Home for the holidays, home for good

Schmidt in the service and out
Cory Schmidt has let his hair and beard grow since returning from his deployment to Iraq this summer.
Photos by MPR and courtesy Cory Schmidt

Cory Schmidt does not look like he did two years ago, when he was training for his deployment to Iraq.

Schmidt's hair is a lot longer than an Army buzz cut. He is sporting a full beard, and he is not wearing boots or military fatigues.

Even after a few months back from Iraq, Schmidt says it is pretty strange -- albeit in a good way -- being back in Minnesota.

Schmidt back at home
Schmidt says one of his biggest challenges is figuring out how to fit back in with his four siblings. "My place in the family is a lot different than it used to be," he says.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"It's quiet, but it's very surreal. The difference in just how peaceful it is and how calm it is just makes me feel so relaxed, yet I still have kind of the anxious feelings that I did when I was overseas."

It is understandable that adjusting to life in Minnesota is a bit surreal for Schmidt. Apart from two visits home, he had been immersed in the military for nearly two years, 16 months of that time deployed to Iraq.

Schmidt lived and worked on a base about 45 miles west of Baghdad called Camp TQ. His main job involved moving patients from entry points into medical facilities.

In Minnesota, Schmidt has returned to his job prepping surgical instruments at United Hospital in St. Paul. He says working in a civilian hospital is quite a bit different than being a medic at a base in Iraq.

"In the military world, I got a lot of, 'We're doing this because we're supposed to do it and we have to do it,' and not a lot of critical thinking," says Schmidt. "As far as trying to change things on the spot and everybody having their own opinion, I'm kind of shocked back into that, like, 'Wait a second, you're speaking up against that? What are you doing? You know you're going to get in trouble.'"

Sgt. Corey Schmidt
Sgt. Cory Schmidt at Camp Shelby Mississippi in 2005, before his deployment to Iraq.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

In addition to the hospital work, Schmidt is taking classes at the University of Minnesota and Inver Hills Community College. He is working toward degrees in both economics and English. Schmidt's academics were not on hold while he was in Iraq. He took correspondence courses during his deployment.

He also kept up with his girlfriend while away, talking with her and exchanging emails almost every day. Schmidt says that relationship is going great.

It has been a little bit more of a challenge, he says, fitting back in with his three younger brothers and one younger sister.

"My place in the family is a lot different than it used to be. I'm finding that I have to kind of -- not necessarily force myself into the role I was, but find a new role that kind of fits with their little niche that they have going now," Schimdt says. "They kind of learned to function well without me, so trying to find my place is the biggest adjustment."

Schmidt feels like his reintegration is going well. But he says he is struggling with some anxiety, which he suspects is likely nothing more than the stress of deployment finally catching up with him.

"I don't understand it," Schmidt says. "My job really wasn't that dangerous over there, and I never thought that I would have underlying stress, but I'm finding myself having to deal with that. You know, a little problem sleeping," says Schmidt.

"I've made my life really, really busy because that's what I wanted to do, so I'm sure that's affecting it. But I think there's something else affecting it, maybe remnants of what I went through going there. I was really scared and sometimes I was nervous while I was there. I think that's kind of surfacing."

Back in the fall of 2005, when Schmidt was getting used to full-time military training for Iraq at a post in Mississippi, he and other soldiers talked about wanting to get to Iraq as soon as possible. The sooner they got their one year on the ground done, they explained, the sooner they would be back home.

In an interview at Camp Shelby in southern Mississippi a little more than two years ago, Schmidt talked about taking his training seriously. He also said he never imagined that he would be deployed to a war zone, having signed up for the National Guard before the Sept. 11 attacks.

He acknowledged apprehension about his upcoming trip to Iraq.

"I think about -- you know, obviously scared, worried -- hopefully I'll be able to do my job correctly," Schmidt said at the time.

The 12-month deployment ended up taking 16 months to complete because of the troop surge.

Some returning soldiers end up missing the excitement and adrenaline rush that come with living in a combat zone. They are bored at home and long to return to war. Not Cory Schmidt. He says he misses nothing about Iraq.

Schmidt says the change he has noticed most in himself is a much greater sense of independence and self-reliance.

As he reconnects with family and friends, he says most of them have a pretty good idea what he has done. The challenge seems to fall on him to figure out what everyone else has been doing.

"People change in two years. Just think about it. If anybody thinks about themselves two years ago, and how they thought and what they were doing, it's completely different from what it is two years from now. So trying to catch up with them is huge," says Schmidt.

Schmidt finished his six-year commitment with the military this week. Schmidt says he has no plans to continue on with a military career.