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He was a hotshot, at least as far as credentials were concerned. After growing up in St. Louis, where he starred in soccer at St. John Vianney High School, he won acceptance to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the country’s premier navy institution. After graduating, not only was he eventually invited to attend the navy’s Top Gun school in San Diego; he returned as an instructor at that famed institution. Same thing in the air force, where he taught at its version of Top Gun. “He was obviously very talented,” says a longtime friend who attended the Naval Academy with Schmidt and flew with him in San Diego. “He’s smart; he’s disciplined. He was an excellent pilot.”
But in the days after the April 17, 2002, incident, Schmidt’s background served as an indictment, not a defense. In op-ed pieces, in columns, in letters to the editor and news stories-particularly those coming out of Canada-people seized on the Top Gun stereotype, calling Schmidt everything from a “jet jockey” who was “out for blood” to a “remorseless prick.”
Plenty of pilots-especially Top Gun pilots-reinforce the image. In and around the school (now located near Reno, Nevada), they stride the streets like gods-tanned, fit, young, cocky-trophies for the pilot groupies who like to frequent the off-base bars with dreams of landing a fighter pilot with officer upside and Tom Cruise pecs.
Schmidt’s wife, Lisa, whom he married in 1996, insists he was never like that. If he had been, she says, they never would have met and certainly wouldn’t have married. It took him months of dating before he would even acknowledge what he really did. Eventually, she cornered him: “So what exactly do you do?” she demanded. “I’m a Top Gun instructor,” he admitted. By the time he was deployed to Afghanistan in March of 2002, he was the father of two, a 36-year-old homeowner living an unremarkable life.
Not that Schmidt wasn’t confident. You don’t rise to the top of a cutthroat food chain by being timid. Harry Schmidt was not timid. That became clear during one of his first training missions. A flight instructor had ordered him to bank his aircraft and put his wing next to a nearby jet. Schmidt aggressively swooped over, aligning his wing perfectly, demonstrating not only a precise control of the craft but also a boldness born of an audacious belief in his own ability. The next day, the instructor jokingly warned another teacher to be careful flying with Schmidt. “He’s a psycho,” the instructor said. The name stuck and became his call sign. For years, he wore it as a badge of honor. Until that night. Then, particularly after the Canadian press found out, he wished they had called him anything else.
He flew with the navy, then for a time with the air force. But he and his wife tired of the constant moving that is the bane of all military families. The Illinois National Guard was a perfect fit, offering him a full-time position in mission planning. The Springfield base brought him and Lisa closer to his parents in St. Louis and her relatives in Wisconsin. Before a week had passed in his new home, however, new orders landed on his desk. He was headed to the Persian Gulf, to active duty, to the night it all happened.
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