Highly educated Marine values role on front line
GARMSIR DISTRICT, Afghanistan — Marine Capt. Nicholas Schmitz uses a plastic bag for a toilet, showers in foul-smelling well water and often leads his platoon on patrol on the front line in the war against the Taliban.
And, for fun, he was recently reading Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.”
Schmitz is a study in contrasts. But then, what would you expect from someone who went from being a high school dropout to a Rhodes Scholar?
Asked why he prefers being a captain in the Marine Corps to being a captain of industry, Schmitz said: “Job satisfaction. I mean, really, out here you go to bed at night knowing you did something, most days.”
An Oxford University graduate who holds a master’s degree in philosophy, Schmitz, 28, of Bethesda, Md., is now the commanding officer of the 1st Platoon for the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines Company E, stationed at Patrol Base Hernandez in Garmsir district in Helmand province.
For Schmitz, Wittgenstein exemplifies the warrior scholar.
“One of the reasons I brought [the book] out here was because he was an Austrian who fought in World War I, and he wrote that thesis while he was in combat,” he said. “So, he puts me to shame.”
Schmitz said he dropped out of high school at the beginning of his junior year at the age of 17, adding that he was essentially kicked out of a couple private schools along the way.
“The private ones, they just recommended that I not come back,” he said. “It was just general trouble-making. Nothing malicious. No police record or anything, but just always making trouble.”
Schmitz joined the Marines within a couple of weeks of dropping out. He eventually started attending community college at night, earned his general equivalency diploma, got into the Naval Academy Prep School and, ultimately, won admission to the Naval Academy, where he graduated second in his class.
During his senior year, he was offered a Rhodes Scholarship, which led him to Oxford for two years before he returned to the Marines and, eventually, to Afghanistan, where he has been for about two months.
Schmitz said his military plans were not a big topic of conversation among his Oxford classmates.
“We would be at pub nights in England, and you’d be talking about politics, religion or the world,” he said. “It wasn’t something that came up.”
Schmitz said he managed to keep his academic pedigree a secret from most of his fellow Marines for almost a year. But then, a couple of months before they were deployed, “One of them came up to me one day and said they Googled me and the secret got out.”
One of the Googlers, Sgt. Albert Tippett, 23, of Warrenton, Va., said Schmitz does not usually act like an intellectual, but sometimes he cannot help himself.
“Every once in awhile, he’ll say a word that myself and a few Marines are like, ‘Uh, what’s that, sir? Speak our level,’ ” Tippett said. “And, then he’ll break it down for us.”
Said Schmitz: “The other officers joke around and call me ‘Oxford,’ usually when they’re making fun of me for saying something stupid.”
From day to day, his platoon might find itself engaging the enemy in firefights and clearing IEDs or building relationships with the local Afghans in an effort to win their support.
Looking ahead, Schmitz said he might like to teach at the Naval Academy.
“I have no idea how long I’ll be in the Marines,” he said. “I’m sure my wife’s not too happy about this [assignment]. But I say, ‘Just wait and see how this one goes and we’ll go from there.’ ”
Schmitz’s wife, Berenika, said that when she met him at Oxford, “The Marine Corps was far from my reality, and I feel blessed that it is now a part of my life.
“I think Nicholas is one of those special kind of men who would succeed at anything he put his mind to, and the Marine Corps is where he is using his amazing talents, education and training,” she said.