It was a change in plans, to say the least. Chris and Kim Schmitten’s expectation of a large wedding in October 2016 was derailed when Chris was told in April 2016 that he would be deployed to Iraq. “We thought we had a year to plan the wedding, but after I got called up we went to the courthouse and got married,” says Chris, a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in the Colorado National Guard. Chris was deployed from August of 2016 to July of 2017, at Fort Carson and Fort Bliss, Texas, for training and then to Iraq.
Chris, 39, a supervisor of training units for once-a-month reserve soldiers at Buckley Air Force Base, was surprised when he got the call.“I always know I can be deployed, and I knew my unit was ready to mobilize, but I had been told I wasn’t going. It turned out they needed an experienced NCO to run the platoon, so I went.”
Before 9/11, the National Guard was less-often deployed overseas. “We wear more than one hat, between helping in Colorado and in national missions,” Chris says. “Since things ramped up, it’s not a shock to get deployed overseas. If the Army needs you, you step up.”
Chris was a platoon sergeant in Iraq, in charge of 18 men and four women from Aurora. “They were an artillery unit comprised of police officers, firefighters and Costco workers,” he says.“Seventy percent were in their 20s, and one was 18. Our job was loading, cleaning and shooting the rockets, while keeping the weapons system in top shape.
“Every day I made sure my guys were emotionally and physically fit, and actively engaged in something. Some days there’s not a lot to do, so I made sure they were working on something like their schoolwork. I was like their father; they’d tell me about their issues at home and I’d listen and help them work through it. Keeping them safe was my No. 1 priority.”
Chris’ surroundings in Iraq were a far cry from Colorado. “The landscape is very different: vast, flat and lonely. It’s dangerous anytime you are in the Middle East. You have to be aware and take precautions. We were continuously training, in case something happened. We had security around the perimeter of our camps, as well as inside. The flat desert is like being out in the ocean: we could see people coming from a long distance away. I was always on guard; for over 300 days I put my platoon’s safety first. I’m glad to be home.”
He said the desert bugs were a challenge. “There are lots of bugs everywhere; I wore a scarf on my bald head because the bugs bite. The locusts are like giant grasshoppers that bite. It can be miserable. So you focus on the people. It helped that I was deployed with other Colorado people so we could talk about home and the mountains.”
Occasional barbeques gave them a break from the chow hall food. “We got tired of eating MREs [packaged, ready-to-eat meals] all the time, so we’d barbeque some ribs. It reminded us of home.”
The holidays were a difficult time. “It was tough for my guys,” said Chris. “A lot came out during the holidays. But we were like family, we got through it together.”
Kim says she was concerned for his safety. “He sheltered me; he always said he was safe. But I worried for him every day, especially when he moved around. In scarier places there was less communication. He’d tell me in code where he was, by referring to conversations we had had about those places.
“I’d see the news so I knew it was scary. At some point I stopped watching the news,” says Kim. “I didn’t even decorate because it didn’t feel like Christmas.”
Spending a year apart is a challenge for any couple, especially for newlyweds. “Our first year married, we were 5,000 miles apart,” said Chris. “It was hard to keep the newlywed vibe going, but we did.”
Communications were difficult, Chris said. “We had email and morale calls, but it took trial and error to get around the time difference. Internet connections were spotty; we got FaceTime in Kuwait but sometimes we couldn’t call or email for days.
“So, we wrote letters. It was cute to see the younger people writing love letters. Kim sent care packages with snacks and love notes. She sent the Front Porch every month. I love our community and that kept me in touch. It took me away from where I was to read about life back home.”