On his 90th and final mission, Air Force 1st Lt. Wayne Smith’s aircraft came under fire over North Vietnam, forcing him to eject.
Immediately after reaching land, enemy fighters captured Smith. For 1,882 days, including time at the infamous Hanoi Hilton alongside fellow prisoner of war and current U.S. Sen. John McCain, Smith remained under enemy watch, his will deteriorating.
“You reach a point where that’s it, where you pray to God to take my life,” Smith, 69, a Naples resident, recalled Sunday at Cambier Park for a Veterans Day celebration.
Nearly four decades since his release as part of the Operation Homecoming negotiations, Smith and his fellow veterans marked the annual holiday, taking special note of the 50th anniversary of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. For those veterans, many of whom remain scarred and conflicted about the mission, it was a touching ceremony as several hundred people crowded around the park’s veterans memorial, a breeze blowing through the trees on a picture-perfect morning.
For Bob Bodemann, who spent more than a year in Vietman with the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, the sacrifice of veterans from his era has helped pave the way for better support of the military today. Bodemann recalls disappointing conditions when he returned from war, which drives him to spend about a third of his time now volunteering to help veterans.
“It was a bad time back when we came home,” said Bodemann, 63, of Naples, after Sunday’s ceremony. “Now it’s fantastic, and I do think that’s because of the way the Vietnam veterans were treated. The country will never let that happen again.”
While much of Sunday’s proceedings focused on the Vietnam War, veterans young and old came together with family and supporters for the Collier County Veterans Council’s event. James Elson, a retired U.S. Army captain and the council’s president, noted the diversity in volunteers — the Pine Ridge Middle School band, six high school JROTCs and the American Legion Post 135, for example.
“Today honors those who did commit the time, who did take years out of their lives, not for a business career or to make a lot of money, but to do what we needed to keep the country the way it is,” Elson said.