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Closing the circle

After 44 years, Kristy Schnabel uncovers the story behind the name on her POW/MIA bracelet


SUBMITTED PHOTO: LARRY SCHNABEL - It was a wonderful day when Kristy Schnabel presented her POW bracelet to the family of Col. Norm Schmidt. From left are Marie Schmidt, Norman Schmidt Garrett and Schnabel.Lake Oswego’s Kristy Schnabel didn’t know much about the Vietnam War when she and her mother ordered POW/MIA bracelets in 1971. And all she knew about the name on her bracelet was that Col. Norman Schmidt had been captured by the North Vietnamese on Sept. 1, 1966.

“It became a fad, like wearing pink ribbons for breast cancer,” Schnabel says of the nickel-plated bands. More than 5 million were distributed across the country between 1970 and 1976.

“Mother and I ordered bracelets. Mine was for a POW. Hers was for a soldier missing in action,” Schnabel says. “My bracelet was like a billboard you drive past all the name. The name was imprinted on my brain.”

But Schnabel never learned the fate of Norman Schmidt, and when the war ended, she put the bracelet — and its painful memories — aside.

“I didn’t want to face that unhappy issue,” she says.

She stored the bracelet in a safe deposit box, she says, if only because she takes after her father.

“Dad is a pack rat,” Schnabel says, “and so am I.”

She says she wondered what had happened to the prisoner of war from time to time. But for 44 years, the story of the bracelet remained a mystery.

Until a month ago.

That’s when Schnabel, through a most unusual chain of events, met with Schmidt’s widow and presented the bracelet to his namesake, look-alike grandson Norman Schmidt Garrett, who had long been searching for a memento of his grandfather.

“My grandson is an absolute carbon copy of Norm,” Marie Schmidt said this week from her home in Southern California. “He even smiles like him. It’s so funny. He used to wear an imitation POW bracelet all the time, even at his wedding, but then he lost it at a hotel. It was such a gift for Kristy to give the genuine bracelet to him. It was really a thrill for him.”

SUBMITTED PHOTO: LARRY SCHNABEL - The POW bracelet once worn by Kristy Schnabel is now worn on the wrist of the Norman Garrett Schmidt, the grandson of the late Col. Norman Schmidt, who was killed in Vietnam in 1967.

It was a thrill for Schnabel, too, who set out to learn more about the name on her bracelet when she and her husband Larry took their niece and nephew to Washington, D.C., last summer. While in the nation’s capital, they visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and found Schmidt’s name engraved on the wall.

She held up her bracelet to his name, and had her husband take a photo.

Schnabel also finally learned about Schmidt’s tragic fate. He was beaten to death by his captors almost exactly a year after his F-104 Starfighter was shot down, and was buried in the prison camp graveyard. His family was not notified about his death until 1974.

Returning home to Lake Oswego, Schnabel decided to write a blog about the emotional experience. She also knew she wanted to know more.

“I thought I would do a search on Norman Schmidt’s name,” Schnabel says.

That search led to a story in The Desert Sun newspaper about the dedication last November of an F-104 fighter jet in Norman Schmidt’s memory — and to a happy surprise.

“I found Marie Schmidt would be dedicating the plane,” Schnabel says. “She was alive! That was my amazing moment.”

Readers of Schnabel’s blog insisted that she had to contact Schmidt’s widow. Schnabel got no response on her first efforts, so she made a call to the Palm Springs Air Museum, where the dedication had taken place. Her message was passed along to Bob Lilac, a docent at the museum.

“When Bob Lilac called, it gave me chills,” Schnabel says. “At that moment, I knew I was going to get the bracelet to Marie Schmidt.”

Lilac, it turns out, is a retired Air Force colonel. He had served in Schmidt’s tactical fighter squadron in 1966, and had been on the search team that went looking for Schmidt after his plane crashed in North Vietnam.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Kristy Schnabel is shown as she was in 1971, the year when she decided to get in on the fad of wearing POW bracelets to remember American prisoners in North Vietnam.

“The bad guys got there first,” Lilac says. But he was very much interested in Schnabel’s bracelet.

“Bob Lilac made it all very real for me,” Schnabel says. “When it’s just a name on a bracelet, it’s very abstract.”

Originally, Schnabel intended to simply mail the bracelet to Marie Schmidt, but the readers of her blog changed her mind.

“They said, ‘You HAVE to do it,’” Schnabel says. “It was a kick in the pants from the business community. I had to take the final step. Boy, am I glad I did.”

In short order, Lilac arranged for Schnabel, her husband and her father and stepmother to travel to Palm Springs for a special event on Feb. 20 at the museum. There, she thought she would present her bracelet to Norman Schmidt’s widow.

But standing next to the jet that had been dedicated in Col. Schmidt’s honor, Marie Schmidt asked Schnabel to give the bracelet instead to her grandson, who accepted it with overwhelming gratitude.

“This was the real McCoy. The original,” Schnabel says. “His face lit up. I could tell he was delighted and he wore it proudly.

“The whole occasion was electric, exhilarating and magical,” she adds. “I felt so much love all around. I realized that so much serendipity was necessary for all this to happen.”

Schnabel’s gesture was immensely important to the Schmidt family.

“Norm’s sacrifice was absolutely huge,” Marie Schmidt said. “Yet all of the years have gone by and you think he won’t be remembered. But then there was the dedication of the F-104 at the museum, and it had his name on it in big letters. And now my grandson has his POW bracelet.”

She says she is especially happy for her grandson, who worships his grandfather to this day. And she is thrilled, too, that after so many years of heartache, she had a day of joy in which she could take pride in the legacy of her husband.

“Norm was an absolutely super guy,” Marie Schmidt says. “We had five children, who were the ages of 2 to 13 when he was captured. Our kids have all done really well. Their dad is still in them. For him to be remembered 49 years later, it’s wonderful.”

Contact Cliff Newell at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or cnewell@lakeoswegoreview.com.

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