OLIVE BRANCH, Mississippi — A Buffalo Center native who served in Vietnam and Iraq has spent 31 years in the armed forces as a Marine and soldier.
In 1966, Mark Smith had the choice of taking a site test or enlisting in the Marines.
“With all the wisdom of an 18-year-old, I joined the Marines,” said Smith, who was attending Mason City Junior College at the time.
He enlisted with two others from Buffalo Center — Jerome Jensen and Walt Calhoun, who were his roommates and classmates at the junior college.
They went through boot camp together and were in Vietnam at the same time with different units in close proximity, but never saw each other.
Smith, who worked in general supply, was sent to northern Vietnam’s An Hoa Combat Base later that year. As a supply runner he saw a fair amount of action, especially July 4, 1967.
“The bad guys decided to make that a special holiday,” Smith said. “They provided all the fireworks.”
After completing his two-year enlistment, Smith returned to college as an education major, later teaching in Iowa for 20 years.
During that time, he sought to join the Marine Corps Reserve, but ended up in the Army Reserve as there wasn’t a Marine unit available.
In 1996 Smith was asked to enlist full-time in the Army. As a former Marine, he says, soldiers looked up to him.
Smith was deployed to Iraq for a year in 2004, working in counterintelligence. While he said he can’t talk much about what he did in the Middle East, he worked briefly at the Abu Ghraib prison, assisting interrogators with information they received.
He was later moved to Baghdad, where he says he lived in a tent and worked as an analyst in a palace — one of many formerly owned by Saddam Hussein.
Smith found combat situations in Vietnam and Iraq to be similar.
“We had a lot of trouble with booby traps along the road in Vietnam,” he said. “In Iraq, it was the same thing, but they were much more powerful and sophisticated.”
He struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after Vietnam, which was reignited in Iraq.
“I had come to grips with Vietnam’s demons but Iraq opened that can of worms again,” he said. “I had two to deal with but I got help. I was encouraged to get help.”
The experience returning home was “day and night.”
“When you came back from Vietnam, you didn’t tell anyone you were there other than family and close friends,” Smith said. “When I came back from Iraq, there were people at airports applauding and welcoming people home.”
He retired in 2008 after 29 years in the Army, 12 of which were active duty. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Olive Branch, Mississippi, a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee.
He feels it was an honor to serve his country.
“Without hesitation, I’d do that again,” Smith said. “I miss it — the military is like a close-knit community.”