WILLIAMSBURG — The men and women who receive the Purple Heart medal have witnessed the horrors of war. All of them bring home vivid stories of heroism, and, most of the time, they’ll have battle scars to back those stories up.
The medal gets its name from its unique shape and color. It’s a purple heart within a gold color border. Within the purple is a bust of George Washington because he was the one who came up with the idea of creating a medal called, “the Badge of Military Merit”. Above Washington’s head is Washington’s family crest. The medal was developed into its current state by General MacArthur in 1932. It’s the oldest military award still given to U.S. military members, but to this day it still holds three words “for military merit” on the back.
It takes an abundance of selfless sacrifice in the line of duty to end up with George Washington’s face pinned to your military uniform. It means that over the centuries of human history, they are part of a select few who have put others above themselves.
Unfortunately, not every Purple Heart veteran is able to come home to a warm welcome. Unlike today, a crowd of helping hands was not as commonplace during 1970 to 1971 as the war in Vietnam was tacking on its sixth year of growing conflict. The anti-war sentiment made the transition from battlefront to homefront difficult for many American troops returning home.
This was the case for Williamsburg resident, U.S. Army Colonel (Col.) Thomas “T.C.” Smith.
Smith returned from the Vietnam War in 1971 and was then sent to Walter Reed National Medical Center in Washington D.C. It was a four month stay to rehabilitate his leg after he was shot during a low-flight scouting mission near Can Tho (Kanto), Vietnam. He was an officer, a helicopter pilot, and he put his life on the line for others every day while he was there.
“As pilots, we always have to monitor an emergency frequency, and sometimes people will call in what they call a ‘broken arrow’,” said Smith. “This means that, if I don’t get help soon, I’m not going to be here much longer. When that happens, nobody cares about what branch of service you’re from. They don’t care about your rank. They don’t care about who you call god. They don’t care about where you came from or where you’re going. You’re an American and you’re in trouble? We’re coming to get you. Period.”
Smith served for more than twenty-five years in the U.S. Army. During his time of active service, he served tours in Vietnam, Germany, Fort Hood, Fort Bragg, Washington, D.C., and the Philippines.
“I started off being drafted in the army, and then I went down to the recruiting station and decided that I wanted to control my destiny,” said Smith. “I enlisted to be an airborne infantryman. So, I went to infantry training and then airborne school. I was assigned to the 82nd airborne division. From there, I took the test for the officer candidate school and I passed that. So I subsequently attended and graduated from engineer officer candidate school at Fort Belmont Virginia. This was in 1968.”
While Smith was at officer candidate school, the instructors asked if anyone wanted to see if they could pass the test for flight school.
“At that point, everyone there was going to go to Vietnam. It was just a matter of figuring out what you were going to do. I said ‘yeah’ to flight school,” said Smith. “I decided to take the test, and I passed it. So, I became a helicopter pilot.”
Smith arrived in Vietnam in August of 1970 to serve what was supposed to be a typical twelve month tour, but he was there only for ten. During that time, the young pilot flew many missions in the region and even helped save a burn victim by driving him through various villages so that they could reach the nearest hospital on time.
The cause of Smith’s departure was a gunshot wound in the leg that occurred after an incident on May 9, 1971. Smith was flying a visual reconnaissance scouting mission as a co-pilot of a OH-58A helicopter. During the flight, the Command-and-Control aircraft directed Smith’s helicopter to make a low level pass at a suspected enemy position. After completing its run, Smith was directed to conduct a Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) of the targeted area. While conducting the BDA, Smith’s helicopter received concentrated fire from automatic weapons. The helicopter sustained 43 direct hits including the one that hit Smith.
The pilot was evacuated to Japan where he stayed for about two weeks. Then he was transported to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C.
After Smith returned to the states, he described his own experience as to how Vietnam War veterans were treated; vowing to always be there for other veterans who came home, no matter what conflict it was.
“In the summer of 1971, a young waitress saw that I was in crutches and a full leg cast. She said, ‘Hey, how’d you break your leg.’ Were you water skiing?’ I said, ‘No, I got shot flying helicopters in Vietnam.’“ said Smith. “She told me, ‘It’s too bad you didn’t get killed.'”
“That’s something that resonates with you,” Smith said. “You never ever forget that. I am committed to making sure that young men and women that are serving our country nowadays don’t get treated like that. For the most part, they have not and I’m really happy about that.”
Dedication to Veterans
This is a vow that Smith has kept all these years. The retired colonel is part of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. He’s the organization’s commander for both Commonwealth of Virginia and its Williamsburg chapter.
“One the things I do is I mentor wounded warriors when they were coming back from overseas,” said Smith “Not just me, but several of us would meet with them and teach them how to look for a job, how to write a strong resume, and how to do a good interview. We help them make that transition from the military to the civilian world.”
On top of this service to other veterans, Smith also helps educate and mentor young soon-to-be officers that are in Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (ROTC) at both the College of William & Mary and Christopher Newport University. In this role, he forms life-long relationships with the young people he mentors and, often times, Smith sees them graduate from ROTC into military service.
“It’s all emotional income. You don’t get paid to do this, but I sit down with them. One of them I sat down with was a Freshman at Christopher Newport. He graduated four years later. I came to his ceremony and I helped pin his second lieutenant bars on him along with his mother when he was commissioned last year. He’s now a second lieutenant over in Germany,” said Smith. “Another guy was someone I mentored at William & Mary, he was a pitcher on the baseball team and he was commissioned in the aviation branch. When he was in flight school we stayed in touch and he said, ‘hey I want you to come down here and pin my flight wings on me.’ So I did, I went down there and I pinned my original set of flight wings on him. He wears them to this day. He was just promoted to Captain about a month ago.”
In late September 2021, Smith was honored at the 2021 Purple Heart Patriot Project Mission #2 ceremony. He was among a group of other Purple Heart recipients that were honored. This national multi-day salute to service took place on Sept. 28-30, 2021.
The Purple Heart Patriot Project Mission #2 was organized by the National Purple Heart Honor Mission (NPHHM). The organization is dedicated to paying tribute to our nation’s combat wounded through outreach programs and educational programs. The NPHHM was founded in 1997 and was behind the establishment of the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor that is located north of West Point, N.Y. near the historic site where General George Washington was first awarded the Badge of Military Merit in 1782.
The multiday event featured an honoree from each state. Collectively, these veterans served time in World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Smith is Virginia’s representative for the ceremony, and more specifically, the Historic Triangle’s representative.
“I was honored. This is what they call mission number two. This is only the second time they’ve done this, but I have a couple of friends who were in mission number one. They said this is an experience you’ll never forget,” said Smith. “Part of it, at least speaking for the Vietnam veterans, is that it’s kind of a welcome home. This is something we didn’t get when we came back from Vietnam. I’m very happy, and very proud, and somewhat humbled by it.”
What It Means to Be Nominated
For many veterans, receiving a Purple Heart carries its own weight. However, it’s how the old saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words,” and the selfless sacrifice of these veterans that carries these stories of honor.
For the ceremony, the NPHHM paid for all of Smith’s expenses to attend; the tickets for the flights, meals, and hotels. The trip featured visits to the United States Military Academy at West Point, historic Washington’s Headquarters where the Badge of Military Merit originated in 1782, and the Purple Heart Hall of Honor.
“I’m humbled by the selection because I’m going up there with some real heroes who were wounded defending this country. Some of them are from the Afghanistan war and the Iraq war,” said Smith. “A lot of them are from Vietnam. It means a lot that you can represent these people. These are your comrades. It’s hard to describe the trust and the bond that you have in the military but particularly if you’ve ever served with anybody in combat. You just have this trust. The key is that it’s all unspoken, but you have this trust that you build up with the person in the adjoining foxhole, or it might be your wingman if you’re flying, or it might be your shipmate if you’re in the Navy. You never talk about it, but it’s something that’s always clearly understood. If you’re in trouble, we’re going to help you.”
As Smith reflects on his long career as well as his work with other veterans and young military officers, he hopes to continue to inspire others who know veterans to reach out a helping hand. Especially those who have been returning from the middle east.
“I tell people who are the civilians, ‘if you see a Veteran, talk to them’. Don’t just say ‘hey thank you for your service.’ Don’t get me wrong, we greatly appreciate that, but ask them if you have a chance, ‘Where are you from?’, ‘What do you like to do?’, if they’re in your community get them involved in the tribe. Get them involved in an organization where they can feel accepted again,” Smith said. “The thing is if you join in the army. Especially if you’re a young soldier, male or female, and you’ve never had a tribe before but now you’re in the military. You’re usually part of an organization. In my case, the 82nd Airborne Division. You’re very proud of that, and that becomes your tribe. You go to combat with these guys and now you’re discharged from the Army. All of a sudden you’re out there in the cold world and you don’t have a tribe anymore. You lose some of your identity.”
When asked what advice he would provide, Smith said, “I would ask the returning service members to get involved in your community. Whether that is a church group. Whether it’s a golfing group or whatever it is. Get involved.”