Every year around this time, our nation reflects on the heroism and sacrifices of our veterans. We honor all those who served and recognize the many men and women who were wounded, made ill or injured in service to this country. Neighbors go out of their way to say thank you to those who wore the uniform. Families recall the brave actions of relatives, passing their stories down from generation to generation.
Lesser told are the stories of those veterans who never stopped serving — the ones who returned home and dedicated themselves to their communities despite the consequences of service or the challenges of transitioning back to civilian life. Marine Corps veteran Randy Schmidt is one such veteran.
Schmidt lost his vision after sustaining injuries in two separate events in Vietnam. First, he was shot in the head by an enemy bullet that pierced his helmet, grazing Schmidt’s head and knocking him out.
Six weeks later, the bunker he was in collapsed, nearly killing him. Schmidt remembers being pinned to the wall, unable to breathe. Badly bruised but alive, he was rescued and transported to the USS Valley Forge. After 10 days, he returned to the battalion, not revealing to leadership that his vision was becoming blurry.
Schmidt’s vision continued to deteriorate, and he was medically discharged from the Marine Corps in 1970. After that, he lived in California, working in San Mateo County’s juvenile court system, where he retired in 1998.
Today, when there’s a volunteer event in Medina, Ohio, where Schmidt now resides, he’s almost certainly there. In the more than two decades since moving there with his family, he’s been a reliable, consistent presence in the community.
DAV (Disabled American Veterans) was the first organization Schmidt started volunteering with in Medina, selling Forget-Me-Nots and helping with DAV Chapter 72’s mobile service office. On Veterans Day, he can be found at his local Golden Corral representing DAV, collecting donations as veterans come in for free meals.
He’s marched the American flag in nearly every parade in the county and participated in honor guard details at the veterans cemetery, and he is involved with other veterans groups. He helps the Lions Club and served on the advisory board for the county’s home for older adults. He’s sat with lonely patients during their final hours in hospice.
Schmidt said his motivation to serve others was inspired by Daniel Gallagher, a good friend who was killed during a patrol in Vietnam. Because Gallagher knew the extent of Schmidt’s vision loss, he had petitioned their lieutenant to keep his fellow Marine back on one of the final operations of their tour and asked to be sent instead of Schmidt. Schmidt said Gallagher’s sacrifice is what gave him the opportunity to live.
Now in his 70s, Schmidt finds it more difficult to be as active as he once was. Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, believed to be caused by his exposure to Agent Orange, are becoming more prevalent. He needs assistance walking and can’t stand for long periods of time.
His hope is that others will step up to volunteer, particularly younger veterans and civilians. Otherwise, the culture of caring for our nation’s veterans is in peril. Without them, “honoring those who served” will be nothing more than hollow words.
With more than 1 million members in 1,200 chapters across every state, DAV offers numerous ways to serve. You can volunteer to drive veterans to and from medical appointments through the DAV Transportation Network. Or you can volunteer at your local VA medical center, and those 21 and younger who log their hours with DAV are eligible for scholarships. Serving can also be as simple as helping a local veteran with yard work or grocery shopping. At volunteerforveterans.org, DAV connects volunteers with veterans in need.
Say thank you to those who served and to those who keep serving — and consider honoring them with action.
Jeffrey Blonder is a retired U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer. He was mobilized to Afghanistan and is currently the commander of the E. F. Gilmore DAV in Swampscott and the adjutant for the Department of Massachusetts of the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.