Steve Gray fulfills a promise..........
Sisters of local man who died in Vietnam get some closure
By Nick Claussen Athens NEWS Associate Editor
August 4, 2008
When PFC Herschel Smith died in action in Vietnam nearly 40
years ago, an Athens County family lost their brother and son, and a
group of soldiers lost one of their brothers. One of the soldiers
who served with Smith in Vietnam, and held him in his arms as he died,
recently contacted Smith family in Athens County so that he could
tell them about the man and how he died. The contact between
the soldier and the family members has been tearful and emotional for
everyone involved, but it has been mainly a positive experience.
According to Smith sisters, it also may be a way their brother has
contacted them to let them know that he is all right.
HERSCHEL BUDDY SMITH grew up on Big Bailey Run and attended the old
Chauncey-Dover School District. The only son in the family, he had six
sisters. Everyone called him Buddy when he was growing up, and the
nickname changed to when he was in the service.
He didn't like school a lot, according to his sisters, but loved his family and
loved driving his car fast.He used to take me with him on his dates, remembered
his younger sister Judy Muncy, who added that he was protective of her. When
he was drafted in the late 60s, his mother suggested that he go to Canada to
avoid serving in the war, but he refused. He was very patriotic,said Mary Warren,
another of his sisters. He wanted to serve his country, and went to Vietnam
proudly.The last time Warren saw him was on the steps outside the hospital in
Nelsonville where she was working and continued to work long after. She
said she often thinks of the last time she saw him when she is on those
steps.The family received cards and letters from Smith while he
was in Vietnam, and he always said that it wasn't too bad there and
that he knew he was doing work to help keep the country safe.The
family also wrote to then Congressman Clarence Miller about Smith,
asking to have him taken off the front lines because he was the only
son in the family. Miller was helpful with this, and often contacted
the family. Smith was scheduled to be pulled back from the front lines,
but was killed before that could happen.
STEVE GRAY, WHO LIVES in Rison, Ark., first met Smith in Vietnam in
1969. He was there when I got there, Gray said. They stayed in the same
bunker and got to be friends quickly. Smith helped him adapt to life there,
and trained him to be an infantry soldier.We all called him Bud, because that
was what he went by, Gray said. He was outgoing. He was fun to be with, if you
can have fun in a war zone, which, believe it or not, you can.The soldiers
were all around 19 or 20 years old, and they managed to find humor in
nearly everything, according to Gray. On Nov. 1, 1969, the soldiers were on a
normal patrol moving to a new base camp. The soldiers had gotten to a clearing
and then turned back into the thick growth when Gray heard the explosion. In
training, he was told to assume a defensive position during an explosion and to
expect an attack, he said. For some reason, I ignored that and went immediately
to the front because I knew Bud was up there, he said. A landmine had gone off.
When he got there, Bud Smith and two other men were on the ground injured.
Smith wasn't able to speak, as he had been hit in the chest, but Gray did all
he could to help and he held onto Smith.About the time we were finishing up
doing all that we could I realized Bud had just died, Gray recalled. The helicopters
arrived soon to take the injured men away, and Gray hoped that Smith could be
revived. He knew his friend had probably already died and was gone, however.
He told the other soldiers about it, and it was difficult for everyone, Gray said.
We'd been trained for everything, but I can't remember being trained for what to
do when someone died, he said. Yet the soldiers had to gather themselves and
keep moving along with their mission. It was like they had lost a brother, but there
was no time for a funeral, no time for any grieving at all.Those of us that were his
roommates in the bunker as I was, we decided we needed to contact his family,
but apparently we never did, Gray said. You would say the war just got in the way
of a lot of things. We just didn't know what to say really, so we didn't say
anything at all.
A FEW YEARS AGO, Gray realized that he had never contacted Smith's family,
but he had very little to go on. He couldn't remember his friend's first name,
and could only remember Bud. Five years ago, a scale model of the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial Wall came to his town, so he decided to look for his friend's
name on the wall. I drove by it three times before I ever got myself composed enough
to stop, he said. When we found the right name and the right town, then it all came
back to me and I remembered it. It was emotional seeing Smith's name, and
seeing other names of soldiers he knew who had died. I did like most people
that ever visited the wall; I just sat down and cried, Gray said. He called various
Smith families in Athens County but did not find the correct family, and then called
the Athens County Sheriff Office, but they didn't know the family either, he said.
;He finally e-mailed a letter to the editor to The Athens NEWS, asking for information on
Smith's family. The letter appeared in The NEWS on June 26. I think it was printed
on a Thursday, and when I came home from work Thursday evening, my wife had
a notebook full of names and phone numbers of people who called, Gray said.
I didn't even get a chance to look at the list when the phone rang; it was another
of Bud's sisters. He has since talked to the sisters, found out that Smith has a
daughter (whom he contacted), and even talked to a few people with whom Smith
was in training in the service.It was a sad day (when he first heard from the family)
because of the circumstances we all remembered, but it was also a happy day because
his family had been found, Gray said. It was almost as if I had found him alive because
I had found his family.
FOR THE SISTER'S, it was a bit of a shock to see the letter in the newspaper.
I got so many calls at work, Warren said, adding that she had to go be alone when
she started hearing from people about it. Nancy Clark, another of his sisters, said
that people were talking about it on the radio and all over town. All of this happened
the day before his birthday; it's like he was telling us he is all right, Muncy said.Linda
Smith, another sister, said it was hard because it brought back all of the emotions,
almost like he had died all over again. At the same time, though, it was good to hear
from someone who knew their brother, and to hear more about him in the Army.
The military never gave the family much information on how Smith had died, and
many of the sisters were bitter for a long time.Warren said that soon after her brother
died, she wrote angry, threatening letters to the president and to members of Congress,
but luckily her husband got them out of the mailbox after she put them there.The
other sisters were also angry about how their brother body had to be guarded at the
funeral to keep protesters away, and about many other issues surrounding his death.
Hearing from Gray now gives the family some closure, and it has served as another
way to honor Smith and remember the other local soldiers who died in the war. Thirty-four
service people from Athens County died in Vietnam, Linda Smith said, and she and
her sisters would like to see more done to remember them and honor them.Their
father died before Smith entered the service, and their mother has passed away
since Smith died. His daughter lives in Lancaster, though the sisters do not get to talk to
her very much.A plaque is up for their brother in the Nelsonville VFW hall, and the hall
has plaques to honor other soldiers as well. (A private first class when he was killed, Smith
received a promotion to corporal posthumously.) The sisters are proud to be hearing
from people about their brother, and hope to hear from more soldiers like Gray. And
just as Gray and Smith were like brothers in Vietnam, Linda Smith said that she and
her sisters now consider Gray to be like a brother to them.
Someone from Athens told me the article has been printed. I got on-line
and read it for myself. I printed a copy and wanted to Email a copy to some
of Bud`s friends, but I had trouble making the connection. Could you please Email
me a copy that I can forward to my friends? The comment at the end of the article
said "I would like to see a picture of Steve then and now". I can send them if you want them.
I enjoyed the article, and for my part you got everything right. You might get a chance to wrap
up the story in November if I can make the trip to see where Bud is buried. For some reason
that is important to me after all these years.
Thank you for your interest and your time.