Lt. Comdr. Albert Schaufelberger, the First U.S. Military Casualty in El Salvador, Comes Home

updated 06/13/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/13/1983 01:00AM

One day in 1967 young Albert Schaufelberger heard his name ring out over the public-address system at Lemoore High School in Kings County, Calif. Wild with worry, he thought the summons to the principal's office meant that his namesake father, a Navy pilot, had been shot down in Vietnam. The school was near the Lemoore Naval Air Station, and friends had received similar calls. Instead, the honor-student senior learned that he had been awarded a college math scholarship. Recalls his mother, Virginia, "He was so relieved he didn't even care about the scholarship."

Two weeks ago, however, when the phone rang at the Fripp Island, S.C. home of Albert's father—who after three tours had returned safely from Vietnam in 1969 with a chestful of medals including the Bronze Star—the news was tragic. His eldest son, Navy Lt. Comdr. Albert Schaufelberger III, 33, security chief for the American military advisers to El Salvador and the second highest-ranking U.S. officer in that country, had been shot to death—a murder later attributed to leftist guerrillas. He was the first U.S. serviceman killed there since American soldiers began training government troops in 1980.

His death had about it that combination of horror and the mundane that has come to characterize El Salvador's simmering revolution. While waiting to pick up his girlfriend, Consuelo Escalante, 32, outside Central American University, where she is manager of a cooperative store, he was shot three times in the head by a gunman. Schaufelberger's body was returned to the U.S. Memorial Day weekend. In accordance with sealed instructions he left before going to El Salvador, his ashes were to be scattered in the Pacific from a patrol boat belonging to Navy's elite SEALs.

(Two days after the killing President Reagan, apparently signaling his commitment to an even harder line against El Salvador's guerrillas, relieved Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas O. Enders and indicated that America's ambassador to the beleaguered country, Deane R. Hinton, would be replaced.)

Himself a member of the SEALs, highly trained in sea, air and land combat, Schaufelberger believed deeply in his training mission, and some saw his murder as evidence of his success at interdicting arms smuggled to leftist guerrillas by sea. Others saw it as a grim reminder of the beginnings of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Not his family. "Vietnam is a wrong analogy," says his father, Albert, 56. "For the moment it seems to me to be a reasoned approach to help out a nation that is genuinely striving for democracy."

As Schaufelberger's brother, Tom, 28, a Richmond, Va. attorney, and two sisters, Kristine, 30, an immigration supervisor, and Margaret, 32, a San Diego detective, gathered with their parents at Fripp Island, near Charleston, S.C., there were many happy memories of Al, and cruel silences as well. "He was hard-driving, very determined," remembers Tom. Margaret adds, "If he decided he wanted to do something, he was meticulous and did an outstanding job." His family recalled the way he plunged into woodworking as a hobby at age 30. "His first project wasn't a set of bookends," says his father. "It was a seven-foot executive desk, made of solid teak, and the thing's a damn beauty."

After high school, where he excelled academically (with a reported IQ of 155) and athletically ("He was small but he wasn't afraid of anything," remembers a football teammate), he entered Annapolis, a goal since age 12. The 5'9" cadet lettered in 150-pound football and lacrosse before graduating in 1971. His drive carried him into training for the SEALs, which have a dropout rate of some 75 percent. Not Schaufelberger. He once fell 30 feet from a cargo net on an obstacle course. Badly injured, he crawled through the course until an instructor put a foot on his back to stop him.

His Navy assignments took him to Japan, Thailand, the Philippines and Korea, but home was the modest three-bedroom house he bought in a San Diego suburb. There he coached a boys' soccer team, built a redwood hot tub, and worked on his VW camper. He became a gourmet cook, sometimes preparing dinner for 30 friends, and let his siblings use the house when they wanted. "Al was a big brother in every sense of the word," says Margaret.

In his final absence, Schaufelberger's military family choked back their tears, but didn't disguise how proud they had been of the officer they had known as a man and a boy. "Oh yes. Tremendously proud," says his mother. "He was a wonderful son. A wonderful brother. We couldn't have asked for more happiness, and we're thankful for the 33 years we had."

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