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.
Joe Schultz left this earth not by his own choice but by his own doing five years ago this weekend. I got the news from a mutual friend, Sam Bessey, who called me and asked me what I was doing. “I’m driving.”
“Pull over,” he said.
And that’s how I found out that the vehicle Joe was riding in rolled over a plastic bag of explosives.
I went for a run right after that and I extended my route about two miles. At the time I thought that was some kind of statement, to go farther. Now, I realize I just didn’t want to go home and be alone.
In attending his memorial up in Washington State a week later, I got to see the guys I went to college with—all of them—for the first time in a decade, maybe longer. Joe’s army buddies were there too. They were tough and sober. Though at the time I tried to fake understanding, their trust in one another and experience of loss is one I’ll never have.
There is a certain amount of blackmail that goes into any long-term friendship. At the time of Joe’s passing, I had known him almost 20 years. Admittedly, he had a lot more dirt on me than I had on him. On the other hand, because I don’t have a very good hiding mechanism or filter or whatever they call it, most of my biggest screw ups have been out in the open—for all to see. I guess in a sense, that ability to mess up and own it was something Joe admired. Or at least he thought it was funny.
He did things the right way almost always and he didn’t live to be an old man, so I don’t have much on the guy. Instead, I tell the requisite three or four Joe stories—like actors when they go on press junkets—and the rest I’ll keep.
I’ve attempted in this last half decade to figure out what a guy like Joe meant to a guy like me. Or more accurately, why a guy like Joe would stick up for a guy like me. I know what other people think the answer is: I was lucky to have Joe. He was quick to admonish some of my actions or make fun of me or call me a damn fool either in front of my face or to others, but when it came time to sit down and have a couple beers and shoot the shit, we understood each other implicitly.
I think we both knew, or at least imagined as young guys do, that in different ways we’d both go on to contribute something that mattered. In early days we weren’t sure what that meant. But as time passed, and especially after the events of 9/11, it became clear immediately to Joe. He wanted to serve. And not just serve, but have a career in the military and take it as far as it could go—to absolute physical and mental limits and then one step beyond.
And he did.
From the moment he passed until now, his military achievements have defined him, rewritten his narrative. I guess in death we can’t really choose how our lives are to be recalled and folks can be remembered for a lot worse or a lot less than what Joe is.
But that stern looking guy in the uniform is not the guy I remember and definitely not the guy I knew. And that’s taken all five years for me to figure out. His laugh was a one-man roast. His prized sideburns a signature trademark for more than a decade. Two hoop earrings for years gave credence to the notion that you can take the kid out of Sacramento but you can’t take the Sacramento out of the kid. His red Toyota trucks, the first one with the KC lights and a single CD (Doggystyle) in the changer and the Nerf bars; and the second one, bought a year before he perished, that is now in the loving care of his mother. No word as to whether Doggystyle still makes the rotation. He wasn’t a goofball but he could be goofy, especially around girls (see: the sweater vest pictured above). Even before the military he was on time or early—every time. He was polite at dinner with your parents but not in a cheesy way. He shook hands and he gave hugs and always had one of his shoulders popping out. He made fun of everyone, incessantly. And if you weren’t there you were getting it the worst.
He was awesome.
He died in action on Memorial Day weekend. I once made the mistake of saying that he did it on purpose just so we wouldn’t ever forget him, or be able to go to a barbecue without feeling fucking awful. Nobody laughed at that.
He would have though.
To learn more about or contribute to the Captain Joseph House Foundation, click here.