War can change a man. It may affect him violently and physically, or it can come at him slowly, setting him on a path that will alter the way he lives out the rest of his days. In Justin Schlecht’s case, it was a little of both.
After Schlecht returned home from the war in Iraq, the Dickinson State wrestler had an epiphany. Schlecht knew then that he needed to start living for the big picture and relax the rigid stance he once had for his wrestling career.
“It (wrestling) wasn’t going to change the world,” Schlecht said. “It wasn’t going to have an effect on the world if I lost the match. … I was still going to have to pay the bills. It opened me up so I saw the bigger picture.”
Although the 23-year-old is quick to admit he doesn’t owe the 197-pound NAIA national championship he won last March to the time he spent in Iraq, he believes the war did its part to shape his persona.
“It’s hard to say who people are and where they come from,” Schlecht said.
Schlecht time at war did its part to shape his body and mind. He believes it’s the mindset he brought back from Iraq that has turned him into DSU’s most reliable wrestler.
“I went over there 19 years old physically and mentally. I came back … I was physically 21 and I feel like I’ve matured like an average 30-year-old,” Schlecht said.
While his soft-spoken tones and non-threatening demeanor prove Schlecht isn’t the most intimidating man on Earth, it’s hard to miss the imposing figure he cuts. Whether it’s on the wrestling mat in his singlet, or lounging lackadaisically on the sofa in DSU coach Thadd O’Donnell’s office, Schlecht sports a freakish enough build to drive other wrestlers to the weight room.
In Iraq, Schlecht did his best to sculpt the physique that has helped him earn the NAIA’s top ranking at 197 pounds.
He built muscle mass through nightly weight-lifting sessions in a make-shift weight room he and the soldiers in his unit of the National Guard’s 852nd Engineer Company created underneath tents. A diet comprised of protein and carbohydrate-laden Meals, Ready-To-Eat accentuated the process.
“We lifted and we worked out a lot. That was the one thing that me and my buddies had,” Schlecht said. “Since we didn’t have the luxuries of going out to a movie or going to a party or something like that, we kind of made our own gym and we worked out.”
The soldiers used everything from chains and sand-filled buckets to each other as weight-lifting devices.
“It was very old school,” he said.
After a day of building forward operating bases for tactical support, Schlecht and other soldiers in his unit wouldSCHLECHT/A7 work out upwards of three hours a night before retiring to tents while other soldiers slept in the buildings his unit had just constructed.
But this wasn’t just a group of soldiers doing construction in another country. Schlecht was a heavy wheel mechanic, specializing in driving a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck – a tow truck with a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on its roof. His job was more dangerous than most would expect.
Schlecht was involved in two fire fights, including one incident where his unit took enemy fire inside their tents.
A mortar attack left Schlecht unable to hear background noise and echoes. He also has a scar on his back after cutting himself on a piece of metal while constructing a building.
Luckily, Schlecht’s unit left Iraq free of fatalities. Only a handful of soldiers in the unit suffered serious injuries.
“I had to learn to take care of my buddies. They had to learn to take care of me,” Schlecht said. “We had to watch out for each other, make sure we were taking care of each other and watching each other’s backs. Things like that make you grow up pretty quickly.”
One of Schlecht’s only escapes from the trials of war was observing the progress of the Blue Hawks’ wrestling team on the Internet. Schlecht visited several Web sites and e-mailed friends so he could keep up with the wrestling team as best he could.
It was then that Schlecht began to develop a stronger bond with his college coach, whom he also corresponded with via e-mail.
O’Donnell said he began to notice Schlecht’s attitude toward wrestling change once the two began exchanging e-mails.
Although he had already begun to understand why he needed to focus more on life than wrestling, not having the sport in his life made Schlecht realize just how much he missed it.
“That really lit a fire for him and it gave him focus too,” O’Donnell said.
Schlecht left the United States in June of 2003 and spent a little more than 14 months in Iraq during the early stages of the war. When he returned in August of 2004, Schlecht channeled his new-found clarity into wrestling.
He went on a tear, compiling a 31-7 record on his way to a third-place finish at 197 in the NAIA national tournament.
Then last March, Schlecht capped a 41-4 season by becoming only the sixth wrestler in DSU history to win a national title.
While Schlecht was expected to perform well at the collegiate level, he certainly wasn’t billed as a wrestler who would reach All-American status as a freshman when he first walked into the DSU wrestling room.
After finishing no higher than sixth place in South Dakota state high school tournaments, the Sturgis High School alumnus and Whitewood, S.D., native was just another recruit with potential when he came to DSU in the fall of 2002.
“I don’t know how to really explain it,” said Justin’s 20-yearold brother Stanton Schlecht, a 174-pound wrestler at DSU. “But you could see that (when Schlecht came back from Iraq) there was that switch that got kicked on and got clicked up to high. He made wrestling a lot more fun when he came back too.”
Stanton also immediately noticed how much larger his brother was when he returned from Iraq.
“When he got off the bus and walked up to you, you could see the size difference,” Stanton Schlecht said.
Justin Schlecht admits he weighed close to 225 pounds when he came back from Iraq and peaked at 235 when he was in the desert. But he quickly trimmed his body for the first full wrestling season which was less than four months away.
Today, he’s one of the most feared wrestlers in the country in his weight class.
He’s defeated NCAA Division I opponents and knocked off the top two wrestlers in Division II. He’s 8-3 this season, with two of his losses coming against Division I wrestlers at the nationally renowned Cliff Keen Invitational in Nevada.
His humble demeanor toward the sport has helped make him one of the best wrestlers to pass through DSU’s halls in years.
“He’s the total package,” O’Donnell said. “The guys tease him, ‘Mr. Schlecht’ and all that. But he takes it all in stride. He’s a great example for young guys about work ethic. … The young guys want to reach that pedestal, they have a great example to follow.”
Even though Schlecht has compiled a rather remarkable life resume by age 23, he is humble enough to admit his faults on the wrestling mat and face the fact that he was just an ordinary soldier in Iraq.
“Almost every soldier is going to have stories almost exactly like mine,” Schlecht said. “Almost all of us went through the exact same thing.”
Although he won’t graduate until from DSU until 2008, Schlecht is already making plans for life after school and wrestling. He’s bought a house in Dickinson and is engaged to Meagan Hanson, a woman he met after returning from Iraq. They plan to get married in July of 2007.
“She’s a huge inspiration,” Schlecht said. “She’s the world to me.”
Schlecht also plans to become an art teacher, true to his easygoing personality but not quite the route you’d expect a wrestler take.
Still, those who know Schlecht believe he’ll be successful no matter what he does.
“He’s one of those guys that’s a leader. I know he’s going to be successful,” O’Donnell said. “He does everything right.”