When Pfc. Richard J. Schmidt Jr.'s flight landed in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago, it marked the end of a four-day journey that took the U.S. army soldier from Afghanistan to Kuwait to Germany to Atlanta, and finally, to Philadelphia. After meeting his family at the airport, Schmidt insisted they take him for one last stop before officially starting his two-week leave from combat — synagogue.
"I just wanted to have a few minutes to thank God for letting me come home," said Schmidt, who prayed alone for 10 minutes at Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood. He spoke during a recent interview while in Philadelphia.
"He hadn't showered, hardly slept, and was wearing the same military uniform [he left in]," said his mother, Nancy Schmidt.
Schmidt, a crew chief on a Black Hawk helicopter, had spent seven months in Kandahar, Afghanistan. After his vacation — Sept. 18 to Oct. 4 — he returned for five more months of duty.
In Kandahar, Schmidt lives with three roommates on an airfield just minutes from their helicopter. With temperatures often hitting 120 degrees, he described the air-conditioned barracks as comfortable.
"It's not the Ritz-Carlton," he joked, "but it gets us by."
His job on the helicopter is to secure all cargo and passengers during supply or personnel movements around the region, which make up the bulk of his unit's missions. Many times, the crew flies at night, and Schmidt's team is frequently awakened and ordered into action.
"We can be in the air in seven minutes," said Schmidt, who said he's sometimes forced to get dressed while running to the helicopter.
He also works the machine gun on the side of the chopper, but noted that he's not yet been forced to fire at anyone.
Schmidt genuinely believes that many Afghanis are "good people who want to succeed and want to progress to create a stable society."
There are others, however, that he's still unsure of. When Schmidt comes into contact with local Afghanis, he remains wary because many carry machine guns over their shoulders — a right they gain at the age of 13.
"Just like a Bar Mitzvah for us, but your Bar Mitzvah gift would be an AK-47," he said.
When asked about news reports saying that the Taliban is once again gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, the 22-year-old was quick to dismiss the notion.
"We are doing extremely well over there. We are eliminating the Taliban," he stated. "It's not what you see on the news. We are making successful strides towards making Afghanistan an actual country."
Schmidt also touted the rise in women's rights in the region: "They're learning how to build a successful home and society. Before, that wasn't happening."
He also believes that the "forgotten war" moniker should not apply to the Afghan campaign: "I think we are still very much recognized over there from the people at home."
'Just in Case'
When he's not working his 12-hour shift, Schmidt spends his off-time smoking cigars with his buddies, or playing pool or video games in the recreation hall.
When times get tough in Kandahar, Schmidt turns to Judaism. He keeps a small piece of paper with a couple of prayers on it in his pocket at all times.
"A prayer for personal security and prayer for home," he said. "Just in case I need it."
Dubbed "the Hebrew Hammer" — a reference to the 2003 Jewish superhero "spoof" movie of the same name — he said the soldiers kid each other all the time, but stressed that he's never heard any anti-Semitic remarks. He would not, however, go around telling Afghanis that he's a Jew.
"I'm secure because in the army, we're all considered one and the same — brothers. Afghanis, it's unpredictable. I don't know how they would react."
The airfield is equipped with a nonsectarian chapel, and during certain holidays, a Jewish chaplain conducts services there. But nothing compares to being at the family's Bryn Mawr home for the High Holidays, which he was fortunate enough to experience this year. "It's absolutely awesome," he said with a smile. "I wouldn't be anywhere else."
While his recent visit was a welcome vacation for Schmidt, it also allowed his family a break from worrying about him.
"It's been very tense," said his mother Nancy. "Any mother would say that. I go to bed and I pray every night."
Since her son's deployment, the self-titled "political junkie" watches much less TV news.
"I'll drive myself crazy," she said. "I have other children at home [Schmidt has one older and two younger siblings], so I can't make myself paranoid. I have to be upbeat and positive."
His father, Richard J. Schmidt Sr., is a surgeon frequently on-call, and those 3 a.m. emergencies often conjure up thoughts that his son may be in trouble.
"It's just been very unnerving," he said.
As for the soldier, he remained eager to get back in the air and back to his unit.
"I left my buddies there," he said. "I have to go back for them. I can't leave them there."