U.S. Army Specialist Perry W. Smith and his fellow soldiers in the U.S. Army 630th Engineer Company Light Equipment Division have just spent another day clearing roads for easier military access as darkness falls.

The men prepare barbed wire and dig fox holes on top of the hill as they set up a night defensive position. It is the winter of 1970.

The NDP will serve as home for the company for at least the next two days, if not two weeks.

Night comes but sleep is elusive. The quiet is soon shattered by enemy gunfire.

"We got hit one night, and they tried to overrun us," Smith said. "They got all the way to the wire and if they breached us, we would have been in trouble."

U.S. military Cobra gunships, helicopters equipped with firepower, were able to stop the attack.

"It wouldn't sound like a machine gun; it would sound like a chainsaw," Smith said. "We would have been lost on that hill if it was not for them."

"You ain't going to forget it," he said. "There is no way to forget it. It was horrible. We did have some that died in the firefight." 

Smith, 66, of Orangeburg survived his experience in Vietnam as a Specialist E5 from 1969 to 1970. He saw action with the engineering company along the DMZ (demilitarized zone) in northern Vietnam.

As part of the unit, Smith drove a bulldozer 14 miles to upgrade a vital road linking military encampment Fire Support Base Rakkasan with Camp Evans, a U.S. Army-Marine Corps base.

The trail, which was little more than a footpath, was made into a road.

The company's mission was wrought with danger.

"I did some mine sweeping with the bulldozer, and we done a lot of tearing up these tunnel complexes," Smith said. "When one was located and they found out it was too dangerous for fellas to go in it, they would send a bulldozer in there to tear it up. We had a bulldozer with a machine gun on it."

But Smith said nighttime was the worst.

"My toughest time was staying on these NDPs at night," he said. "During the day when you were out on the bulldozer, you were worried about taking rounds or getting caught up in an ambush. At night, you set up and you dug your foxhole, but you were on ... top of a hill. You had to fend for yourself."

It was during one of those firefights that a tree fell on Smith, injuring his back and requiring him to be hospitalized for three weeks before being able to return to his unit.

Smith entered the Vietnam War at age 20 shortly after graduating from Orangeburg High School.

"Most of my friends at the time were trying to get into the National Guard or the Army Reserve to dodge going to Vietnam," he said. "I guess I felt I was tough enough, but I was wrong."

Smith was drafted and entered Vietnam as a private first class, leaving behind his high school girlfriend, Shirley.

"You left the streets from riding around and having a good time to being in a war zone in three to four months," he said. "Once you got into Vietnam, you found out it was a whole different ballgame. You just wanted to survive and get home."

When Smith got to Vietnam, he found himself on a bulldozer in what he described as a beautiful part of northern Vietnam. He said they reminded him of the hills back in South Carolina -- at least the hills that had not been bombed or that Agent Orange had not yet destroyed.

Life during the war was difficult, he said. He slept in a hole in the ground and ate C-rations three times a day, Smith said. He said baths were taken in the rain for a period of four months at a time.

He said there was one thing that kept him moving forward.

"My mother and her (his girlfriend) had a lot to do with me getting back home alive," Smith said. "My mother sent me a letter every week and my girlfriend sent a letter every day. Sometimes you would not get the letters for two weeks at a time, but then you would get a bunch of mail. A lot of those guys did not get any mail whatsoever. It was a big help to me."

The desire to come home was always there, he said.

When that day finally arrived, it was sweet, Smith said.

"That is all we looked forward to ... getting out of there," Smith said. "After a couple of firefights and a couple of ambulances, you are ready to go home."

After about a year in Vietnam, Smith boarded a military plane to fly to Fort Lewis in Washington. From there, a commercial airline took him to Columbia.

"When I got back to Columbia, I swore I would never get on another plane," he said. "I kissed the ground, and I have never been back on another plane."

Smith married his sweetheart, Shirley, and the couple had two children. However, war-related stresses ended up putting pressure on the marriage, and they divorced after 20 years.

"We never discussed the war," Smith said, noting there was nothing but negativity surrounding the event. "It was always something we kept in the closet."

Upon his return from the war, Smith was ravaged by nightmares. Today, he continues to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Skin irritations also plague him, though he is unsure if that is related to Agent Orange. To this day, he continues to have back problems.

The support from the U.S. government to help veterans like him transition back to civilian life was lacking, Smith said.

"I come from the DMZ and to my momma's living room ... in five days," he said. "There was nothing but a re-up talk to offer you some more rank to stay in, but you never had no cool-down time. You came out of the war zone and back to your house."

Smith said he went back to work two weeks later.

"That was tough, real tough," he said. "I tried to stay as busy as I could. As long as you kept your mind off of it (the war), you did not worry about it. But sometimes it would catch up with you at night when you were trying to sleep."

"You still see it all," Smith continued. "You sleep a little bit and then you wake up. As you get older, the more time you have to think about it."

While proud to serve, Smith said the war was "a waste of time."

"If I had to do it again, I would not do it," he said. "About 52,000 lives were lost over there, and then you have the ones that came home and committed suicide. You have the ones that could not go back and get themselves reorganized."

Smith said the war changed his life.

"It made a man out of me," he said. "It makes you appreciate life more."

Smith said he was cautious in making any lifelong friends during the Vietnam War.

"You make friends over there quick but you lose friends quick," he said. "You try not to get too close to somebody."

Smith does, however, fondly remember Cordova resident Cpl. James T. Smoak, who served in Kia, Vietnam in November 1969. Smoak, 20, was killed in Chu Lai.

Smith said he purchased a marker at the Orangeburg Veterans Memorial Park for Smoak and visits the marker on the anniversary of his friend's death as well as on Veterans Day. He places a U.S. flag at the marker on each visit with a note attached for Smoak and all those who served that reads, "You will not be forgotten."

Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Follow on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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Business Reporter

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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