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* * Doug Smartt’s military life

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong took, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” That same day, Doug Smartt turned 20 and I turned 15.

Those five years between us birthday-buddies may have greatly influenced our lives and career paths. Doug and I chatted about that after a recent Rotary Club meeting, where we’re both long-term members. 

“I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee,” Doug said, “where my dad was the alumni director for the University of Tennessee.” He had a nurturing upbringing where he flourished, competing in swimming and getting good grades. As a high school freshman, he worked as a congressional page on Capitol Hill. His achievements, that experience, and his family connections, helped him receive a nomination to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, which he accepted. 

Mind you, his action was at the height of the Vietnam War. 

About working in Washington, he said, “It was an interesting time. It was fun to have been a part of getting things done for the betterment of our society. It’s one of the reasons why I went into a life of public service.

“There were anti-war marches in Washington. I had a brother who was deeply anti-war.” 

Acceptance at the Naval Academy commits students to a multi-year commitment, so Doug set himself up for a military life. About the US involvement in the Vietnam War, he said, “I remember the strategy of the ‘Domino Effect,’ where we’d potentially lose countries to the Communists, to the Soviet sphere, unless we took action. 

“I was assigned as the missile fire control officer on the USS John S. McCain (DDG-36), named after Senator John McCain’s granddaddy. We were sent to Southeast Asia in 1972.”

His deployment lasted 6-1/2 months. He was never hurt, but he does wear the combat action ribbon.

“Because we were off-shore, we didn’t see any casualties. It’s somewhat antiseptic relative to the typical Army or Marine Corps experience. We often had an air spotter for our Naval Gunfire Support Missions. Out of the 17,000 rounds we fired, we only know of one confirmed KIA (Killed in action). There was cheering that went off in the combat information center for the KIA. I didn’t feel that way. My emotion, I didn’t release until we came back from the deployment and I was with my fiancé. With her, I bawled like a baby. I’d been a part of a man’s death during wartime.” His eyes moistened.

“The Navy is constantly in service around the world, protecting our national interests, where there is hostile action, and sometimes there is ‘violent peace.’ We’re on location quicker than the other services for many actions because of Freedom of the Seas. I did five more major deployments of at least 6 months over my 24 year naval career.” Doug was Captain of the USS Francis Hammond during Operation Desert Storm.

“After my Vietnam experience, I reconsidered the Navy for a full career. But then I thought, ‘Who better but me?’ I wanted to serve. I want to contribute.

“Looking back on it, Vietnam was not a just war. America shouldn’t have been involved in it… but we were.”

I told him about my experience growing up, where few boys I knew wanted to go. My dad had spoken about his upbringing during World War II, when every boy wanted to go, because they perceived the Germans and Japanese as existential threats. In my day, teenage boys had no such fears about the North Vietnamese. “I’m always deeply conflicted on Memorial Days and Veterans Days,” I admitted. “While I’m deeply appreciative of those people like you who serve, I’m anguished that we send you off to fight and kill and die in needless wars.”

“War is a complex issue, much like our country is complex,” he said. 

Doug ultimately got a position at Virginia Tech in the Naval ROTC program as the Professor of Naval Science and Commanding Officer and moved to Blacksburg. He retired from the military in 1995, and then took a second career in banking from which he just retired again. 

“The man, our confirmed KIA – to this day I don’t know whether he was a North Vietnamese regular, an active Viet Cong, or a civilian who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s the antiseptic part of the fact that it’s ‘an unknown.’ I went to my Lord and Savior and said, ‘Please forgive me for what I did. I was doing my duty for my country.’ He has forgiven me. But that’s where the complexity comes in. If you have a strong sense of ethical morality and emotion, which I like to think I do, then there are times we are ordered to carry out things we ordinarily wouldn’t do. Let’s make sure we don’t get involved in major conflicts unless we need to.”

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