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Email from a US War Hero and former POW in Vietnam

Mark Smith web

25 March 2015

Major (retired) Mark Smith, United States Army Special Forces

In many cases skill identifiers or other terms are used to describe the soldiers of today. My mind always goes back to a bus station in Cincinnati Ohio in the dark of the night after I had been shown the door by my Christian boarding school in Kentucky. Thrown out for being too “California” in my senior year I figured my life was over before really beginning. Being on the honor roll could not keep you in school if the girls across campus liked you because that was verboten and you had been sent by Satan to tempt them. Late that night the dregs of the earth came out of their lairs with ‘Where you heading boy?’ Then a clear voice of authority; “Leave him alone or I will stomp you into the cement with these jump boots.” 

I asked who and what he was and the paratrooper from Fort Campbell Kentucky said simply “I am a soldier, come with me.” He bought me a grilled cheese and a cup of hot chocolate and an hour or so later he put me on a bus to Lima Ohio where I had family because the good religious folk at Mount Carmel High School saw no need to send me home to California. I told the airborne corporal he might see me again because I had decided in that bus station to become this thing called “soldier.”

I finally got back to California and my dad put his foot down and made my mom agree to sign for me to join the U.S. Army to be a soldier. Of course, I did not tell my mother my goal was to be a soldier like the bus station corporal but told her I would be a nuclear engineer or chaplain’s assistant. We all lie to our mothers about things like that. I almost did not join the army when I saw the fat sergeant first class eating behind his desk with mayonnaise running down his lip especially when he looked up and sneered “Drop-out right, and you want to be a nuclear engineer?” I told him I wanted to be simply a soldier and preferably one like the corporal I’d met in a bus station late at night. As I looked at the recruiter who told me to call him “Frank” I became aware that there were army men and there were soldiers.

Thus I started my military professional life and at every juncture along the way I learned that the simple, sometimes whispered phrase, ‘He is a soldier’ was the highest compliment that could be paid. I learned that in the most heated professional disagreement when challenged with a ‘Who do you think you are?’ the best response, if true, was simply a snarled “A soldier.” No other skill identifier required.

Down through the years I saw my deserving soldiers swell with pride when I would describe them to others as a soldier. No shiny rank, tab or badge required just a man who by virtue of how he conducts and carries himself has earned the distinction to be called ‘soldier’ from awed subordinates, peers and superiors. Though all are supposed to be this person called ‘soldier’, in the ranks and in the headquarters areas they know those whom have earned the coveted description. You cannot be appointed one and you cannot one day just decide you are one because that approving authority belongs to the awed voices in the ranks.

So whatever happened to my savior from the bus station? Upon my return from Vietnam in 1973 I told the story of how I decided to join the United States Army and the airborne corporal who said he was a soldier who had started me on my path. After a meeting with the press I was told that someone who sounded as if he actually knew me was on the phone even though nobody was allowed access to us until we were fully debriefed. I knew that voice from the past before he told me he was the ‘soldier’ from the Cincinnati Ohio bus station. He thanked me for remembering him and I thanked him for saving me that long ago night. I told him that I had learned more from him than all the knowledge in the heads of those ‘educators’ from Mount Carmel who stood a seventeen year old lad at a bus stop alone in Bloody Breathitt County Kentucky.

Soon I was getting signals that I had to hang up and I told him how much I appreciated the call and then we both ended the conversation with the same words “Goodnight Soldier.”

Major (retired) Mark Smith

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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