The family of a Marine who lost his life during a final mission in war-torn Afghanistan has created a retreat space for warriors to address service member mental health issues and honor their son.
On Aug. 26, 2021, a terrorist detonated a suicide bomb at the Kabul Airport, killing 13 U.S. service members, including. Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz.
“He was actually kind of shy, but anybody who spent any amount of time with him gravitated to him because of his personality. Once he got to know you it was on,” said Jared’s father, Mark Schmitz. “I can’t tell you how many people have called him his best friend because that’s just how close they got to him very quickly.”
When he was a sophomore in high school, Jared began to seriously discuss enlisting in the military. By the following year, he was training to become a Marine and shipped off shortly after graduating.
“He really found himself even before he went to boot camp,” said his stepmother, Jaclyn Schmitz. “You could see so much personal growth in him, and he was so proud to be going in this direction.”
‘The knock at our door’
As the war in Afghanistan began to wind down, with a pull-out day announced, Jared’s scheduled combat deployment was canceled.
The Taliban quickly retook most of the country within weeks as U.S. forces began their withdrawal. Panicked Afghans feared for their lives and poured into the airport in an effort to evacuate.
Jared’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, unit was tasked with holding the line for the humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan. When the bomb went off, Mark and Jaclyn weren’t worried. They’d both spoken to Jared after a particularly long 96-hour shift, and Jared told them he and the guys would be on the airstrip next.
“Then came the knock at our door at 2:40 a.m.,” Mark said.
Jared was killed alongside a Navy corpsman, a soldier and 10 other Marines. Reports indicate military leadership at the airport became aware of security concerns and a potential attack. Despite the risk, the rescue mission continued. Less than an hour after the brief, the suicide bomb detonated at Abbey Gate.
“It’s so senseless. It didn’t need to happen and it shouldn’t have happened,” Mark said. “For me it just feels like there’s no closure from this.”
READ: Emotions high for families of service members killed in Afghanistan
But Mark said his Christian faith has helped his family through their grief.
“It’s given us the strength from within to pick ourselves up every day,” he said. “Knowing that he’s around us constantly. I see signs all the time.”
A clear mission
In the weeks following Jared’s death, condolences and checks continued to arrive.
“It didn’t seem right. How could we accept this money from Jared’s death? We didn’t know what to do,” Jaclyn said. “There [were] so many mixed emotions at that point. But we knew we wanted to start a nonprofit, but we just didn’t know what the mission was yet.”
Through spending time with Jared’s fellow Marines, seeing some of their troubles in the aftermath of the bombing and hearing about several suicides within the battalion, the mission became clear.
Freedom 13 was born from a desire to offer sanctuary to America’s warriors, starting with 2.5 acres of riverfront property in their home-state of Missouri. The nonprofit will provide homes for troops, post-traumatic stress support, recreational retreats and service dogs, according to its website.
Though building has not yet commenced, the plans are to create around 20 housing structures for veterans and their families.
“There’ll be a lot of camaraderie going on there,” Mark said. “A lot of guys that don’t know each other. One guy may be from the Navy, Coast Guard, Marine, whatever, sitting around the campfire, just sharing stories, and hopefully, leaning on one another.”
In February 2022, the nonprofit held its first pub crawl fundraiser in honor of what would have been Jared’s 21st birthday. What started as a local event spread throughout the country, with nearly 200 bars and pubs in 25 states participating.
“We received so much support for it that we’ll be doing it annually. He’ll be 21 forever,” Mark said.
Creating the sanctuary space is just the beginning, they said. Both dream of offering similar retreats across the country. It’s a legacy they hope Jared would be proud of.
“The Freedom 13 stands for free and we want people to have that freedom to just check out for a week and reboot,” Mark said. “Doing this nonprofit has, for me personally, been so therapeutic because it’s given me purpose. It gives me a reason to wake up every day, beyond just taking care of a family and going to work and doing the things I have to do. I’m doing it all and for the love of my son. It helps me remember all the good and I just feel like he’s still here.”