My buddy CPT Joe Schultz, a Green Beret, was killed in action—on Memorial Day.
On May 29, 2011 in the Wardak province of Afghanistan, CPT Joseph W. Schultz’s humvee led a convoy in the central eastern part of the country. A roadside bomb detonated when his vehicle was in range and Joe, along with Staff Sergeant Martin Apolinar and Sergeant Aaron Blasjo, died instantly.
Here is a list of Joe’s military awards and achievements: Bronze Star Medal; Purple Heart; Army Commendation Medal; Army Achievement Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Afghanistan Campaign Medal; Iraq Campaign Medal with one campaign star; Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal; Overseas Service Medal; Army Service Ribbon; Combat Infantryman Badge and Parachutists Badge. He also wore the Special Forces Tab and the Ranger Tab.
I saw all of these in a case on display beneath a picture of Joe during his memorial a few weeks after his death up in Port Angles, Washington—the place they filmed the Twilight movies.
Everyone acted very official and very grown-up during the service. It was the most curious mix of folks. Square-jawed military men with tired eyes, some of whom were there with Joe that very day in Afghanistan, on temporary leave from the war to honor those lost from their Special Forces team. And guys like me, civilians who pretty clearly have no idea what’s going on in the world beyond their cubical walls and fantasy leagues—much less their own place in it.
Looking at those ribbons and medals—Joe’s life achievements in a single window box—it occurred to me, this was more than I will ever know or earn. And yet, it didn’t begin to tell his story.
What used to be a long weekend the two of us would spend on top of a houseboat drenched in sweat and beer declaring war on our braincells; the one most of the rest of America says, “Maybe this is the day I should stand up …and buy a new mattress”, I think of Joe.
Specifically, I think of Joe getting up in the morning and dying before noon.
As much as I have said, “Joe should not have died that day”, maybe I’ve been wrong. Maybe it is that simple. We’re born and we die and what we do in the middle is up to us. He did it the right way.
I met Joe as I tore through his freshman dorm at Oregon on a Friday evening like a brush fire. All 18 years and 135 pounds of me had been served a half a fifth of tequila somewhere else in a bathroom stall. I thought I might be looking to round up a posse to go terrorize the rest of campus, but more likely should have been looking for a place to rest my head.
I stumbled upon about eight other gangly boy-men in Joe’s room as I was trolling the halls of every dorm complex I could sneak into that night. They were tearing open those mini boxes of sugar cereal spirited from the cafeteria and seeing how many one could ingest in under a minute. The record was three and a half.
I talked fast and certain about some party I knew of just off campus. There would be kegs of beer and women of ill-repute and live music and it was all free and waiting for us—out there. Though there was no reference about who I was or whether I was telling the truth, my plan seemed like a better alternative.
So, we set out into the night. Me and Joe and a half-dozen other guys who were equally enamored with paroling ourselves from the brick- and cinder-block cells.
I had an inkling of a gathering. I’d run into the older brother of a buddy of mine from high school at the book store earlier that day. He told me about this thing that night he was going to. He didn’t necessarily invite me. He didn’t necessarily tell me where it was. He just said there was a big deal going on on the south side of campus. I think he said, “You should swing by” but I’m not really sure if he was talking to me or the girl between us in line.
I ended up leading Joe and this upstart band of increasingly not-so-merry-men on a circuitous tour. These were the days before mobile phones or GPS or any type of touchstone besides the North Star and a beige dorm phone.
Soon, the group began to shed eager participants. A few stopped at Sal’s Pizza and said they’d “catch up”. Others saw some girls they knew at the student union who’d just gotten done studying and were hungry. “Just one more block,” I speculated as I stood under a street lamp between campus and the endless grid of bungalows and Victorians of the real Eugene. Looking up at a street sign, I nodded with conviction, “Yep. This one’s it.”
Another ninety minutes passed, then forty more after that. The shadows of the elms and alder, larch, spruce and tan oak stretched long as lights on the wood-paneled homes flickered. I turned around, and it was down to me and Joe.
We walked back in silence. Well, that’s not entirely true. I talked but he strode about a dozen paces in front of me, not saying a word. I was never so glad to see the crosswalk and lights of my dorm room. I rushed to my door and waved him a fond farewell, a part of me thinking the night—in all its disappointment—was simply a success for the fact that we went out and did something.
Unfortunately, this was not the last time I would come to find things I thought of as minor accomplishments were abject failures in the eyes of others.
“Well,” I said as I keyed in, “How bout we do this again next Friday?”
I was serious.
He turned around and stared at me. If you want to know what it looked like, see the picture above (minus the guns).
A crease had burrowed its way deep into the center of his face above the bridge of his nose. He looked twenty years older in the shadows and his hands were clinched.
“I said, let’s do this again.”
He cocked his head back all the way so it appeared he would swallow the sky and the stars in it whole. He laughed for what seemed like a good five minutes, the way villains do in movies just before the tables turn on them. I wondered if he was just thinking of something funny that maybe happened another night.
Finally, he gathered himself.
“You have no idea, do you?”
“We just spent three hours …walking around!” he took a step closer to me, “And I spent two of them trying to convince a group of guys why they shouldn’t kick your ass for wasting their Friday night and the last hour trying to talk myself out of it.”
The tequila had worn off just enough to let me know he was serious. I was tired and already had a headache.
“Well,” I said and held out my hand. “Thanks. I owe you a Friday, I guess.”
Fifteen years later, Joe and I were walking around a small village on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe where I was living. He had just returned from a tour in Iraq and was visiting. It was the dark of winter and we were headed to a bar.
He brought up the night we met as we were rambling around in the late-evening shadow of the flocked pines. Fortunately, this time he had the light of his phone and a map on the screen to guide us.
“I learned a lesson that night,” he said. “I learned that most of the time people have no idea where they’re going, so I probably shouldn’t follow.”
A little less than a year after Joe died, I was running the Big Sur Marathon in his honor wearing a shirt with the words, “Lead from the Front” on the chest—the mantra adopted after he passed. It exemplified who he was. It best explained how he lived and how he died.
I crossed the finish line and looked down at the shirt, now sweat and tear-streaked. I couldn’t help but break into a smile. The noise from the finish-area crowd faded into a whirr and I could hear only Joe’s cackle. Oh the irony of me wearing a shirt that said, “Lead from the Front.”
“You’re not fooling anyone,” his voice rang inside my head. “And by the way, you still owe me a Friday.”
To learn more about the Captain Joseph House Foundation, click here.