News: War is hell, resiliency is survival: Staff Sgt. Smith's story
Story by Master Sgt. Kevin Wallace
MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho – In war, things can change in a heartbeat.
A major challenge in ensuring airmen are technically, mentally, physically and spiritually prepared to honorably endure battle, even if all hell breaks loose, and resilient enough to return to a state of normalcy afterward.
Staff Sgt. Matthew Smith, 366th Security Forces Squadron operations staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge, has learned some lessons the hard way but is now dedicated to helping prepare airmen junior to him for anything and everything, he said.
Smith, a six-year Air Force veteran, has deployed to Camp Bucca’s Theater Internment Facility, Iraq, in 2007; to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in 2009; and to Joint Base Balad, Iraq, in 2011.
When not deployed, the Gridley, Calif., native has spent the rest of his career at Mountain Home Air Force Base.
Smith’s tale began to unfold at Camp Bucca’s TIF, during his first deployment where he helped guard a compound of suspected terrorists and other criminals awaiting processing or court dates. Working hand-in-hand with Iraqi police, Matthews and his teammates watched inmates, provided meals, and transportation to school, recreation or courtrooms.
“As I was transitioning into the country, the compound I was bound for was hit with some rockets, which killed and injured more than 30 people,” recalled Smith. “It’s a dangerous situation to rush into that type of attack to provide medical care or restore order, though most detainees were actually fairly civil and cooperative.”
While most service members downrange are armed with assault rifles or heavier machine guns, Smith reported to work daily armed only with less-than-lethal weapons such as Tasers, “bean bag” shotguns, tear gas or high-powered paintball guns, he said.
Smith claims he wasn’t involved in any kinetics firsthand during his 2009 Afghanistan deployment and luck seemed to see him through.
In fact, mere days after Smith moved out of his permanent living facility on Bagram and relocated to a transient tent in preparation for redeployment, that facility was hit with rockets in the very vicinity in which he lived.
Despite good fortune while deployed to Afghanistan, Smith remembers that country’s children well, and will never forget the impoverished state in which they live, he said.
“There was a mine field near the entry control point in which I typically worked,” said Smith. “I used to see bare-footed Afghan children maneuver through the mine field by poking around at the ground with sticks. Seeing kids live in that state will stay with me forever.”
With two deployments under his belt, Smith once again set off for a combat zone in 2011. This time Smith deployed to Joint Base Balad, Iraq, to keep the base’s perimeter secure during the Air Force and Army’s drawdown from that location.
“We normally don’t know the task we’re going to do until we get into country,” said Smith, reflecting on the wide-array of duties he’d performed during the multiple deployments. “War experience really is the best mentor both for your own survival and to help fellow airmen prepare for war.”
If war experience was worn as a notch in one’s belt, then Smith earned another one night while working one of Balad’s ECPs.
“It was a pretty quiet night and I was working the ECP, conducting security checks,” said Smith. “I had just arrived at the [Base Defense Operations Center] a bit earlier and was watching surveillance monitors. Suddenly I saw a bright flash on the monitor and heard an explosion outside.”
What Smith witnessed was a rocket hitting one of the guard towers and a second impacting in the vehicle staging area. Smith quickly joined an immediate response force and rushed to the scene.
“In war, things can change in a heartbeat,” said Smith. “Fortunately only equipment and structures were damaged and no one was hurt that night.”
For Smith, one major challenge is preparing Airmen who don’t have firsthand combat experience to be technically, mentally, physically and spiritually prepared to endure it.
“Sometimes people think you’re blowing smoke or telling ‘war stories,’” said Smith. “The reality is that at any given point, any Airmen, Defender or otherwise, can be tasked to go augment the Army or Marine Corps, and we all need to be ready. I’m far from being a hero. I’m just a typical Air Force NCO, so it shouldn’t be hard to imagine yourself in my shoes. Achieve and maintain the highest level of readiness.Your or a friend’s life could depend on it.”
Editor’s note: This is part 4 of a special series on 366th SFS Defenders.