Veteran discusses service as adviser during the Vietnam War

Neil Smith, 66, of Jefferson City

Neil Smith, 66, of Jefferson City

“It’s been 42 years since I’ve gotten out (of the military),” said Neil Smith, 66, Jefferson City, but enduring scenes from his combat service during the Vietnam War still ring forth with immutable clarity and continue to strengthen his appreciation of the American lifestyle.

As a young man raised on a farm near Trenton, Smith’s primary focus after high school was to embark upon a path to higher education.

He was accepted at the University of Missouri-Rolla in 1964 with the intent to pursue a math degree, but quickly developed an interest in computer science and decided to change his degree program.

In 1968, he graduated with his computer science degree and accepted a job with IBM in Maryland. But he soon received orders to report for his pre-induction military physical.

“I made the decision to enlist in the Army,” Smith said, “because I thought that I would at least attend OCS (officer candidate school) and go in as a field officer rather than be drafted. I chose the infantry branch because I had an extensive background in hunting and the country life.”

With his computer career now on hold, Smith entered active duty service with the Army in August 1968 and completed his basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., before transferring to Fort Polk, La., to finish advanced infantry training.

As the veteran recalled, “Our cadre (at Fort Polk) were primarily Vietnam vets and were focused on preparing us for the war.” Smith added, “We completed rifle and grenade training, performed maneuvers and even learned to identify and avoid booby traps.”

Smith then traveled to Fort Benning, Ga., where he remained for several months completing his officer candidate school, and later, as a second lieutenant, was appointed to the post’s computer science section because of his education and previous employment with IBM.

In the fall of 1969, however, he discovered firsthand the impact of the military’s needs for manpower during times of war when he received orders to report to Vietnam.

“My first reaction was excitement,” the veteran recalled. “You really didn’t know what was going on (in Vietnam), other than what you saw on television.”

His combat service did not immediately commence since he was selected to serve as an advisor-a position that the Army believed required additional training.

For the next several months, he spent time at Fort Bliss, Tex., and Fort Bragg, N.C., learning the basics of the Vietnamese language and receiving instruction on various aspects of the Vietnamese society and customs and military organization.

It was not until June 1970, that he finally arrived in Vietnam, and was assigned to a mobile advisory team consisting of two officers, and three senior enlisted personnel.

For the next 11 months, Smith lived and worked with local Vietnamese regional and popular forces and local militias in villages and hamlets just outside Saigon. He and his fellow soldiers helped train the Vietnamese forces on how to perform ambushes, conduct patrols and secure villages.

Smith explained that his team was supposed to help the Vietnamese soldiers learn how to set booby traps, but jokingly admits, “They probably knew how to do it better than we did-they’d been fighting the war far longer than we had been.”

During his final three months in country, Smith said, much of his team’s “training” consisted of going on actual operations with the Vietnamese forces.

“We went on a lot of ambushes and air assaults,” he said. “You only had two Americans on these operations with a bunch of people you really didn’t know, with perhaps limited training, questionable allegiances, and would probably never see again.”

With the war in its closing stages, Smith was released from the Army in May of 1971, and returned to his job with IBM. He was reassigned to the company’s anti-ballistic missile program in New Jersey.

Spending a short time programming in New York, he later transferred to the company’s office in Columbia, where he remained until his retirement in 1998.

He then became a contract programmer with Rose International, from which he retired last year.

Married to Brenda, the Jefferson City couple are the proud parents of two children and actively involved in community efforts to support veterans, most recently helping with Operation Guardian Angel — an initiative to provide care packages to the 1,160 personnel aboard the USS Green Bay.

Despite the intervening years that have led to many and new exciting memories for the veteran, Smith recalls one profound lesson emerging from his military experience: that of thankfulness and respect for those who have little.

“The one thing that really stands out … the one thing I learned in Vietnam is that a person really has no idea what poverty is really about until he works and lives with those who don’t have anything,” he said. “The Vietnamese people waste nothing; I’ve even seen them make houses out of flattened beer cans there.”

“Many Americans just don’t realize how good we have it here,” he added.

Jeremy Amick writes veteran-related articles on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.

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