This story originally appeared in the May 12 issue of the Community Voice. For your subscription, call 270-384-9454.
Paul Smith is proud of his time in the Marine Corps. The Texas native and cur- rent Breeding resident volunteered to go to Vietnam and served his country for 22 years.
As Memorial Day approaches, the memories Smith brought home from being in country are enough to make you smile, like all the friendships he made over the years, and enough to make you cry, like seeing his friends killed in battle.
“I was squad leader and one day we went on patrol. I asked one of my friends in the squadron to be point. He really didn’t want to – practically begged me to pick someone else,” Smith said. “I told him we needed him to because we had a lot of green soldiers and he and I had the most experience.
“We went out about 1,000 meters outside the lines and my friend stepped down off a rice patty, and there was a click. When it clicked, he turned and looked at me.”
Smith watched his friend die and said that is an image he still can’t get out of his head today.
Smith decided to join the Marines with a friend, who was trying to recover from being dumped by a girlfriend. He went to boot camp in 1967 and was immediately sent to Vietnam as part of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. He stayed there for 13 months, while earning the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.
“I have always been very patriotic. I believed in my country, and I never had any doubts about the war. I just knew this is what I am supposed to do,” said Smith.
Smith said he had a reality check when he stepped off the plane in Vietnam. He said he realized it was for real.
“There was probably a little anxiety about being there,” Smith said. “I didn’t really think about it a lot, but when you are in a firefight, you think about it. I just accept- ed this because I am a Marine and this is what I trained for.”
Life for Smith and his squadron was far from ordinary. He usually went out in the bush anywhere from a week to 60 days. They would search for the enemy, and if they found someone, the attack began.
“I think everybody questioned what we were doing over there. We were told each day this is our assignment,” Smith said. “There was no real propaganda about being over there. My motivation was to stay alive.”
Sadly, for some of his best friends, that wasn’t the case. One day on patrol, the squad was line-walking in the bush, and the two guys to Smith’s right and the two to his left were killed. They were no more than four feet away from him.
Though he is doing a good job of fighting through it, Smith did have some post-traumatic stress disorder issues.
“I wrote a letter to myself during PTSD counseling explaining my feelings about when I killed somebody,” Smith said. “When I came back, I didn’t cry, I didn’t laugh. I had learned to hide those feelings, because you want to protect your- self from getting hurt. There were nine guys in my squadron, and all of them are dead but me.”
There were also issues waiting for America’s military when they arrived back home. The war was a hot political topic at the time that sparked protests around the country.
“We were called names; we were spit on,” Smith said. “My friends from high school would have a party and they would want me to come, but I could not wear my uniform or talk about military things.
“It took me years and years to get over the ridicule that we received when I got home. For years I wouldn’t go out in public in my uniform; I would play down my service. In recent years, I can look back on my service and be proud.”
Smith said he is glad that the nation recognizes Memorial Day and everything it means.
“It is about honoring the military that died and gave their life for their country. I am happy to see we do it. I also hope people under- stand it is about more than the soldier. Their families went through everything the soldier went through. They are suffering with the loss of their loved ones,” Smith said.
The VFW Post 6097 is planning a Memorial Day ceremony for 2 p.m. on May 29.