Medal of Honor
Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.
Photo courtesy of Dr. David Schmidt
A sniper's bullet adorns the neck of a proud, heartbroken father. The pendant -- known as a "Hog's Tooth -- is both a gift and a symbol, a reminder of a son's promise and sacrifice that shines through the horror of war.
Marine Lance Cpl. Benjamin W. Schmidt endured months of training in sniper school, capped by a 22-mile hike through tear gas and a 700-foot climb, to earn that .308 bullet necklace. He did not want to part with it.
Just before his second deployment to Afghanistan in September, Schmidt, 24, wrote detailed instructions on what to do with his money, clothes and personal effects if he did not return. The young Marine told his father, Spurs physician David Schmidt, that he wanted to be buried at Fort Sam Houston with his Hog's Tooth.
David gently asked if he could have the bullet. Benjamin agreed. Dad hasn't taken it off since the funeral. …
Helmand claimed more U.S. military casualties -- 181 -- in 2010 than any other Afghan province. Benjamin lost his life there in October the next year. While trying to locate a Taliban sharpshooter outside a village, he was hit by friendly fire.
The anguish of his death was felt around the world. A Wall Street Journal reporter embedded with Benjamin's battalion wrote about the shooting and its aftermath. His grief stricken mother in Arkansas, Becky Whetstone, recalled a son who drew pictures of soldiers as a little boy. In San Antonio, classmates from Alamo Heights High School remembered a friend who played cornerback on the Mules' football team.
Then there was his second family. The Silver and Black. Benjamin had been around the Spurs for most of his life, since his dad became a team doctor almost 20 years ago. Tim Duncan and David Robinson attended Benjamin's funeral. So did Sean Elliott. Avery Johnson called from the East Coast to offer condolences.
Everyone had a story, a memory, a moment to cherish. Benjamin's father had a sniper's bullet, and something else: a treasure that would turn tear-stained faces into smiles.
During one of their last conversations, Benjamin made an unusual request. If he didn't survive his second tour of Afghanistan, he asked that $200,000 of his $400,000 life insurance policy go toward a TCU scholarship (the remainder would go to his mother).
"He had all these stipulations on the scholarship," David says. "The money had to go to a graduate student in the department of history. The student had to have a 3.0 grade point average and a record of community service. I asked, 'Why?' He said, 'Because I will not invest in a freshman like I was.'"
Benjamin did not take his first two semesters at TCU seriously. "He went and partied," David says. After a third semester at TCU, he joined the Marines. Completion of sniper school made Benjamin a "Hog" or a "Hunter of Gunmen."
The discipline of military service anchored Benjamin and made him rethink school. He wanted to go back, study history and become a professor. He had fallen in love with the Marines, with learning and with a girl in California, Taylor Ryan.
His future was promising light and sobering shadow. Before departing for Afghanistan, the Marines issued him a 30-page document. Inside were instructions to gather insurance policy numbers, bank account numbers and other important papers and pieces of identification.
When Benjamin presented the scholarship plan to his father, David said he would match it. Hundreds of others have donated, raising the fund to more than $465,000. The first award -- worth $25,000 -- will be given next fall. Interest from the principal will sustain the scholarship. "It will go on forever," David says.
Benjamin's ties to the Spurs run deep. He began hanging out in the locker room at age 6. He was there before Duncan arrived in 1997, before Gregg Popovich became head coach in 1996. He was at the AT&T Center in 2003 when the Spurs defeated the New Jersey Nets in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. "He got to hold the championship trophy," David recalls.
After returning from his first tour of Afghanistan in 2010, Benjamin accompanied the Spurs to a preseason game in Mexico City. On the trip, he shared a beer with Tim Duncan. Life was good.
A minister once said a person is not defined by the date of his birth or death -- but by the small hyphen in between. Benjamin W. Schmidt lived a big life in a short time. He could have written a book, and just about did. His father found an 86-page journal, detailing his first tour in Afghanistan. "A fascinating read," David says.
Benjamin described shootings and bombings and defending his fellow Marines. One entry began, "I killed a man today."
David's son never became a teacher. But without knowing it, he taught many how to live. When Benjamin went off to war, he left two lasting gifts: one to benefit TCU, the other to bless his dad.
Now you know why David wears a bullet around his neck. It's his son's medal of honor.