Smitty Steps Up (conclusion)
At the first opportunity I wrote a letter with a statement from Smitty up the chain of command stating what the staff sergeant had done. I remember using the word "cowardice". I never heard anything of it, which doesn't mean nothing happened. Perhaps they just didn't think to notify me. Or Smitty, who deserved it more.
Larry Towne’s wounds were not serious and he rejoined us several weeks later.
Randy Andrews survived his severe injuries and so did Linwood Thompson, although Linwood was nearly blind the rest of his life. As it happened, both men were from the same area of North Carolina, and were able to resume a deep friendship that they had enjoyed long before we went into the DMZ and when their lives were changed forever.
And, like many veterans who served their country and were ignored on their return, Smitty’s world had been knocked askew by what he had gone through. But by the time I saw him at the Khe Sanh Vets reunion in 2000, he had gotten it together. He told me that what had helped him the most was reconnecting with the men he had served with in Vietnam.
He also told me about his year of service after Vietnam. Because he had some time left on his enlistment, he was sent to serve in the Marine detachment in Gitmo – Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There, the demands of discipline and the ghosts of his recent past conspired to sap his morale and, with others suffering from the same demons, he lost a stripe and was assigned to the group of malcontents nicknamed “The Shitbird Platoon”.
And so he might have stumbled along for his remaining months in the Corps except for a remarkable event one morning.
As he mustered with his fellow Shitbirds in an all-hands formation commanded by the colonel, Smitty suddenly heard his name called and he was ordered to present himself front and center.
And there in front of those who knew a guy who drank a bit too much because he had too much to forget, in front of the First Sergeant who had recommended his banishment to the Shitbirds, before the commanding officer who had taken his stripe and written him off as someone of not much consequence, in front of his fellow Shitbirds and all the Marines of the Detachment, former Corporal Eric F. Smith was awarded his medal.
Cpl Eric "Smitty" Smith and Lt Alan Green on LZ Susan. A good radioman can read his lieutenant's mind, an invaluable skill when things are going badly. Smitty was as good as they got, and when the platoon needed him to be a leader, Smitty stepped up. Photo courtesy of Eric Smith.
And when they heard its citation read aloud, they learned what an important service his actions had been and what a courageous man had performed them.
If only the citation had told all of Smitty's story, they would have learned far more.
Even so, he told me decades later, as he marched back to join his fellow birds, past all of the assembled Marines, he saw a respect in their eyes which had eluded him ever since his return from Vietnam, and it caused him to see himself in a different, and better, light.
He said it was the proudest moment of his life.
Smitty died suddenly in 2010, short weeks before he was to join his brothers from the 81s platoon in a reunion. Instead, his own siblings came in his place and learned of a side to their brother they hadn’t known, the side where he was a brave, respected Corporal of Marines, who you could count on to step up when his moment came.
Editor's note. Alan Green led the mortar platoon of 2/26 during most of 1968.