Monday, April 16, 2007

Joshua 'Oompa' Schmit dies of injuries from I.E.D.

Every time Army Sgt. Joshua "Oompa" Schmit would call his parents from Iraq, they would breathe a sigh of relief that he was OK. Since last May, his Humvee had struck roadside bombs three different times, but each time he'd escaped unscathed.

Saturday, his luck ended.

Schmit, 26, of Willmar, became the 50th Minnesotan to die in combat in Iraq. His family said they didn't know many details, other than the Humvee he was commanding hit an improvised explosive device.

He died just 10 days before he was due to leave Iraq - 10 days before he planned to begin the rest of his life, rejoin his wife in Germany, move back to the U.S. and even enroll in cooking school in Boston.

"He's been through a hard, hard tour over there," said his father, Greg Schmit, a sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard who is due to leave for Iraq next month.

Schmit was assigned to the 3rd Platoon of the 1451st Transportation Company, based in Boone, N.C. The platoon had come up short in volunteers, so soldiers from various backgrounds were put into the unit, according to a February article written by a National Guard public affairs specialist.

In the article, Schmit talked about taking soldiers with disparate jobs and training them for an infantry mission, saying, "a lot of the guys initially had no clue about the weapons systems. It started off really, really slow and we're still working on it, but we're getting there ... ."

He was quoted as saying the key to success was, "Be flexible. I guess that's the main message. You might be trained to be a cook, but one day (you're) kicking in doors in Baghdad."

Joshua was a fireplug of a kid, and in high school had the nickname "Oompa" bestowed upon him - short for Oompa-Loompa, after the diminutive characters in Roald Dahl's children's story, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

"He was a short, stocky kid, very happy-go-lucky," his father said of the name. "He was OK with that. Even his buddies in Germany (where he'd been stationed) called him 'Oompa.' It just stuck."

Schmit joined the Minnesota National Guard right after graduating from Willmar High School in 1999. "He wanted to do his duty, his part," his father said. "He really loved the National Guard."

But the younger Schmit soon decided he wanted to jump from the Guard to the active-duty Army. He did, and his father still remembers with pride the day his son graduated from infantry school at Fort Benning, Ga.

At the end of their training, the soldiers have what is known as a "Turning Blue" ceremony, where they are given their blue infantry cords that they wear on the right shoulder of their uniforms. Schmit chose to have his father pin his cord on him.

"To have my son go in my footsteps and be able to hang that cord on his shoulder just meant the world," the elder Schmit said.

While stationed in Germany, Joshua Schmit met the woman he later would marry, Andrea. She was a Brazilian national going to college in Germany, but she had gotten a job at Schmit's base as a COB, short for "civilians on the battlefield."

The civilians are hired to act as rioters or large crowds so troops can get more realistic training. Schmit was one of the soldiers who led the training.

The elder Schmit said his son and daughter-in-law were hoping to move back to Willmar by the fall. They wanted to move to Boston, eventually, so both could take advantage of the educational opportunities there.

"He was looking at going to school in the culinary arts," his father said. "He loves to cook. When he moved to Germany, he'd always hang around the restaurants and learn how to cook the dishes. He just loved it."

From the Pioneer Press