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Words for Life

Col. Eric Schwartz spoke at Furman Monday in an event hosted by the Military Science Department.

Col. Eric Schwartz ended his recent talk at Furman with this wide-ranging collection of advice.

  1. Decide what you stand for before you decide what you want to be.
  2. Take bold chances and risks—plan for failure, and be prepared to learn from it.
  3. Listen to old people; don’t interrupt.
  4. Give your parents a hug when they least expect it.
  5. Shake hands with people—be the first to reach out, and look them in the eye.
  6. Say “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am.”
  7. Do your part to clean up the environment; walk more and ride less.
  8. Don’t leave the water running when you brush your teeth.
  9. Do well in life, but more importantly, do good.

You can read about Col. Eric Schwartz, and eventually you’ll be able to see a piece of his life played out on the big screen. But when it comes to telling his own story, Schwartz, who recently retired from U.S. Army, uses other men’s stories to explain.

Schwartz was commander for the armored assault on Baghdad in 2003. An upcoming movie rendition of the battle may leave the impression he was a singular hero, he said. But in his mind, he was simply a member of a “team of teams”—931 fighters determined to complete their task.

“There are no words to describe their personal courage or dedication to their brother soldiers,” Schwartz said. “But I will try to find the words.”

Schwartz spoke at Furman University Monday, in a presentation hosted by the university’s Military Science Department. More than 100 people packed Patrick Lecture Hall for his talk, lining the walls to listen when the desk seats had all been filled.

Schwartz spent 30 years in the Army. The tradition of service runs deep in his family: His father was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and his grandfather served in World War I. Now his son Andrew Schwartz who is a senior at Furman, is preparing to be an Army doctor.

His career took him from Germany to Iraq to Hawaii to Thailand and beyond. He and his family moved 20 times in 30 years.

“I would have stayed 40, 50 years if I could,” Schwartz said.

The book Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad tells the story of the battle for Iraq’s capital. The movie version is in pre-production and is set to star actors Matthew McConaughey, Sam Worthington, and Gerard Butler, who will portray Schwartz.

Schwartz said the story begs a question: “Where do we get such men?”

His forces had been in Kuwait for seven months before the invasion, preparing for what was to come. In March, they began to move, engaging in five major battles as they approached the outskirts of Baghdad.

Schwartz was in a tank with SPC Ron Davis when a nearby Iraqi tank exploded, raining hot steel all around. The two men huddled for protection. Finally, Schwartz stood cautiously—but too soon. He was hit on the shoulder by smoldering debris and fell back to the floor.

“You can’t get whacked,” Davis said to Schwartz, pulling him to his feet. “We need you, you’re the boss. And don’t do that again.”

Late that same night, Schwartz remembers struggling as he told the younger soldier they’d received orders to move into the heart of the city.

Davis responded: “OK, sir. I’ll load more machine gun ammunition.”

He walked away, then turned back. “’Hey, sir, we’re gonna be OK.’ He comforted my weary mind with those very simple words,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz also told about a Marine sergeant who ran into the line of fire moments after artillery fell. The man jumped into a crater and made rapid measurements, then dashed back to safety before the next rounds fell. Using crater analysis, he helped pinpoint where the fire was coming from. The threat was eliminated.

Schwartz said a young first lieutenant led Thunder Run from a tank hatch. In the movie version, Butler-as-Schwarz will at one point charge to the front, leading the group forward at a crucial moment. But that’s a piece of Hollywood drama, Schwartz said.

“The fact is, Bobby [Ball] led the entire way, from the front and . . . he fought fully exposed, out of his hatch,” he said.

He told of a combat engineer who, with his team, was clearing a minefield in comparative safety by lassoing mines. The painstaking work took about 30 minutes per mine. But the team had just five hours for about 400 mines.

Schwartz made one of the hardest calls of his career: it was time to stop with the lassoes and simply go out and clear the mines by hand. The young engineer and his team moved without hesitation, picking each mine up gently, like a warm apple pie.

“Bravery doesn’t mean you aren’t scared,” Schwartz said. “It just means you go anyway.”

And he told finally of SSG Stephon Booker, who died while firing his hand-held machine gun from the top of his tank. The enemy was so close that no other weapon was effective. Booker had a mouthful of braces—could have been mistaken for a high school student—but he led his men with courage and by example, knowing they would continue the fight if he fell.

“America’s in great hands,” Schwartz said. “It’s in the calloused hands of 18- to 28-year-olds … they will never, ever let you down.”

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