'I Got Medals, But I'm No Hero' - Vietnam veteran Sonny Smith finally shares his story

Thursday, November 7, 2013
Sonny Smith, who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart during his year in Vietnam, normally doesn't share his war experiences except with members of the American Legion Post.

Most people who have seen him around town likely know that Sonny Smith, a 35-year resident of Eureka Springs, is a veteran. But only a small number of folks know the details of his war service, and those are the members of his American Legion Post No. 9.

The full story of the Vietnam War has yet to be told by anyone, he says, and some veterans are still reluctant to share their experiences.

But for the Lovely County Citizen's Veterans Day commemoration, Smith decided to share his story in a typed letter:

M. Sonny Smith was born in Glendale, Calif., on Aug. 20, 1950.

After being drafted into the U.S. Army in August 1968 at the age of 18, and after basic combat training, field radio mechanic school and the U.S. Army Airborne Jump School, Smith was sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division, 3rd Brigade, Combat Team. There he was assigned to the 1/505 Parachute Infantry Regiment, nicknamed "The Panthers."

He arrived at Fort Bragg in November 1968. A week later, he was off to Vietnam.

Some history: In January 1968, the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division was deployed to Vietnam, where the division fought in engagements in the Mekong Delta and the Iron Triangle, and on the Cambodian border.

After almost two years in the country, the paratroopers of the 3rd Brigade rotated back to Fort Bragg, N.C. In December 1969, it was the only brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division to participate in the Vietnam conflict.

Smith was in Vietnam for 12 months and eight days, returning with his unit in December 1969. During his last four and half months in country, he got "volunteered" into becoming a helicopter door gunner, he says.

Sonny Smith, front row left, poses for a photo with members of his squad in Vietnam. Smith and the men in the top row left and right corners, were the only three who survived.

"My primary military occupational speciality (MOS) was a tactical communications, radio mechanic/operator," he said. "One day this helicopter comes in and its radio is shot up, and they have a personnel casualty. I had to wait until they pulled the body out before I could hop in to work on the radio.

"Just as I started to open my tool box, the pilot takes off and the co-pilot threw a COMM (communications) helmet at me and says 'Put it on and man the machine gun, you're our new door gunner now. That dead guy they just pulled out of here was our last one.'"

Smith finished his tour of duty in Vietnam attached to the 1st Cavalry as a helicopter door gunner. Toward the end of his tour, while door gunning in a fire fight, he was hit in the leg by enemy ground fire and was later awarded the Purple Heart.

M. Sonny Smith, a sergeant, E-5, was a radio mechanic/operator, helicopter door gunner and squad leader in Vietnam.

It is not his only medal.

When he first got to Vietnam, while serving as a squad leader for his platoon, his platoon came under fire from an enemy bunker line to the front near the Cambodian border. Smith assaulted the hostile gun position, killing the enemy gun crew. More fighting ensued, and as a result, his platoon was able to move forward and eliminate the enemy positions. For his actions there, Smith was awarded the Bronze Star.

"The war wasn't like what I had learned in basic training," he says. "The war in Vietnam was the heat, the smell, the noise and the screaming. No, I don't have nightmares about who I shot. It's what I lost that lingers."

What he lost, he said in an interview with the Citizen on Monday, were most of the buddies from basic training.

Among his memories: changing out of his military uniform in a San Francisco Airport restroom as soon as he arrived home because people were making comments and spitting on him. When he returned to his family, he realized that he no longer fit in.

Taking his saved pay, he bought a motorcycle, packed a duffle bag, went out to the highway and "turned left." He spent the next several years on the road, washing dishes when he ran out of money. The road trip lifestyle was his way of coping with the transition from sitting in a jungle being shot at, and 33 hours later, sitting around the dinner table with his family.

"It was 'move on and drink,'" he says.

In 1978, his parents, both native Arkansans, moved to Eureka Springs when his father, Roy Smith, was hired by David Bird to be the chef of the new Inn of the Ozarks Conference Center.

Locating Sonny through his sister, his father asked him to come down and work as a cook for him. Smith did, and though he still hits the road periodically, he has been a permanent Eureka resident since 1988.

Most people in town remember him when he was drunk and homeless, he says.

"I sobered up in 1995," he said. "I've been sober for 18 years."

His drinking cost him his relationship with his daughter, who lives in Kansas; he hasn't seen her or his grandson since his mother's funeral in 1996. His father died in March 2005.

Five years ago, Smith started riding his motorcycle in the Veterans Day Parade, and he has done so every year since.

He is a member of the American Legion Riders. He wears a U.S. Army ring and a Vietnam veteran cap. He gets a kick out of a bumper sticker that says: "I was a Vietnam Veteran before it was popular."

"Yes," he said, "I did this, and yes, I'm proud of it."

Actually, what his war experience mostly has made him is humble.

"I'm a Vietnam veteran with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, but I'm not a hero," he said. "The real heroes are the 58,000 guys with their names etched upon a black granite wall in Washington, D.C.

"So when someone calls me a hero, they had better call my buddies heroes. I didn't do anything outstanding. I just did my part to fill that gap of time to help complete the whole picture. This country has done so much for me, having the Purple Heart is a reminder that I've paid my debt."

If you know a veteran, he adds, offer a smile and a simple thank you -- it goes a long way. And remember that each one has a story.

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