EXAMINER PUBLICTIONS – OCTOBER 10, 2007
By Rich Trzupek
When the HBO series “Band of Brothers” achieved nationwide acclaim a few years ago, there was a bittersweet element about its popularity for many veterans.
On the one hand, the magnificent series served to educate a vast member of people who have only the vaguest notion about what World War II was about and what the men who fought it were about. Band of Brothers brought home the simple humanity of the men of Easy Company above all; their hopes and dreams, their foibles and heroism. It showed that real heroes are not supermen, but everyman.
Unfortunately some viewers were also left with the impression that the men of E Company, 501st Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, personally won the war. And that’s where the bitter part of bittersweet would come in for some vets. No one would deny the men of Easy their due, but their story is not unique. It could be told, with equal passion, a million times over, among the countless soldiers who fought in World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan and other battlegrounds around the globe.
Though it’s very rare to find a vet who demands recognition-or even expects it-its clear that they enjoy it. There is something to be said for a simple “Thank you.” Having interviewed a fair share of vets over the years, your humble correspondent has always tried to make it a point to extend a hand and offer those two words in gratitude. It matters.
It is unfortunate that every one of their stories cannot make it to HBO, or at least to the Discovery channel. One group that’s been especially cheated is the Cold Warriors. The men and women who faced down the Soviet Union for nearly 50 years did something truly remarkable, for they did it through pure professionalism and largely without bloodshed.
There are so many of the Cold Warriors who will pass into history unknown by anyone except their family and their colleagues. That’s a shame. Nobody’s fault, but a shame none-the-less. Let us consider, therefore, at least one of these heroes.
Tom Smith was the oldest of nine children, born in Chicago in 1934. Times were harder back then and, like a lot of kids, he took the responsibilities of being the eldest quite seriously. He took a full-time job in high school, because his family needed the income, yet managed to finish school as well.
Tom was born with a love of flying, which eventually led him to the military. He became an accomplished pilot in the Air Force. Eventually he would be a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California, which made him the best of the best.
He was a commander of U-2 projects and chief test pilot for the SR-71 Blackbird. These were, arguably, the most important planes of the Cold War. The high altitude reconnaissance they provided gave the U.S. vital information about Castro and the USSR. Without them, we would have fumbled about in the dark during those years, which would have made the world far more dangerous. The skills of pilots like Tom Smith allowed Presidents from Kennedy to Reagan to sort out Soviet bluster from actual threats.
Tom Smith also flew over 100 missions during the Viet Nam War, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star. His military career was exemplary and it earned the award that matters most to anyone in the service: the respect of his colleagues.
That kind of record would certainly be enough accomplishment for a lifetime, but Tom Smith did not lose his taste for excellence and service once he retired from the Air Force.
He would serve his community, as a plan commissioner, councilman and vice mayor in Palmdale, California, the town outside of Edwards that would be his retirement home. He chaired the Board of Trustees for Palmdale Hospital and was Administrative Assistant to a California state legislator.
Perhaps most importantly, Tom Smith contributed that ultimate, unsung gift that everyone can appreciate: he was a loving father and grandfather. He understood the value of family from the day he first went to work to support his family, and he would pass that legacy along to his siblings, his kids and his many nieces and nephews.
His is not a unique story by any means. Remarkable to be sure, but far from the only such story.
That should tell us something about who we are. The fact that a life like Tom Smith’s is unnoticed by the CNNs and Fox News of the world tells us that it does not stand out, not because his was not an amazing, fulfilling, honorable life, but because there are so many like it.
Tom Smith’s life, in other words, is a message of hope. It tells us that duty, honor and selflessness are still the order of the day, from the men of Easy Company to this quiet, remarkable hero.
Tom Smith passed away this year. His memorial service and funeral was attended by a legion of his colleagues, his children, grandchildren, surviving siblings and their descendents. He was interned at Arlington National Cemetery, among thousands of other quiet heroes to whom we owe a debt we can never repay.
Rest in Peace Tom Smith.
And thank you.