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ON THE SCENE: Writing books helped Keene Vietnam vet with PTSD

Tom Smith's books (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

An in-person Veterans Day service in Keene on Nov. 11 was canceled this year because of public safety concerns resulting from COVID-19. Large gatherings have proven to be influential spreaders of the deadly virus that’s closing in on 240,000 American deaths, more than the combined U.S. combat deaths of the American Revolutionary War, World War I, Korean War, Vietnam War and the Gulf Wars.

When we compare COVID deaths with those who died in combat, it’s essential to recognize that combat veterans have and are paying a huge price for our freedoms. These men and women represent a distinct minority. About 40% of those who serve are not deployed overseas. Of those who are deployed, only 10 to 20% are sent to a combat zone. Of them, only one out of 10 experience combat.

A high percentage of combat veterans have a hard time adjusting to civilian life when they return home. This is not to say that other veterans don’t as well, just that being under and returning fire is brutal. Many combat vets have difficulty reconnecting with the communities and families; few are willing to speak about their experiences. Keene resident Tom Smith, a Vietnam War scout helicopter pilot, is one of the few who have shared their experiences through writing and publishing two books. The first, “Easy Target: The long strange trip of a scout pilot in Vietnam,” recounts his war experience. This book was followed by “Facing PTSD: A combat veteran learns to live with the disorder.”

Vietnam was a harbinger of the Gulf Wars in many ways because between 40 to 60% of those deployed either fought in combat like Tom or were exposed to enemy attack. Like Vietnam, those deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq have high numbers experiencing combat or coming under fire. What’s unique for the Gulf Wars is the high number of deployments; thus, no surprise their rates of PTSD and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) is exceedingly high.

Well over half of Vietnam scout pilots like Tom died in combat. Fundamentally, his job was to invite enemy fire so others could locate them and return fire. Tom was lucky in that he returned home, yet not unscathed, as he was shot down four times, suffering many physical and emotional injuries that he lives with to this day.

Tom Smith (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

While Smith was awarded for his service a Distinguished Flying Cross, the Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry, the Bronze Star, the Army Commendation Medal with a V for Valor and two Purple Hearts for wounds in combat, for him, the people to be honored are others.

“The guys who really deserve credit are the medics and the medivac pilots, the people who do the thankless jobs in the middle of combat that saves everyone else,” said Smith.

Smith hadn’t planned on volunteering for Vietnam. He had been hanging out in the Caribbean and missed receiving his induction notice by months. When he realized that the draft board was looking for him, he immediately enlisted, hopeful that would give him some choice as he had no desire of being a foot soldier. Nor had he any thought of flying helicopters; that came by chance.

“My brother Norm’s brother-in-law was flying helicopters in Vietnam,” said Smith. “I didn’t want to join as a grunt and run around getting shot at all the time. As we were driving along the Northway, a helicopter flew overhead. Norm said, ‘Why don’t you fly helicopters?’ I looked at it and thought that sounded pretty cool. I ended up falling in love with flying helicopters, which I still love to do.”

Following a year in flight school, Smith arrived a couple of days late in Vietnam, causing him to miss his flying troop-carriers assignment. Instead, he was assigned to flying Hueys (Bell UH-1 Iroquois) for the First Cav. Smith’s job was transporting military leaders about 5,000 feet above the fray so they could survey the unfolding battle below and provide directions to the artillery, squad leaders on the ground and other forces.

From their perch, the colonels in his Huey could watch and speak directly with the scout pilots, the small agile helicopters whose assignment was to ferret out the enemy combatants through drawing their fire. Watching the scouts zipping and dodging just above the tree canopy seemed far more fun and exciting to Smith than hanging out at 5,000 feet.

Smith requested and was quickly given a transfer; he soon learned why. When he arrived in his unit, there were four scout pilots, and a week later, three of them were dead. Fortunately, Smith had quick reflexes, always loved speed and pushed his abilities in flight school. To improve his survival chances, he took to wearing a white helmet as a means of stimulating the enemy’s reflex to fire directly at him, figuring his air speed would cause their bullets to pass somewhere behind. Often, they did, though many times, hitting his fuselage.

No less courageous than intentionally attracting enemy fire was Smith writing his second book on PTSD. Like “Easy Target,” he shares his experiences in a very upfront direct way, warts and all. Smith does not shy away from mistakes made, pain experienced and challenges wrestled. The gift for us is to have a better sense of what our combat veterans go through and the price they and their loved ones pay.

“The operative word with PTSD is distraction,” said Smith. “Most vets, when they come back, do it through alcohol or drugs, basically to distract themselves. I did the same thing. It became obvious that I would kill myself in my vehicle because I was getting so drunk. So I switched to pot. Instead of going to bars, I stayed home, but that also led to self-destructive ways.”

Smith realized that his behaviors hurt those he loved most: his wife and two sons — the people whose love and support were critical to his well-being. Smith found himself apologizing a lot. Smith realized that if he wanted not just to survive but thrive, he needed to develop constructive distractions, ones that drew his full attention toward some positive outcome.

“I found writing books was the ultimate distraction,” said Smith. “PTSD will always be with me. The most important thing is learning how to live with it, recognize it, and apologize for your anger. That’s the most common. The reason I’m open about my experiences is that it doesn’t hurt me to be so. And, number two, I hope it will benefit people. It’s easy to write checks, and that’s helpful, but I’ve learned that if you put a lot of time into a challenging task when you do that, the effort is its own reward.”

Tom Smith’s latest distraction is building a new home by himself on the west coast. He has published three books to date, all available through Amazon and other outlets, and plans to start a fourth in the spring.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)