For mourning dad, first duty is to his family
June 21 was not a good day for Lt. Col. Eric O. Schacht.
It wasn’t a good day for his unit, the “Blue Spaders” of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, which he commanded. It wasn’t a good day for his family, which was scattered on three continents.
It was a day punctuated by makeshift bombs, which claimed a number of casualties. In the worst incident, five of the unit’s soldiers were killed when one such bomb detonated near their Bradley fighting vehicle.
Another Germany-based soldier from a different unit was killed on her way to provide what aid she could to the occupants of the stricken vehicle.
It was a day the battalion’s chaplain stood in the unit’s operations center in Baghdad and said loud enough for everyone to hear, “Enough. Enough. There has been enough of this day.”
Then came the final kick in the gut.
Before the day was over, news came that Schacht’s 15-year-old son, Justin, was found dead in the family’s on-post house in Schweinfurt, Germany.
His wife and younger son, Brian, were in the United States on vacation. His daughter, Meagan, was also in the States on summer break from Georgia Southern University.
Justin Schacht, who had returned to Schweinfurt from a trip to Italy with his church youth group earlier in the day, died alone.
He was staying with a close family friend and neighbor as he waited to start the summer hire program, Schacht said. After he returned from Italy, he went home to complete a list of chores his mom had left for him: pick up some milk, get the dog from a neighbor’s house, unpack from his trip.
When he was done with his errands he sat down to watch television. Then he passed away.
There was no sign of a struggle or that he suffered. The autopsy at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center was inconclusive as to what caused the boy’s death.
More than two months later, the Schacht family is still looking for answers. Schacht suspects an aneurism. Investigators give him updates every 30 days, but there’s been no news that will help bring closure.
The death of his oldest son pulled Schacht from the front lines, and forced him to make a difficult choice, one that he characterizes as a choice between two families: He could stay with his own family, the one he made, in relative safety; or he could return to his unit, the family the Army gave him, in Iraq.
It’s been two months since he faced that choice, and though he made up his mind with both families’ best interests weighed carefully, he still struggles with his decision.
He’s now at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., serving in a temporary job until he starts school there next year.
It was a difficult decision not to return to Iraq, he said by phone Wednesday, “but I felt it was best for both my family and the task force because I don’t think I would have been able to focus on what needed to be focused on in Iraq and be at 100 percent for my soldiers.”
Because he was with the unit in Iraq for almost a year, he knows what dangers they face and knows that they aren’t due home until the end of October, he knew the mission required any commander’s full attention.
“And I just couldn’t leave, after what had happened; I just couldn’t leave my son and my wife again,” he said.
His former unit has supported his decision. He remains in close contact with some of them, including the unit’s new commander — his former executive officer. He has also received messages from Blue Spaders of all ranks.
The messages bring some level of comfort, but they also have an unintended effect.
“It leaves a lot of angst, because part of me wants to be back there with them,” he said.
“In a way, I feel like I’ve abandoned one of my families, but I felt like it was the only thing that I could do that would be good for both of those families.”