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James Smith: The Scarring Is on the Inside

For James Smith the Vietnam War never seemed to end. Though he received a Purple Heart for a minor wound while he was in the Navy, he has had to battle flashbacks and depression in the years since he left. His story is all too common; Smith is one of many men who survived the war only to later discover that the real scarring occurred in his mind.

Smith, a Cherokee man, was born 1947 and raised in Stilwell, Oklahoma. He joined the Navy in 1965 when he was 18 years old. “I didn’t really have any feelings about the war,” Smith said. “I went into the Navy because I was getting drafted and I didn’t want to go into the Army. I was ready to get out of the Navy in 1969 when they sent me to Vietnam. We were pretty much the replacements after the Tet offensive. As they said, it’s an exciting moment in your life and hopefully you’ll live to tell about it.”

Smith was a Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class. He served on a ship twice, but after the second time he was sent to San Francisco for Riverboat training. He ended up on one of the boats that patrolled the canals and rivers around the Cambodian border and he was involved in seventeen firefights during his tour of duty. “One night they were hitting all around us. It turned out that there was this one guy shooting at us from this tree, so we shot him out. We looked again and there was another one up there, so we shot him out, and shot a few more here and there. The next day we took some explosives and blew that tree up; no more people were going to shoot at us,” Smith laughed.

Smith received the Purple Heart because of a shrapnel wound in his hand; he didn’t realize he was wounded until the next day when it festered; it was the result of a bomb going off so close to his unit that they could feel it. “It’s true; it’s like something out of the movies. You could smell people that have been out in the bush, especially with all the heat and moister, you could smell them fifty feet away. I quit smoking while I was over there because you can smell American cigarettes a long ways off.”

Smith says he was just trying to survive and get back home. “I didn’t really have time to think about fighting for America,” he said. “When you get right down to the nitty gritty you want to win, whatever you’re fighting for, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. In actuality, you’re just fighting for the sake of the four men on the boat; you’re fighting for them and they’re fighting for you.”

Smith was discharged from the Navy in April 1970. “They wanted me to stay in Vietnam another six months; they offered me a higher pay grade which was pretty good at the time. I thought about it for two seconds, but I was sick and tired of being shot at. That was a pretty bad deal.”

Because of the local Native American community, returning home was a good experience for Smith. “There is more respect among the Indian population about being in a war than people think. Some of them went to sweat lodges. A warrior chief was needed only when they were going to be in a war, and if not, they did something else. That’s the same way the service men are; when there’s a war and you’re there you do what you can and when you get out you take that away from your mind.” Unfortunately, it was not that easy.

“I got tired of hurting people, and killing them, and I wanted to do something good for people,” Smith said. Shortly after he got out of the Navy he went to school on the G.I. bill and became an x-ray technician. “I knew that something wasn’t quite right, but I didn’t know what it was. I was working weekends in the emergency room and I didn’t get any sleep. I was working the same hours that we worked on the boat, 12 hours on and 12 hours off, and I started having flashbacks. One of the doctors who had worked with the VA arranged to get me into the Veterans’ hospital. This was around 1994. I had had them off and on, but it kept getting worse.”

“There are different things you can do that help, but when you have a flashback it hits all at once and you don’t have any control of it. At one point it started to slow down, but then something would trigger it off, for instance trash trucks looked like junks and green delivery vans looked like patrol boats. I had to go to anger management because the pain would start building up and I couldn’t get rid of it.”

Smith is now retired and living his life one day at a time. “I work in the yard a lot these days. I used to fish, but I fished so much it became a job,” he laughed.