He Might Have Been a Disc Jockey
Silly I know — but that is the first thing that came to mind when I heard about Corporal Terry Smith.
Anytime I hear a story about a very young soldier who paid the ultimate price so I can live free I immediately think about the life that might have been.
The life they never got to live.
And when I think about Terry it makes me wonder if the job he had as a soldier might have been a part of his life after Vietnam.
If he had made it home.
You see Terry was a radio operator. If you visit the Marine Museum in Quantico you might get a feel for what that meant in Vietnam.
At the Museum they have an exhibit that allows you to share an echo of the experience.
As you walk through the belly and off the back ramp of the helicopter, into the combat zone, you can feel the heat and hear the noise. You will see a radio operator at the controls of a handheld transmitter working diligently to acquire a signal that will allow his platoon to communicate with the incoming and outgoing air support.
Terry’s sister Donna Hagan said her first visit to the exhibit was overwhelming as she stepped into the world had cost her brother his life.
Terry’s tour of duty lasted only 7 months — actually just under 7 months — but in that time he set himself apart as a Marine who ran into battle and never retreated from it.
At the time of his death Terry and his platoon had been receiving constant fire from the North Vietnamese — unable to broadcast a signal to warn off a approaching chopper carrying young lives.
Just like his own
Terry sacrificed his life to run into the middle of the battle and wave off the approaching CH-46 helicopter.
Terry had been working communications for Hill 881 South near the Khe Sanh Combat base. He had actually been moved out of the heavy fire but insisted they return him to the hill — his friends were there and he knew he could help.
They were under constant surveillance and attack by the North Vietnamese Army. The enemy knew the only means of resupplying the soldiers of Hill 881 South was by air.
The attacks were constant and the most effective attacks came from mortar fire targeted at the incoming and outgoing air support.
According to an epilogue recorded by retired USMC Colonel William H. “Bill” Dabney, the platoon had developed a action routine they labeled, supergaggle.
Supergaggle involved the coordination of the communications personnel — the CH-46 crew and the HST (Helicopter support team) working together to facilitate loading and unloading the helicopters in a breathtakingly short 20 to 25 second window of time.
Colonel Dabney describes a scene where the crew on the ground could usually hear the firing tube pop and in that moment knew they had 25 seconds before the shell would hit its potential target.
It was a moment just like that when CPL Smith was unable to alert a incoming chopper of the danger — he restrained another solider preventing him from running into the mortar fire and went out himself waving the chopper off in time to save those on board but was unable to take cover in time to save himself.
For his heroics on the day he died Terry was awarded the Silver Star, the third highest military decoration for valor awarded to members of the United States Armed Forces.
CPL Smith also received the Purple Heart, The Vietnamese Military Merit and Cross of Gallantry Medals.
He was honored with a Tennessee Proclamation designating a CPL Terry L. Smith Day.
And the gymnasium at Henderson Hall in Arlington is named The Terry L Smith Gymnasium in his honor.
PFC Terry L. Smith was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal for his actions on September 8, 1967, showing clearly his intent to place others above himself time and time again.
Terry was serving as radio operator when his unit came under intense rocket fire. The citation states he stayed dangerously exposed under heavy attack using his radio skills to call for the evacuation of their wounded and to call for air strikes against the hostile positions.
He was thrown to the ground by explosions of enemy rounds and rockets three times but each time regained his footing and stayed at his hazardous position.
But it was many years after his death before Terry’s family was made aware of all of the medals and citations he was awarded.
His personal effects and the paperwork regarding his awards had apparently been destroyed from a rocket attack. After the war a friend of Terry’s visited with the family and asked about medals he knew Terry had received but he did not see them on display.
Once Colonel Dabney was made aware of the oversight a ceremony to honor Terry was held and the awards were presented.
But as Terry’s mom, dad and sister left the ceremony and were walking across the grounds, an odd gust of wind — similar to a ‘dust devil’ but in this instance should more appropriately be called a ‘dust angel’ — caught the award and took it away.
Completely away — they never found it — Donna told me it felt as if Terry came down and grabbed it — as if to say “about time!”
I think maybe that is what all of those who have paid the price and made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom would say if they could. “About time!”
Don’t you think?
It’s about time we not only acknowledge the fact that so many have died for this thing we call freedom but it’s about time we take a moment to learn their stories and share them with others.
It’s about time we make sure we pass the stories of their sacrifice on to those who come after us — but mostly it’s about time we take seriously the stewardship of the incredible gift of freedom they have given us and stand in their honor to defend it.
Happy Memorial Day
Laus Deo Soli Deo Gloria