Herb Schmeling was no slouch during his 30 years in the Army. He worked as a geodetic surveyor – a mapmaker – and retired as a command sergeant major.
But he really got down to work when he retired.
On Friday, the USO will honor him as its top volunteer nationwide.
At the end of the month, the Association of the United States Army will award him the Sergeant Major of the Army William G. Bainbridge Award for Excellence.
The AUSA gives the medal to an active or retired noncommissioned officer “who has devoted a lifetime of selfless service to our Army, the NCO Corps and to the local community.”
When Carleen Joseph, Fort Lewis AUSA president, submitted her just-the-facts nomination form, it was 11 pages.
“Herb Schmeling’s volunteering has impacted almost every aspect of military life from one end of Puget Sound to another with one agency/organization or another,” she wrote. “Give him an issue, and he will find a solution.”
Between the USO and the AUSA, Schmeling volunteers 60 to 80 hours a week.
He grew up in Hillsboro, Ore., the youngest of five children. He was a senior at Portland State University, majoring in history but fascinated by geology, when he was hit by two life-changing events.
He noticed a lovely student named LaVerta Morgus while he was working at a bowling alley. And he got his draft notice.
“I decided perhaps I wanted to choose my occupation in the military,” he said.
He brought up the geology to his recruiter, who thought there might be a place for him in topography.
It was a fortunate decision.
The war in Vietnam was struggling toward its conclusion when he went on active duty in February 1971.
He was sent to Germany instead of the dying war. LaVerta, too, went to Germany for graduate studies. They kept in touch, visited and, on May 25, 1973, married.
As his career took the family from Germany to Virginia, Texas, Hawaii and Washington state, he noticed the USO only occasionally, but always pleasantly.
He stepped in to a USO site near a bus stop in Washington, D.C., once, and asked what they did.
“They said, ‘We’re here for you.’ I thought that was kind of neat,” he said.
After he retired in 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks, he thought of the USO again.
Troops were deploying to Afghanistan, and he wanted to be there for them.
He started with hot dogs.
He and LaVerta, who live in Graham, bought them by the thousands to serve to outbound troops at the USO’s site at McChord Field.
He moved on to Girl Scout cookies, picking up, delivering and passing out 18,000 to 35,000 boxes donated through Operation Cookie Drop each year.
He solicits goodies for and puts together care packages to give deploying soldiers at the gate.
In 2009, Joseph said, he “personally bid farewell to over 15,000 personnel from all services deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Middle of the day or middle of the night, he’s there in his plaid flannel shirt wishing them good luck and safe return.
“For me, it’s a passion,” Schmeling said. “It’s a mission. If I didn’t do it, who would do it?”
At Fisher House on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, he plans events and solicits donations for them, Each fall he drums up pledges for the Combined Federal Campaign. He volunteers with the Tragedy Assistance Program.
He works info booths at Family Empowerment fairs and serves on the Fort Lewis Retiree Council. He sets up chairs for fundraisers and has been known to do banquet centerpieces.
He’s always looking for backers for his dream project, a Reflection Park on JBLM.
At 62, he sees no reason to take it easy and every reason to step it up.
“I have this philosophy: If I can help a person, I’ll do it,” he said.
He owes it, he said, to the men and women of our volunteer army.
“A USO volunteer is a common person doing common things for extraordinary people,” he said. “The day you put on that uniform, you earned a ticket every day to the USO.”
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/street