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A show of support: Shaw, Sumter community honor fallen airman

BY KAYLA GREEN kayla@theitem.com
Posted 7/11/20

He lived a fairytale life of travel and adventure. He took off from picturesque landscapes and helped load nuclear weapons onto military aircraft.

That life was cut short last week when First Lt. David Schmitz's F-16 crashed at Shaw Air Force …

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A show of support: Shaw, Sumter community honor fallen airman

Posted

He lived a fairytale life of travel and adventure. He took off from picturesque landscapes and helped load nuclear weapons onto military aircraft.

That life was cut short last week when First Lt. David Schmitz's F-16 crashed at Shaw Air Force Base during a training routine, killing the 32-year-old pilot who in January 2020 saw his lifelong dream of flying fulfilled when he was assigned to the Fighting Falcon and arrived at the Sumter base after a decade in the Air Force.

On Friday, fellow airmen, his commander at the 77th Fighter Squadron, his parents, his wife and other family and friends gathered the day after his funeral at a hangar on base to say goodbye one last time.

He was the "glossy brochure" of the Air Force, 77th FS Commander Lt. Col. David Bennett said. Special among a group of extremely special people.

As the service went on, mailboxes and street signs throughout Schmitz's neighborhood sported ribbons and American flags in honor of the fallen Gambler, red for his squadron's color.

"We just wanted to do something where (his wife, Valerie Schmitz,) could see when she comes home every day, she just knew she is supported," said Mimi Clipper, a neighbor who helped start the trend.

She said the Schmitzes moved into the neighborhood in January and "immediately immersed themselves into our community." Most of the little more than 100 households have some affiliation to the military, whether active duty, spouses of deployed airmen or retirees.

When the pandemic hit, Valerie offered free quarantine photoshoots to her neighbors, families she had met only a few weeks prior. The resulting photos ranged from tender family portraits to scenes laden with toilet paper, wine and Lysol. Just like the person behind the lens, Clipper said, genuine.

In the short time they got to know the two, Clipper said, "they were always a very sweet couple."

Clipper put a bucket of American flags by her mailbox for people to take and display. She said the neighborhood and the Sumter community at large has always shown support for military families, and that has been proven by the Go Fund Me accounts that have raised money since his death, the food that is dropped off for Valerie.

Clipper and her neighbors realized a lot had quickly been taken care of, so the ribbons were their communal way to show the sudden widow "she's not alone."

"Almost every single house has something," Clipper said.

That kind of community support, however big or small, is what makes Sumter stand apart, Mayor Joe McElveen said.

"It's that spontaneous showing of love and concern. No one told them to do it. It's just what people in Sumter wanted to do," he said.

Sumter's patriotism is apparent every day and has been for decades since Shaw moved in, he said, but tragedies like Schmitz's death make it even clearer.

"It makes it even more personal," McElveen said. "At the end of the day, it's the family next door that helps the spouse and children when the airman is deployed."

A physically bigger display on Friday, Schmitz's two aircraft, a C-17 and an F-16 that now has his call sign emblazoned on the side, sat outside the hangar as the crowd moved near them for two final speeches and a flyover featuring those two aircraft and the missing man formation.

"I don't know how you all do it," said his father, Brian Schmitz, referring to the call sign and noting military service sadly skipped his generation, "but on the count of three I'd like to hear, 'To MEZr.'"

Schmitz's call sign was bestowed upon him on Monday night, the night before the accident. How do you give a call sign to someone who's so good, his commander said. How do you encapsulate a top-notch pilot who sports a "ridiculous mustache," who wears a headband under his helmet and ends up with the best hair during debriefing, who buys a hat for every jet he flies?

An acronym in an acronym, "MEZ" is short for missile engagement zone. He was the MEZ ranger.

His father told the audience he loves hearing it. It's so cool.

On the count of three. One. Two. Three.

"To MEZr!"