Thursday, December 02, 1999

Parents want 'real facts'


Son died during Air Force basic training

BY EARNEST WINSTON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Julie and Michael Schindler display a photo of their son.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        Micah Schindler's camouflage Air Force uniform and dirty black boots sit neatly by the fireplace. The nearly three-month-old message his parents never wanted to hear about their son remains on the answering machine.

        His smile brightens his many photos inside the house in St. Bernard's Angels Way subdivision.

        “I guess it helps us. I just know we miss him when we look at his pictures. Looking at his smile reminds us of how fun he was to have around,” said his father, Mike Schindler.

        The 18-year-old Roger Bacon graduate died Sept. 12, two days after he collapsed during a basic training exercise at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

micah schindler
Micah Schindler
        A recent report by the Air Force said Airman Basic Schindler died of heat stroke complicated by a rare medical condition known as water intoxication, which is caused by drinking too much water.

        Air Force officials at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, the headquarters for air education and training command, have begun an investigation to determine whether anyone is at fault in Airman Schindler's death.

        Micah Schindler's parents say they don't think the Air Force has shared all of the information it has surrounding their son's death. They also say they have received conflicting information.

        “We just feel that they're trying to water down the real facts about what happened,” said Julie Schindler, a registered nurse. “This isn't just about Micah. We think there was an environment of intimidation and total disregard for all those kids.”

        Air Force officials will not answer specific questions, saying their investigation continues.

        But in the wake of Micah Schindler's death, the Air Force is re-examining its basic-training procedures. Changes include:

        • Pushing the start of a march from 2 p.m. to 8 a.m., when the weather is cooler.

        • Increasing instruction about the symptoms of heat-related illness and the risks of over-hydration.

        • Implementing better procedures to help training instructors and medical personnel monitor the medical status of trainees.

        • Increasing efforts to encourage trainees to identify their own problems or those of fellow trainees.

        • Implementing automatic removal of trainees with certain medical symptoms from field exercises.

        The Schindlers, meanwhile, are sending letters to thank elected officials, including Rep. Steve Chabot and U.S. Sens. George Voinovich and Mike DeWine, seeking their continued support in the effort to ensure military officials are held accountable for their son's death.

        Several weeks ago, the family mailed about 60 letters to lawmakers in Washington asking for pressure on the Air Force to find out whether anyone is responsible for their son's death. Mr. Schindler said he and his wife met with Mr. DeWine on Wednesday in Cincinnati. Mr. DeWine promised he would continue to help the family in their pursuit of justice, the family said.

        Also, Micah's girlfriend, Ericka Schmits, said she is working with the Schindlers to post billboards around the Tristate displaying the airman's picture and a message saying, “Are you dying to serve your country?” The message would ask residents to write their congressmen about fair treatment in the military.

        If there is anything positive to come of Micah's death, his parents say, it is their son's decision to have most of his organs donated so that others can live.

A sense of humor
        Family and friends say Micah Schindler had a sense of humor, often imitating his teachers, TV character Homer Simpson and actor Jim Carrey. He knew just the right time to joke about someone or something, particularly at family gatherings or in class.

        He was usually quiet in classes, but very witty. His facial expressions “would crack up the whole class,” said American government teacher Jim Swedenburg.

        “I didn't know anyone who didn't like him.”

        At the end of his senior school year, Mr. Swedenburg gave Micah an award for making people laugh. He boasted about one day becoming a famous entertainer.

        He also loved music, collecting more than 200 compact discs. He played the guitar since he was 12 and played the trumpet for three years at Roger Bacon.

        “He always had some sort of grin on his face,” said Adam Barton, of North Avondale, who met Micah in seventh grade at St. Clement School. “He would always try to make you feel better when you were down.”

        Ericka, a junior at Roger Bacon, said her boyfriend wanted to be famous.

        “He had these huge aspirations and he was constantly working toward these goals for himself,” said Ericka, who is best friends with Micah's sister, Leah. “He was such a determined person. He was really compassionate, loving and very thoughtful. He always just made me feel awesome.”

        At the St. Bernard Walgreens photo lab where Micah worked for 21/2 years before basic training, he was a favorite among customers in this tight-knit community, store manager Joe Handorf said.

Paying for college
        When the Schindlers first suggested Micah go to the Air Force for basic training for the Air National Guard, their son was reluctant. After all, he wanted to be a famous entertainer.

        “He didn't really want to go at first. He didn't want to leave everybody. He cried a lot with me, telling me he didn't want to go,” said Ericka, who lives in Springfield Township. “He decided in the end, it was the best thing. He was really determined to make it through the Air Force.”

        He warmed up to the idea after realizing that the service could be his ticket to college.

        He mapped out a plan: nine months in the Air Force, return home, enroll in the University of Cincinnati, study computer science and marry Ericka. He even gave her a promise ring.

        The night before her son was scheduled to leave for basic training in August, Mrs. Schindler neatly packed his suitcase with clothes and other items on a list supplied by the Air Force.

        While packing, she told him how much she would miss him and began to sob. Micah told his mother not to worry, because he planned to take care of himself.

        “I knew I was sending off a little boy, and I was getting back a man,” said Mrs. Schindler. “We trusted that it would be the right thing to do. Never did we realize that it would be deadly.”

        Micah's parents arrived home late Sept. 10, only to find the message on their answering machine. They immediately called military officials and learned Micah was very ill and that he might not live long enough for them to get there. The next morning, about a dozen relatives and Ericka flew to San Antonio.

        He had collapsed near the end of a four-hour march, which took trainees on a 5.8-mile stretch over gravel roads and hilly terrain. The trainees wore battle-dress uniforms, hats, web belts with canteens and camouflage face paint. They carried dummy M-16s.

        For an unknown reason, Air Force officials said, Airman Schindler wore a winter-weight uniform, which made it more difficult for his perspiration to evaporate. Trainees sat in the sun about an hour before the march, which went from 2 to 6 p.m., during the hottest part of the day.

        Micah died on Sept. 12, five days before trainees were supposed to graduate, and 14 days before his 19th birthday. As a member of the Ohio Air National Guard, Micah was looking forward to carrying the Ohio flag during graduation.

        Air Force officials say they were never fully aware of Micah's medical condition, which included upper respiratory symptoms and a possible sinus infection. They admitted they missed opportunities to intervene.

        The Schindlers say that's no excuse for what happened. The Air Force should have known how sick Micah was and should have given him proper and quick medical attention when he got sick on the march, they say. Now, the Schindlers say, they will work to ensure justice is served.

        “One thing is to make sure this doesn't happen to anybody else. And the thing I'm most interested in is that the people who caused this be held accountable for their actions,” said Mr. Schindler, a sergeant with the St. Bernard Police Department.

        “We're going to go as far as we can possibly go until there's nothing else we can do.”

       



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