‘Heart-soothing:’ Vietnam Vet awarded Silver Star after original destroyed in fire

Published 4:40 pm Monday, May 1, 2023

Veteran Richard Smith speaks about his experiences in Vietnam after receiving a replacement Silver Star Monday at American Legion Post 23 in Bowling Green. (Photo, Wes Swietek, Bowling Green Daily News)

When Richard Smith’s cedar wood house burned down in 2020, the 13 medals he earned while serving in the Vietnam War burned with it.

In the 35 minutes between the time the fire sparked and was extinguished, Smith didn’t think about the medals – he was more concerned about preventing the fire from spreading to the woods or the cow pasture and keeping everyone safe.

“When I came into the driveway, I made up my mind I was not gonna cry,” Smith said.

Smith and his wife, Becky, had just moved into the house and were in the process of remodeling. Smith had wood shavings in the basement, and it was a dry day.

“It was like the perfect storm. It was a perfect day for a fire,” he said.

The fire department never uncovered what caused the spark. Now, Smith lives with his wife in Sacramento, Kentucky.

As time went on, Smith moved on, convincing himself he didn’t need replacements. But on Monday, at American Legion Post 23, in front of a crowd of family, friends and ROTC students, that’s exactly what he got.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., presented Smith with his Silver Star, the third highest military award dedicated solely for heroism in combat. His other awards, including a Purple Heart, a Vietnam service medal and a Combat Infantry Badge, were placed in a glass case for everyone to see.

“He put his life on the line,” Paul said, “… and so it’s a heartwarming effort to try and say thank you.”

Smith earned the Silver Star for his actions on April 25, 1969. Lt. Col. Keith Reed drove up from Texas to tell the story.

The previous day, Reed and Smith’s unit had been called to reinforce a sister unit. On the 25th, they moved out of a defensive position and traveled along a ridge.

After moving a short distance, the troops were confronted with heavy bunkers, Reed said. They tried to blow up the first one, but the opposing troops fired back by lobbing hand grenades.

The first grenade landed close to Reed and Smith, and immediately, Smith threw his combat backpack on the grenade, smothering it enough to prevent serious harm.

“This act showed a quick thinking and reaction to a very serious situation,” Reed said. “It showed … the man he is, past and present.”

While Reed wouldn’t drive up from Texas for anybody, he would for Smith, who he entrusted with his life while they served together in Vietnam.

“We were in a life or death situation,” Reed said. “It’s a very lasting bond.”

Paul said the push to replace Smith’s medals began with one of his nurses, who let Smith know that the medals could be replaced.

Paul said he performs ceremonies like Smith’s about two or three times a year.

“It is sort of word of mouth,” he said. “Occasionally, someone will see this on television or in newspapers and say, ‘Oh, my grandfather lost his medals.’ Sometimes we’ve actually stored medals for people who are no longer living, but their family members want to remember them by having the medals replaced.”

Paul said that ceremonies like this are especially important now that the United States has an all-volunteer army.

“We’re a country that depends on people to volunteer to serve their country and we need to honor those who do and those who sacrifice for our country,” he said. “I think sometimes or a lot of times we take it for granted.”

At the ceremony, Greenwood High School’s ROTC performed a presentation of the colors. A large group of McLean County ROTC members were also in attendance. After the Silver Star was presented, Smith received a standing ovation.

“It’s heart soothing. It’s like a patch has been put on,” Smith said. “… It’s similar to when some of my combat brothers found me and got me to the reunions. It’s a soothing thing to your soul and your body, your soul more than anything.”