By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — This draftee won a Bronze Star in Vietnam.
Champaign Certified Financial Planner Lee Smith, 64, was a grunt in the jungle in 1971 after dropping out of the University of Illinois and finding himself with a very low number in the draft lottery.
He served as slack, or second in line after the point man, in jungle patrols, where everything from the enemy to malaria to bees — really, bees — to defoliants dropped by our own government made his year’s stay a peril.
There were scorpions and snakes and red ants, and once, the bees, some sort of yellow jacket that attacked his patrol — “they pulled 125 stingers out of me,” he remembers with a grimace.
“There were so many ways to get hurt or sick over there,” Smith says.
Still, he finished his tour relatively unscathed, with the Bronze Star for a combination of missions where his First Infantry patrol was on foot or hanging out of Huey helicopters.
Two of his friends from his unit are on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, though.
In the first days in the jungle, where the triple-canopy jungle kept helicopters from being able to spot the enemy “Charlie,” he was afraid all the time, he says.
But he quickly learned not to think about the danger, or he would not have been able to function.
“At some point your mind says, ‘I can’t be this scared for 12 months,'” he explained.
Smith played golf at then-new Centennial High School, graduated in 1969 and started college as an accountancy major.
It was a culture shock for a Midwestern kid to work alongside other soldiers from all over the county in a tropical land.
“It was hot, but at least it was humid,” he says.
Another cultural shock: the Vietnamese he met didn’t seem to identify as a nation, but along village or tribal lines.
His year in Vietnam, 1971, was past the peak American presence of 1968 and the Tet offensive, but the war was still very much on, Smith says.
U.S. soldiers didn’t see the war as lost or stalemated in 1971.
“We had superior firepower,” Smith recalls. “We made contact, let them have it, called in support and got out.”
It didn’t matter if you were drafted or enlisted. “You did your job,” he says, noting that 30 percent of U.S. fatalities were draftees, comparable to their percentage of the force.
But Smith says the communist forces knew from their experience with the French that eventually the U.S.-led coalition would depart, “and they could just walk in and take it.”
Smith returned to his family home on William Street somewhat worse for the wear mentally for a time.
“It was about seven days from the jungle to being back in Champaign. I wasn’t comfortable at night for a while,” he says.
It felt weird for him not to be carrying an M-16, something never more than inches from his side in Vietnam.
“I had all the hunting and camping I needed for a while,” he said.
But eventually, just as he had conquered his fear in Vietnam, he re-adjusted to living in Champaign.
“We called it going back to the world,” he says.
He invested in Champaign’s Wienerschnitzel hot dog place. Meanwhile, he invested in stocks, and went to work for Cozad Asset Management in 1984.
Besides the Bronze Star, Smith earned the Air Medal and the Combat Infantry Badge. The man who identifies himself as a proud draftee still has his dress uniform.
He has a son, two daughters and five granddaughters.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at email@example.com.