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Action Makes Schnabel War Hero

<bt>At age 24, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Eric Schnabel is a war hero. He and his platoon captured enemy soldiers in Iraq, and he even shook hands with the U.S. commander, Gen. Tommy Franks.

"I'm very proud to be his wife," said Trish Schnabel, 24, of Chantilly's Poplar Tree Estates community. "I think he's a great person."

Trish Schnabel, a 1997 Chantilly High grad — maiden name, Duffy — is the daughter of Patrick and Jean Duffy and sister of Leesa, Stephanie and Mike. Eric Schnabel, a 1996 Paul VI grad, is the son of Debbie and Andrew Schnabel of Fairfax Station (formerly Burke) and brother of Drew, 27, and Kate, 22.

When Trish was a junior at George Mason University (GMU) and Eric was a senior at the Virginia Military Institute, she worked as a dental assistant in Burke with his mother. "She thought we'd be perfect together," said Trish Schnabel. "And when he came home on winter break, in December 1999, we met, went on our first date and hit it off."

Both were new golfers, and despite freezing weather, they went out after dinner and hit a few golf balls. "It was a great first date," said Trish Schnabel. "He kept me laughing and smiling, and I had a wonderful time. He has such a positive attitude and is very charismatic. And 3 1/2 years later, we're still laughing — and we're the only ones who get each other's jokes."

She said Eric's her best friend — although, in baseball, she's a huge Orioles fan and he roots for the Yankees. Whether at home or on a spur-of-the-moment car trip, they enjoy spending time together.

Trish graduated from GMU in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is a behavioral therapist with autistic children. She's applied to grad schools and is waiting to hear back. A 2000 VMI grad, Eric holds a bachelor’s in military history, and Trish believes the military will remain part of his life, even if it's the reserves, because he loves it so much.

AFTER GRADUATION, Eric Schnabel was commissioned a second lieutenant and went to the Infantry Officers Basic Course at Fort Benning, Ga. He attended Airborne School there, too, graduating top in his class in summer 2001. He was next stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., completing Air Assault School in spring 2002 and Pathfinders School in fall 2002.

"Those are the ones who go in first and map out landing zones for the paratroopers," said Trish Schnabel.

The couple got engaged May 25, 2002, and planned to marry on May 24, 2003, at Fort Myer, Va. "But when he was home on leave for Christmas break, we got word that a month-long training exercise they'd planned at Fort Campbell had been canceled," said Trish. "That led us to believe they'd be deployed soon."

So Eric and Trish moved up their wedding to Jan. 25 — just three weeks away. "I scrambled and got a dress and made all the arrangements, and my mother and future mother-in-law really helped a lot," she said. "We got married in Fairfax at St. Mary's historic chapel. It was a small ceremony, but perfect."

The couple had no time for a honeymoon. "We got married Saturday evening, and he was back at Fort Campbell, Sunday night," said Trish. "But I took two weeks off and stayed with him there. And when he comes back, we plan to renew our vows and have a big reception. It'll also be a welcome-home party for Eric because we'll all be happy that he's home safe."

ERIC SCHNABEL deployed March 2 with the 1st Brigade, 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry Division of the 101st Airborne Division. He's a light weapons platoon leader in charge of four Humvees with tow missiles attached. "They told us [he could be gone] six months to a year," said his wife. "But I'm hoping and praying it'll be sooner."

Meanwhile, Eric's already distinguished himself overseas. In Najaf, his platoon captured some 20 Iraqi soldiers disguised as civilians. Later, a Tennessee newspaper reporter traveling with his unit interviewed him about it.

"He asked Eric how he knew they were soldiers," said Trish Schnabel. "He said they were clean-shaven, and he knew that was a sign they were ready to put on their chemical masks. And once they were captured, [the U.S. troops] discovered soldiers' uniforms under their civilian clothes."

The deed caught Gen. Franks' attention, and said Trish, while at her in-laws' house for dinner, April 7, "their phone started ringing off the hook with friends calling to say they'd seen Eric on CNN shaking hands with Tommy Franks."

The next day, his picture was in the New York Times. "Eric's mother's family lives in New York and saw it," said Trish. "His uncle sent it to us by e-mail, and the same photo was also in Newsday." She told Eric about it during a quick phone call, April 17, and he laughed. "He couldn't believe it," she said.

Schnabel also said he'd gone almost "three weeks without a shower," said Trish. She sends him a couple of care packages a week, enclosing flea collars for his and his buddies' boots — to keep the sand fleas and ants away from them when they're sleeping.

Per Eric's request, she's also sent her homemade, chocolate-chip cookies, photos, snacks and Sports Illustrated magazines. And she writes to him every night. "It makes me feel close to him," Trish said.

ABOUT A MONTH AGO, Eric Schnabel called and said he'd lost his wedding band in a sandstorm and wanted her to send him another one. "I thought that was really sweet of him," she said. "I asked if he really needed it over there, and he said, 'I just don't want to be without it.'"

During last week's call, Eric asked if the war's over and she replied, "That's what they say on the news." Then he asked if she'd sent his new ring. "There's a wedding band on its way to Iraq," said Trish. "It's our bond across the miles."

Schnabel is now in Al-Hillah, about 30 miles south of Baghdad, on a peacekeeping mission. He told Trish people there love the U.S. soldiers and thank them for their help. And the troops are having fun playing soccer with the children.

"It's such a blessing to me to know that people are so grateful," Trish Schnabel said. "Eric told me the war protests had upset the soldiers there, but they still knew they were doing the right thing. And how many people can say, in their lives, that they've done such an amazing thing as Eric has? We had to spend some time apart, but we have our whole lives ahead of us. This all had meaning, and so many people will be happier for [the coalition troops'] sacrifice."