Collin Schaaff Ben Liebenberg AP
Collin Schaaff Ben Liebenberg AP

Military News

He wanted to be a Marine since he was 10. The Tacoma native died living his dream Monday

By Derrick Nunnally

July 14, 2017 03:00 PM

The Air Force wanted him. But the Marines won out.

For Collin Schaaff, it was never close.

“There was not a question he was joining the Marines,” Tono Sablan, who went to Franklin Pierce High School with Schaaff, said Friday. “That was rock-solid.

“The type of dedication that he had, if he was committed to something, he was going to go all the way.”

Schaaff, a 22-year-old corporal, was among the 15 Marines and a Navy sailor who died Monday in a military plane crash in Mississippi.

Another of the victims, Marine Sgt. Dietrich Schmieman, 26, grew up in Richland.

Schaaff was based out of Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York, home of a Marine Aerial Refueling and Transport Squadron.

His job included loading ordinance onto planes.

His mother, Angel Schmitt, said her son had dreamed of a career in the Marines since he was 10 years old.

Schaaff and his wife, Sarah Beth Schaaff, have a 1-year-old daughter, with a second daughter due in November.

“This is really heartbreaking,” Schmitt said. “The whole thing is heartbreaking.”

She said her son was outgoing and generous. As a child, he would give away his toys. Later, he would literally hand his shirt to a needy person, his mother said.

“I still have his ex-girlfriends call and talk to me, because that’s how nice of a person he was,” Schmitt said.

Sablan went to high school with Schaaff, graduating a year behind him in 2014. He said he and Schaaff were in a leadership class.

“At his heart, he was just a fun, goofy guy,” Sablan said. “Not a day went by without him smiling.”

Schaaff grew up in Puyallup and southern Tacoma. He was a member of an Air Force Junior ROTC unit that competed in a national drill competition.

Air Force recruiters were never able to sway him despite persistent effort, his mother said. He fulfilled his dream of joining the Marines the summer after he graduated high school.

“Their uniform was the best uniform out there, and it had a sword,” Schmitt said.

Schaaff collected swords and knives, and focused on building his military career, his mother recalled. When the Marines assigned him to airborne ordinance, he made becoming a loadmaster his goal.

Schmieman joined the Marine Corps at 19 with an ambition to serve in special operations, his father said.

He enlisted after completing an academic program that allows students to earn a college associate's degree while they finish high school, said his father, Eric Schmieman.

“The most common comments his friends made about him were that he helped them, and he inspired them to live life to the fullest,” Eric Schmieman said. “He certainly did that himself.”

He said his son served in a reconnaissance unit before joining the elite Raider command stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, about two years ago

The Rev. Corey Smith of Richland Lutheran Church, who was Dietrich Schmieman’s youth pastor from sixth grade until he enlisted, said the young man joined the Marines out of a desire to serve others.

“That’s the kind of heart he had,” he said in a phone interview. “He loved to help people.”

Military notification of Monday’s crash arrived at Schmitt’s Tacoma home at 10:30 p.m., she said. Two Marines came to say her son was among the missing in the crash.

“It’s exactly just like the movies,” she said. “... Two guys show up at your door, and then they come in and they try to explain to you what is happening.”

Confirmation of Schaaff’ death came the next day.

Schmitt said she is still working out funeral arrangements, which are contingent on when the military makes it possible.

He will be buried in the Tacoma area.

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally