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Helping out stateside

Redwood man stationed in Alaska during Vietnam War 

When Pat Schmidt was winning the 212 Conference championship wrestling titles for Brownton High School in the 1960s, besting the other guy on the mat was the greatest degree of conflict on his radar. That all changed for Schmidt soon after graduating high school in the spring of 1968. “I didn’t have a draft number yet, but I knew it would come soon,” he said, visiting across the kitchen table in his Redwood Falls home. “I enlisted in the United States Air Force in June 1969. “My dad said that whatever I did, ‘don’t join the Marines,’” Schmidt said, adding that his father had enlisted in the Marine Corp prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The elder Schmidt served as a machine gunner in Guadalcanal, Guam and Bougainville. “He didn’t return home until four years later,” his son related, “only then to find out his older brother had been killed in the French hedgerows after the Normandy landings.” Nearly 30 years later, the younger Schmidt stood with a roomful of Air Force inductees Minneapolis, taking an oath to defend their country. “Every third guy was told, ‘you’re in the Marine Corp’,” Schmidt said. “This was just after the Tet Offensive and there was a shortage of Marines. “The guy next to me got on his knees and cried, claiming he was good as dead.” Having figuratively dodged that bullet, Schmidt was then given the opportunity to volunteer for para rescue or helicopter machine gunner – both jobs that tended to have high mortality rates – and sent to basic training to think about it. “After Basic, we were assigned our jobs,” he explained. “They made me a cop.” During the ensuing six weeks of Air Police Tech School, the trainees were told to fill out a “dream list.” Schmidt put in for Alaska, Spain and Germany – and, lo and behold – got his first choice. “I got assigned to Wildwood Air Force Station in Kenai, Alaska,” he said, grinning. “It was a very choice assignment.” The station was a small radar support squadron 150 miles south of Anchorage. Those assigned there joked that their “mission was fishing.” Schmidt was a patrol cop for the first year of his tour until “until they found out I could type.” He spent the remainder of his two 18-month tours in Kenai issuing passes and identification cards, and re-writing regulations. Wildwood AFS was a good fit for the small-town Minnesota boy; there were 500 airmen stationed there. Then, with one year left of his enlistment, Schmidt volunteered for Vietnam. As it turned out, the Vietnam war was scaling down by then and Schmidt was instead sent to Strategic Air Command (SAC) Headquarters at Offutt AFB near Omaha, Nebraska. (Remember that Wildwood AFS was home to 500 airmen; at Offutt there were 22 generals and 300 “full-bird” colonels in Schmidt’s building alone.) Rather than returning to base law enforcement, Sgt. Schmidt volunteered and was accepted into the SAC Elite Guard. “At that time, only the Elite Guard and para rescue were allowed to wear blue berets,” he said, explaining that the SAC Elite Guard was established by Gen. Curtiss LeMay. It was a “spit and polish” unit of about 60 members. “Our mission was to provide security for SAC Headquarters Underground Complex,” Schmidt, who needed top secret clearance to perform his duties, said. He was charged with verifying and admitting entrance to Air Force personnel working in underground offices and the command center. Even the generals had to pass Schmidt’s scrutiny. “We had this 2nd Lieutenant, Bobbie Bullet, whose job was to try to penetrate the underground,” Schmidt related. “He was supposed to let me know when he was going to be doing this so that I wouldn’t up-channel it to California.” One particular day, Bullet neglected to inform Schmidt of the drill and proceeded to try to circumvent security. Schmidt caught the “breach” and up-channeled, as per protocol, to the 8th Air Force. “That put every pilot in the 8th on alert,” Schmidt grinned. “Bullet said, “Sergeant Schmidt, you did your job, but I think I’m in a lot of trouble’.” Later on that day, the base commander called the men into his office and commended Schmidt for his good work – Bullet was right on both counts. SAC was an integral part of U.S. security. For example, two C-130s were based at SAC, with one in the air at all times. The C-130s were capable of launching nuclear weapons while in the air. A nuclear-proof bunker, deep underground, was stocked with enough provisions for 30 souls to live for 60 days. Because of SAC’s military profile, Schmidt saw many dignitaries from his post at SAC including generals Jimmy Dolittle and Curtiss LeMay, Jane Wyman (President Ronald Reagan’s first wife), and often passengers arriving on Air Force One. “The night generals were arriving at 3 a.m., I knew something was up,” Schmidt said. “It turned out that was the night Haiphong Harbor was bombed.” While the United States’ involvement in Vietnam has been a point of discussion since the 1960s, the fact remains that over 500,000 American men and women served in-country, supported by thousands state-side. “We all thought, at first, that it was a justified war,” Schmidt mused. “After a couple years, I thought ‘what are we doing there?’” Unfortunately, many people took out their negative feelings about the war on the military personnel. Schmidt said that buses carrying wounded soldiers in California needed to be outfitted with heavy wire over the windows to protect the soldiers within from the protesters outside. “I had about a month to go and flew home,” he related. “A young punk came up to me in the airport and called me a baby killer.” Following his discharge from the Air Force, Schmidt used the G.I. Bill and enrolled in the newspaper skills course at Anoka Vo-Tech. He’s put those skills to use in the Minnesota towns of Ortonville, Wadena, Fairfax and Olivia, as well as in Florida and – his personal favorite, seven years in Alaska. Schmidt has been back in the Land of Sky Blue Waters for the past decade-and-a-half, first in Montevideo and later Redwood Falls. He and his wife, Barb, currently reside in Redwood Falls and are the parents of two adult children and grandparents of two beautiful little girls. Schmidt has recently found himself back in the job market as he and 30-some other publishers were the victims of corporate cost-cutting and restructuring. Even a top-secret security clearance isn’t a guarantee in the job market. Looking back on his years in the military Schmidt said, “I’m glad I went into the service – and I was glad to get out.”

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