"The first thing that hit me was the extreme heat, humidity, and then the smell of death"
My name is George Smith and I was on active duty in the Marine Corps from December
1966-September 1970. I grew up very poor and I left home at 17 to join the service. At the time,
I had not finished high school. I initially wanted to enlist in the Navy, however, when I went to
the recruitment office, they denied me because I didn’t have a high school diploma. I walked
across the hall to the Marine Corps office and when I asked if I could join the Marine Corps, they said that I could enlist with a GED and they would help me get it. I wanted to join for 6 years because I wanted to make a career out of the military. When I told the recruiter that, he instead suggested that I do a 4-year tour followed by a re-enlistment in order to receive better benefits. Because of my 4-year enlistment, I was entitled to choose which field I wanted to work in. I chose the Air Wing, thinking I could get a civilian job with one of the airlines after my service ended.
The Marine Corps was quite a step up the social latter for me, they fed, clothed, housed and paid me, for the first time in my life I really felt I was on an even playing field with everyone else. In Boot Camp 6 out of 60 are promoted to PFC, the Colors Bearer, the 4 Squad Leaders and 1 of the remaining 55 recruits. I was the one for the 55 promoted to PFC. At the time, Vietnam was going heavy, promotions were given every 5 months (but I didn’t know that). After five months, I was promoted to Lance Corporal. Five months later, my promotion to Corporal did not happen. The next month Lance Corporals junior to me were promoted, when I asked my NCOIC about it, he said there had been a clerical error and I would be promoted the next month as ranks were frozen. Though they promised to fix it within a month, it never happened. That promotion, to Corporal E-4, made a huge difference in pay and responsibilities, especially with combat and hazardous duty pay associated with being in a combat zone.
When I turned 18, I volunteered to go to Vietnam. I still remember when the door of the plane
opened in Da Nang, the first thing that hit me was the extreme heat, humidity and then the smell death, a smell I can’t explain, but if you’ve ever been in a war zone, it’s real. Getting off the plane the first thing I saw were three trailers of body bags and that’s when reality set in, Vietnam was real. I was stationed in Chu Lai, 1 st MAW, MAG 13, VMFA 323 (F4 Phantoms), just south of Da Nang, from April 1968 – May 1969.
While in Vietnam I also chose to work with the Night Crew; I wanted to be awake in the event of a rocket attack. I was the Acting NCO for the night crew and received a Navy Achievement
Accommodation with a Combat ‘V’ for Leadership. During my time in Vietnam, we were hit
with rockets over 50 times. One of the memories that will never go away is the deaths of 11
Marines during one missile attack that hit our living quarters. After the first salvo of 4 rockets
came in, the guys in the bunker got out and were sitting on top smoking. The first rocket from
the second salvo of 4 rockets was a direct hit on their bunker killing all 11. The one Marine that
stayed inside the bunker had his eardrums broken but survived. Another occasion I especially
remember is when a rocket landed 10 feet from where my men and I were gathered, the only
thing that saved us was a 3-foot revetment wall filled with sand between us and the explosion,
had it been 5 feet on the other side of the wall, none of us would have survived. One night we got hit and the first rocket hit a tower next to my hooch, it destroyed our hooch, I had 2 holes in my rack, one, the size of a grapefruit where my head would have been and the 2 nd was a hole the size of a basketball where the lower midsection of my body would have been, had I not been working the night crew, I wouldn’t be here today. I still have my field jacket with the shrapnel holes in it. I still think about these when I wake up at night, over 50 years later.
When I left Vietnam and returned to the World (USA), ranks were unfrozen, and I was promoted to Corporal. Being back in the United States for me could only be described as weird. I had no place to go to call home due to the fact my family had moved back to the Midwest, my home was California. After coming back, I went back to the Midwest to visit my family. After a brief visit, I knew I had to go back to live in California.
The Marine Corps was offering a promotion for re-enlistment. I told my re-enlistment NCO my
story about not being promoted when I should have been and if they would promote me to
Sergeant and on re-enlistment promote me to Staff Sergeant, I would enlist for another four years. When they declined, I decided not to make the military my career and to get out and go to college. To this day, the fact I wasn’t promoted to Corporal when I should have been still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
I was released from the Marine Corps on September 14, 1970, and started college and work as an orderly at Peninsula Hospital in Surgery on September 15, 1970. I received my first Associate Degree in Liberal Arts from the College of San Mateo. I had no idea what I wanted to do but knew I needed an education to go forward. My soon to be mother-in-law asked me if I wanted to be a firefighter. Why? “Because they made a $1,064.00 month!” I took the test, 500 applicants for no openings, I came out in the top 10 and was hired on April 1, 1972. I went back to the College of San Mateo and got my Associate’s Degree in Fire Science, the highest degree you could get at the time, in Fire Science. 1972 was a great year, I was hired be the San Mateo Fire Department, bought a home in San Mateo with a Cal-Vet loan and married my wife of today (47+ years).
It took me 40 years to find out that I could go to the V.A. for healthcare. I found this out when a man in front of me in line at Home Depot in 2010 flashed his veteran’s card for a discount. When I asked where he got that card, he said from the V.A. When I got home, I went to the VA and the man at the counter informed me that there was a 2-year wait. I replied, “I’ve been waiting 40 years, you think two more years is going to bother me?” The man asked if I was a Vietnam Vet, I said yes, he then immediately took me inside and said, “There is no wait for Vietnam veterans” and processed my application.
Being in college, you never talked about being in the service, way too confrontational. The 8
years I was a Firefighter we never talked about being in Vietnam or the military, even with the
people we worked with 24 hours a day with. One episode I remember, I was speaking to a
chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and afterward, I was introduced to a man in that I had seen in the background, he was walking back and forth but not really participating in the conversation. After my presentation, I was introduced to him as a Dr. the husband of the wife that had invited me to speak. I extended my hand and said it was a pleasure to meet him, he told me, “My protesting brought you guys back from the war, it’s because of me you’re alive today ”, I did not respond and walked away, I knew this was a no-win situation. I avoid the politics of Vietnam, I fought to protect my country, I believed it was my duty, nothing more, nothing less. I know what and why I offered my services and am proud to have served.
My wish now is that all veterans were aware of the benefits they deserve. The moto is, ‘If you
served, you earned’. Veterans from my era were not informed of their benefits and/or exposure to toxins (Agent Orange) that might adversely affect their lives. I want to help make sure they know and receive their benefits and care should they need them.
Thank goodness, today, veterans exiting the military are informed concerning benefits and all the assistance they can receive and are due for their service to our Country. Veterans Organizations such as the American Legion, VFW, VVA, AMVETS, DAV, and Purple Heart Recipients are fighting for legislation to protect our veterans, All Veterans need to join one of these groups to make sure we provide the benefits for our current and future veterans, without our continued support and overview, they will all go away.