LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan – U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Jeffrey Schmidt wanted to give something back to the Army family that took him in and treated him like one of their own.
Schmidt, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller attached to the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, during their deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, painted a “t-wall” mural to memorialize the unit’s deployment and honor the Fallen Heroes that made the ultimate sacrifice.
The Louisville, Ky. native said he was inspired to paint the memorial after the unit took their first casualties, not long after arriving at Forward Operating Base Shank in March.
The three-panel mural, painted on giant cement walls that resemble an upside down ‘T’, depicted the storied actions of the 3rd Inf. Div. from WWI to present and included the names of the 4th IBCT Soldiers who died in service to the nation.
There are thousands of t-walls, used as protection from incoming rockets, on bases across Afghanistan which makes them a universal symbol of deployment for veterans of both the Iraq and Afghan wars, making them a fitting canvas for such a memorial.
Schmidt lost count of the hours spent painting but said it was common for him to paint for several hours after his 12-hour shift in the unit’s tactical operations center. During his shift he’s responsible for air space coordination, planning air support for ground forces and controlling multiple aircraft in the unit’s area of operations.
Following the loss of his friend and workout partner, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Jonam Russell, to an improvised explosive device, Schmidt promised himself he would finish the mural and Russell would be the last name he added.
Schmidt followed in the footsteps of both of his grandfathers, satisfying a need to serve, and enlisted in the Air Force in 2004. He earned bachelor’s degrees in art history and psychology from the University of Maryland University College’s Wiesbaden campus in Germany and earned a commission through Officer Training School as a JTAC in 2011.
When asked why he would invest the time and energy to paint the 9 x 12 foot mural, he said he wanted “to mark what we're doing here; there's a price to what we do.”
Before he began painting the mural, he discussed his idea with U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Rimoni Mapu, 4th IBCT’s operations sergeant major. Mapu, an infantryman from American Samoa, was tasked with finding an artist for the unit and asked the personnel in the TOC who could paint. “Lt. Schmidt came forward, showed me a sketch and I said ‘go paint’”. Lots of soldiers take their pictures in front of the mural and read the names,” said Mapu.
“He’s doing a pretty good job,” which is high praise from the soft-spoken Mapu. He did lots of work in addition to his duties in the TOC and only painted on personal time, he added.
Schmidt’s interest in art began early in life, often drawing cartoons as a child. His great-grandmother and grandmother were both artists and encouraged and inspired him. He went on to study art at Elizabethtown High School in Louisville, Ky., where he believes he had great teachers.
Schmidt tried to keep a low profile about his work but it wasn’t long before admirers began posting photos of the mural in progress. After being tagged on Facebook, his friends and family requested regular updates. Schmidt’s biggest fan, his mom, regularly sent brushes and other supplies, things not easily found on a combat base, to help him finish.
The 4th IBCT has grown quite fond of the memorial and is working to take it back to Fort Stewart, Ga. when they depart Afghanistan later this fall. Schmidt said he hopes he made an impact and is excited the unit is trying to bring the memorial home.
When he returns home next month, Schmidt is looking forward to catching up on his sleep and spending time with his fiancé who is a mechanical engineer in Louisville.
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This work, Airman honors Vanguard Brigade with mural, by MAJ Matthew Fontaine, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.