A soldier's life of service

Personal View, by Keith Anderson

The trailing wisp of white smoke from a dying fire that drifts in a single stream toward the stars seems so easily dismissed, but impossible to forget. It is a beautiful sight. So peaceful. So innocent. So fleeting.

The last of the burning embers in a once well-fed campfire are mesmerizing, causing those in its presence to immediately understand the value of life at its most basic level. Fire brings life. The glow and heat are comforting and as the flames begin to fade there is a desire to place another log on the fire, restoring the flames to a healthy place where they can bring energy and light to an otherwise dark forest.

Command Sergeant Major Walt Schmakel was a lot like that fire. The last years of his life were not always easy. His breathing was labored. His once sturdy frame became frail. But behind those eyes was a proud man who served his country and community with pride and respect. His life ended July 31, 2012, at the age of 82.

Like so many other soldiers, he was protective of his memories of war. A veteran of Vietnam, who would sometimes share pieces of what he saw and what he experienced: "Mostly," he said, "it was painful."

During the mid-1960s, he spent a full year in the jungles of Vietnam, in what he called some of the heaviest and bloodiest fighting of the war. As a young man, like so many others around him, he found himself in a foreign land, where enemy soldiers appeared like ghosts from behind bamboo and a leafy, tangled jungle that looked nothing like the rolling hills of Carver County where corn and wheat spread out like a tablecloth for miles in every direction.

He stayed alive in Vietnam, but many of his friends did not. That fact was not lost on Schmakel, even four decades after he left Vietnam for good. Although tough and grizzled on the outside, he had a tender heart. He was a proud soldier.

Walt represented a different era in our nation’s history. Today that period probably seems like a simpler time. There were fewer distractions. Hard work went a log way toward middle class success. And the rest of the world looked for us to set the example. Although it was a tumultuous period as it relates to the war movement and civil rights, there was always that underlying belief that we were all united as one nation. As a whole, we all wanted to do what was right and reach out to those around us who needed help. It was less about "me" and more about "we."

The old sergeant major was like that as well. Life seemed pretty black and white for Walt. He knew right from wrong and had little patience for those who couldn’t seem to make decisions that were based on doing the right thing, whether it was the right thing for your country, your state or your community.

For 35 years he served as the American Legion manager in Waconia, working on behalf of all local veterans and living out the freedoms that he helped provide during his years of service as an active duty soldier. He served as post commander of both the Legion and VFW at different periods of the last three decades. He was instrumental in making sure local schools had American flags in the classrooms. He worked with the city to ensure flags on city street poles were maintained and replaced when necessary. He served at dozens of Memorial Day celebrations in the park and played a key role in helping decide which community organizations would benefit from the Legion’s monetary donations.

At the newspaper office, he’d bypass all protocol and head directly for the editor’s office when he had questions, concerns, a news release to drop off or simply to shoot the breeze. Although office staff would always attempt to stop him at the door so his unannounced arrival could be communicated with the editor, Walt saw that as a waste of time. "I’m here to see the editor."

He’d march straight back to the editor’s office and settle into the burgundy guest chair like it was an old friend. Didn’t matter if it was a deadline day or not. Walt had arrived and like it or not, he deserved the respect of being heard. And he always was.

Walt was not perfect. He never pretended that he was; age and the wisdom that comes from experience taught him that his true mission in life was to serve.

He did that as a soldier, a father, a brother and as a husband.

And like a passing thread of smoke that has finally gasped its last breath from a charred log, on a solitary journey toward the heavens, his life has ended. For those who knew him, we remember, saddened but appreciative of the life that gave so much and asked for so little in return.

Walt Schmakel, Dec. 25, 1929-July 31, 2012.