled when she later learned that he was assigned as a back up for deployment to Iraq shortly after the invasion.

But Schmit was not deployed at the time, and completed his four years of service in Germany. He had signed up for extra benefits by agreeing to remain on Inactive Reserve status for two years following. He was only a few months from the end of that two-year term when the letter calling him to duty arrived at the Schmit home in Willmar.

Joshua was living in Germany. He had fallen in love with Andrea Catel D. Prates Soares. She worked in Munich, Germany, but had been born in Brazil.

They married on Sept. 25, 2006, in Denmark, lived in Germany, and had their lives planned, said Kim. The couple had plans for Joshua to return to school, become a chef, and eventually they would open a bed and breakfast together in New Zealand. They also had hopes for an around-the-world honeymoon.

Joshua Schmit's unexpected orders calling him to active duty for the surge in Iraq told him to report to Fort Benning, Ga., on Oct. 4, 2006.

Her son did not want to return to the military, but did what she said was the noble thing and contacted military officials near where he lived in Germany. Of 140 Inactive Reserve soldiers in the mailing, he was among only 20 who returned, she said.

He was granted a little more time to report due to his recent marriage.

The delay also meant that he would be serving in Iraq with the 1451st Transportation Company instead of the Minnesota-based Red Bulls.

Schmit kept in contact by phone and computer with his family through his deployment in Iraq. His mother knew the suffering he witnessed. There were soldiers who died in his arms, and he witnessed tragedies that befell the children caught up in the conflict.

Preparing for his return home, he had turned off his computer connection to the world on the day he went on his last mission. His mother's first premonition that something was amiss came at 6 a.m. the next day, when she had expected the phone to ring with a call from her son in Iraq. Instead, the call that came later that day was from Germany -- from Andrea.

Joshua Schmit had helped his father build the "Welcome to Willmar'' signs on the city's edge where so many community members stood in respectful silence as his body was returned home a week later.

What they describe as "overwhelming'' community support and the bonds they've made with others who have suffered the loss of loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan have been their rays of light through all the sacrifice and pain they have known since Sept. 11, 2001.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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