When he heard he was deploying to Afghanistan with the 25th Infantry Division in 2004, Maj. Todd Schmidt focused on his mission, but he also immediately began planning how he could help the impoverished Afghan people. That desire became Operation Dreamseed, a nonprofit organization that has distributed hundreds of tons of school supplies to local children.
Monday he was recognized by the United Service Organization and Microsoft Corp. with the Above and Beyond Award in the Everyday Difference category. The awards recognize the contributions of American citizens who brighten the lives of U.S. troops around the world.
Now stationed at the Pentagon as a budget analyst, Schmidt logs about 20 hours each week volunteering for his nonprofit organization, ensuring donated backpacks full of pens, paper, crayons, toys and candy make it to Soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq and even Kosovo, who then distribute the supplies to local schoolchildren.
“When we would drive into these villages, you’d see these kids running around bare-faced, in torn clothes, dirt smeared on their faces, hair all unkempt. And you’re like, man, these guys are in a bad condition here,” Schmidt said. “All that goes away when you give them school supplies; they just get this smile that beams from ear-to-ear. It’s a transformation that you’d really like to see take place, because they walk away, and they’re so proud to go home with this backpack that they’re going to be able to take to school with them every day now.”
A lot of the credit, Schmidt said, goes to the kind Americans who sent his unit hundreds of care packages each week. The Soldiers always wrote thank-you notes, and said even though they appreciated the packages very much, they had everything they needed.
They would ask their supporters to send school supplies for the Afghan children instead, many of whom had to attend school in tents.
The overwhelming response the unit received quickly evolved into Operation Dreamseed, which even helped build a school in Kandahar City by raising $80,000.
When it was time to leave Afghanistan, Schmidt said their replacing unit was eager to take on the project, and servicemembers from other units and services quickly became involved.
“They knew that it would help them to build good will and relations with the villages they would be patrolling in every day,” Schmidt said. “When the Soldiers are over there, passing out school supplies, interacting with the community, there’s a trust that begins to build there, a bond. You visit these villages over and over again and you can’t just go there and ask for information or expect them to provide you with things that you need. You have to give to them as well.
“You see a lot of these Soldier-initiated activities, whether it’s to collect winter clothes, to collect shoes,” he said. “There are some amazing things Soldiers are doing over there, and it’s having very real impact at the tactical level on how these units are able to build relationships with the community.”
When Schmidt heard about the Above and Beyond Awards, which included a stay at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City and a special performance of the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, he e-mailed Operation Dreamseed supporters and encouraged them to nominate anyone they thought was making a difference for Soldiers.
He just didn’t think they would nominate him, and he never expected to win during the public, online vote.
“It’s pretty humbling because if you look at the other people who won, they’ve achieved amazing things,” Schmidt said. “There’s a sister and a brother that have literally raised over a million dollars to help Soldiers pay for their phone bills and issue calling cards to Soldiers. That’s a phenomenal effort. There’s a Vietnam-helicopter pilot who’s logged hundreds and hundreds of hours flying family members to see their injured loved ones. You think about being thrown in with people who make this sort of sacrifice and it’s really humbling.”
For additional information about Operation Dreamseed, visit http://www.operationdreamseed.org.
Fort Belvoir Eagle, November 8, 2007
By Elizabeth M. Lorge, Army News Service