He was fresh out of the Naval Academy in 1972 when Ensign Schmidt stepped onto the USS Fairfax County (LST-1193). And got a lesson he never forgot.
“The real wake up call,” he says, “was when it was time for me to rotate out of the Operations Department to the Deck Department.”
Wes’s Department Head had suddenly taken ill and was rushed to the hospital. And that’s when it happened.
“The Captain looked at me,” Wes says, “and he told me, ‘You’re the acting Department Head. I hope you’re ready for this.’”
Wes was floored. Suddenly, he was in charge of nine people in his Department – nine people looking to him for all the answers. A Lieutenant Junior Grade at the time, he’d been in the Navy a little over a year. “That was a surprise,” he says, laughing. “I sailed as the Department Head.”
Wes’s 22-year Navy career had begun. He became a Surface Warfare Officer and served on amphibious ships, destroyers, and battle group staffs afloat, culminating in the command of a destroyer.
During that time – and even well before – Wes knew about the Society. His father was a naval officer, and the family lived in duty stations all over the world. His mother volunteered with the Society, knitting baby blankets for years.
But it was on a mission in the Arabian Gulf when Wes saw firsthand what the Society does for Sea Service members and their families. A young Sailor on the ship had gone ashore in Abu Dhabi. He ate something at a food stall, contracting a virus that killed him within 24 hours.
As the Commanding Officer, Wes had to call this Sailor’s wife in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do,” Wes says, “to call her from Abu Dhabi and explain what happened.” The Society helped this young widow with the transportation of her husband’s body back to their home town. “I was grateful,” Wes says, “that the Society stepped in.”
After retiring from the Navy, Wes went to work filling executive positions in manufacturing companies at home and abroad, followed by independent consulting. Then he learned the Society was looking for a Chief Administrative Officer. He was ready.
That was 2002, and with the Society’s 100th Anniversary approaching, everyone was thinking about the Society’s remarkable history. “So I became the Society’s de facto historian,” Wes says. “I just kind of fell into it.”
His role as historian continued as Wes became the Society’s Chief Financial Officer in 2011, and it gives him a unique perspective of our work. “When I look back over our history,” he says, “what strikes me most is the adaptability to change.”
Take the response to injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Society recognized that there would have to be someone advocating for the families and keeping in touch with the injured men and women. “We put a lot of case workers in the field to address this,” Wes says, “without a lot of fanfare. We just answered the need.”
For everything from a death in the family to medical expenses not covered by Tricare to budgeting problems, the Society has been there, year after year. “I’m constantly amazed,” Wes says, “how, day to day, our people continue to give the same high level of service for Sailors, Marines, and their families.”
As someone steeped in the Navy culture, Wes even remembers the Society’s work years ago when he was growing up on Navy bases. “Back then,” he says, “children weren’t allowed in the commissary until you were ten and had a dependent ID card.” Children had to sit on the benches outside the commissary, waiting for mom and dad.
“So the Society started running waiting rooms for children at the commissaries and hospitals,” Wes says. “It was a drop-off baby-sitting service so the parents could go to the commissary or a medical appointment.” It demonstrates how the Society has been serving Sailors, Marines, and their families even in the small things throughout our history.
It’s a history that Wes will always be part of, even after his retirement. “I love this job,” Wes says, looking back over his 15 years with the Society. “It’s gratifying because it’s all about helping Sailors and Marines. I think this is a terrific organization.”
Join us in wishing Wes a happy retirement. He’s one of us. And you can be proud of that, because dedication and commitment like his are what you support through your generous giving to the Society. Thank you!