The Rambler

‘Bigger Than Yourself’ – The Story of Jim Smith

Jim Smith served in the U.S. Army for 30 years as both a combat solider and Staff Judge Advocate.

Jim Smith served in the U.S. Army for 30 years as both a combat solider and Staff Judge Advocate.

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Smith

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Smith

Jim Smith served in the U.S. Army for 30 years as both a combat solider and Staff Judge Advocate.

Nick Stavas, Managing Editor

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Jim Smith has resided in Glenwood for the past 13 years. As a volunteer at Glenwood High School for the Mock trial team, Smith is a face that can be seen often around the community. His small build and quiet, soft-spoken demeanor could cause one to take him for the stereotypical midwestern man. Little do people know, however, Smith is a renowned member of the U.S. Army due to his 30 years of dedicated service as both a combat soldier and a lawyer. A person that one might even call a hero.

Interestingly enough, Smith didn’t choose the military for himself initially. While studying philosophy as an undergraduate at Creighton University, Smith was required to endure two years of ROTC. He was initially opposed to the idea, but was later convinced by a military officer to not only take ROTC, but to “double down” on his years, completing all four years in just two. After completing his degree, Smith taught physical education and coached football at Holy Name High School in Omaha, alongside Frank Solich, who would eventually become the head coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Smith and Solich kept a close relationship even after their short tenure at Holy Name. Smith explained that he and Solich would share phone calls on a regular basis during Solich’s time at UNL.

Smith started his military career serving a short time in Germany. Following his time in Germany, he was deployed to Vietnam in 1970 and assigned as a “mobile advisory team leader.” His team consisted of five American soldiers that were ordered to join forces with a South Vietnamese infantry battalion in south Vietnam. Their job was to defend the villagers and rice farmers from the terrors of the North Vietnamese army; Smith and his team built strong relationships with the Vietnamese natives. After the one-year combat mission was completed, they were sent back to the United States, only to be ridiculed and criticized by the American people. Smith described the reception in San Francisco as the darkest moment in his military career.

“The Vietnamese got by on very little, and when I came back to the US and landed in San Francisco, the people were protesting the war, and they would spit on you and call you names, things like that,” said Smith. “It was quite an experience, almost like a reverse culture shock, because I’d learned that the Vietnamese were good people, and they had a good cause, and that our mission was important. And then I come back to the United States and I get hit in the face with phrases like ‘you’re a baby-killer.’ And of course none of that was true, but that’s what they thought.”

Smith was angry at the protesters, and elaborated on the pain the reception caused he and his team.

“[The return home] really soured me on the United States and its people, their lack of any understanding of what’s involved when you deploy,” Smith said. “The soldiers don’t write the rules, you know? They just carry out the orders and at least, as far as I knew, the things we were doing were good things, not bad things… I can’t describe the respect I gained for the Vietnamese people and all the good stuff they did. Their courage, their integrity.”

Smith went back to Creighton and attended law school to earn his Juris Doctor degree.

He offered words of advice regarding careers in law, saying that students must be aware of the full slate of work that goes into being a lawyer.

“The best thing they can do is take a good look at what lawyers actually do. If they can get a chance at an internship and just hang out in one of the law practices. That way you’ll get to see what goes on behind the scenes is much more than what goes on in a courtroom,” Smith said. “Before you go through the seven years of college education make sure that you know law is what you want to do.”

Returning to the military wasn’t in his original plans, but Smith missed the Army, and wanted to rejoin.

“I missed the Army, I missed the camaraderie, the esprit de corps, the idea of being part of something bigger than yourself,” he said.

Smith returned to the military after his time at Creighton, and was eventually assigned as the Staff Judge Advocate in the 82nd Airborne Division for Operation “Just Cause” in Panama. At 3:36 A.M. on December 20, 1989, Smith jumped into the dark of the Panamanian sky on a combat mission to secure the Torrijos-Tocumen airport against enemy forces. By doing this, Smith became the only Army judge advocate in American history to perform a combat parachute jump.

Following his time in Panama, Smith was assigned to the well-renowned Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia and Iraq during the summer of 1990. Smith’s first job was to draft an agreement with the Saudi Arabian Government, permitting the Army legal branch to have first claim at any criminal charges against American troops. In January of 1991, Smith and his unit were ordered to defend the Saudi Arabian border against Saddam Hussein’s tank forces. Much to the surprise of the American soldiers, Hussein’s forces surrendered, resulting in the capturing of over 15,000 prisoners of war. Smith returned to the United States following this mission in April, 1991.

Desert Storm was Smith’s final combat mission. Smith was given a job in the Pentagon from 1991 to 1993, and then was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington from 1994-96. In 1997, he was deployed again but this time as a judge presiding over cases involving soldiers in Korea and Japan. Smith was then sent back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for three years. At this point, he was forced to retire from the military due to the 30-year rule, which states that any officer that isn’t a general is required to retire after 30 years of service.

Post traumatic stress disorder is a hot topic when talking about the well-being of veterans. Smith reflected on experiences in the military and the effect some events had on him.

“Yeah, we lost people, I lost an entire platoon of soldiers on Christmas Eve in 1970… things like that, you don’t forget, and they stay with you your whole lifetime. And it’s a cumulative effect too, people don’t realize that. It’s not one incident, there’s lots of them all the way through it that add up,” Smith said. “You pick up some PTSD. You know, that’s just what happens.”

Smith recalled a time when he was flipping through television channels, and accidentally ended up on a channel featuring the “American Sniper” movie. Smith described the scene where Chris Kyle, the main character portrayed by Bradley Cooper, was in a gas station having a conversation with his young son. Smith explained why this scene hit home for him.

“I make it a point not to go to any of those kind of movies… just watching the give and take between the father and the son. It just brought back lots of memories, lots and lots of memories. There’s just a certain amount of guilt that you carry. You know, I had four daughters, and there were a lot of big events that I missed. And that guilt stays with you, it doesn’t just go away. You asked me if there’s one thing, and no, there’s not just one. But it’s just a series of things that builds up over time.”

However, Smith noted that the reward in all of the good deeds he and his comrades performed while serving outweighed the negative side.

“On the other hand, as I look back and you ask me if I’d do it again I’d say yes, of course I’d do it again. And I would have stayed in beyond thirty [years] if they would have let me. Because I believe in what they do, and somebody’s gotta do it.”

Smith praised his family of five for their understanding of his job throughout their life, and the contentment they expressed during his years in the military. He told the story of a time his wife and four daughters visited one of Smith’s colleague’s beach house in North Carolina.

“My daughters asked me ‘dad, why don’t we have a house like that?’” said Smith. “I told them it was because we lived in government quarters, you know we had a nice house, but nothing like that house. I just laughed, and then the kids asked me ‘why do you do what you do then?’ And I told them ‘well, someone has to do it, and that’s why I do it.’”

Smith offered words of advice to anyone considering the military.

“If you’re interested in helping people, and I know that’s not the way they pitch it on TV, but if you’re interested in helping people, I think they can find a good place for you in the military. Because that’s in essence what you’re doing. Anything that the people you defend get to experience is because of your efforts, and not just you but the organization that is bigger and better than yourself. There’s really no way to test it out, it’s hard to analyze it, because there’s a lot of difficult experiences, but there’s also a lot of satisfaction too. You get the chance to do some things that nobody else gets to do. There’s a lot of training that goes into everything you do, but if you go into combat it’s different. Combat is about saving someone other than yourself, it’s about helping your buddy that’s in the foxhole with you. That’s what it is, you have to realize it’s bigger than yourself. The advantage of joining the military is that after the military, nothing is hard.”

The recurring theme of Smith’s interview was being a part of something “bigger than yourself.” Even after all of his accomplishments and seemingly larger-than-life endeavors, Smith continues to be the living embodiment of this phrase in our community today.

About the Writer
Nick Stavas, Co-Editor in Chief
Junior; Job Titles: Managing Editor, Sports Editor, Reporter; Second year on staff

3 Responses to “‘Bigger Than Yourself’ – The Story of Jim Smith”

  1. Brian Janucik on February 27th, 2018 3:26 pm

    Great article Nick, i was Jim and Carolyns neighbor for 10 years, proud to call them friends, I miss our talks out in the neighborhood

  2. Dick Lincoln on February 28th, 2018 8:48 am

    An amazing story, so we’ll presented it inspires great respect and appreciation, not only for Jim Smith (what a common name) who is far from common but also for the greater military who serve and protect us.

  3. Jim Smith on March 2nd, 2018 1:13 pm

    Nick: Great article! You really captured the essence of our interview/conversation. Keep up the good work. You have an unlimited future as a journalist. Thanks. Jim Smith

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