Don Smith: Working to immortalize other veterans through military museum displays

Don Smith spent 30 years in the United States Navy, joining when he was 17.

Editor’s note: With Veterans Day on Sunday, the News-Gazette will begin a series of local veteran profiles starting with today’s issue to honor them for their military service.

Don Smith spent 30 years in the United States Navy and now he spends his days helping commemorate the lives of other veterans at the Museum of Military History.

Smith said they have collected some fascinating history at the museum.

“Some of the feats that some of these guys did . . . I was at war; I got a Combat Action ribbon for being at war and we did take fire on our ship from the enemy, but this is not like someone that has been on the ground,” he said. “I don’t even consider myself in the same neighborhood as the person who would take a bullet and get the Purple Heart. To me those are the heroes; they’re more the hero than I would ever be.”

Smith’s own military story started in 1959.

“I was 17 when I joined; I was a high school dropout, and I was a young kid who thought he knew everything but didn’t know a damn thing,” Smith said.

The glamour of being out on a ship in the middle of the ocean and visiting other countries appealed to him. He joined the Navy with a plan to get a GED and learn a trade.

“I had no direction and not a care in the world. I needed some direction in my life,” he said.

Smith admits he didn’t like the Navy his first time around and thought it was a lot of hard work. But during those first two years, he had met a girl named Frances while on leave in Chicago. After running up a $100 phone bill, they decided to get married in April 1961. Smith finished his first stint in the Navy in 1962 and was working 19 hours a day at two jobs, when Frances told him she was pregnant with their second child.

“We thought maybe the Navy wasn’t such a bad thing,” Smith said.

He re-enlisted for another six years, and he and Frances decided early on that he would make a career in the Navy.

“I went back in with a whole different attitude: I’m going to learn now; I have new responsibilities,” Smith said. “It was a lot different than when I went in the first time.”

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Smith was serving on the USS Cambria.

“We went to where there were trouble spots. I spent a lot of time off of Cuba,” he said. “The thought at that time was that Cuba had nuclear missiles.”

He said they could see inbound Russian ships with missiles strapped to the sides.

“We forced those ships to turn around,” Smith said.

 In addition to intercepting the ships, their primary function was to help evacuate the Americans who were in Cuba.

Smith said at the time, the guys on the ship knew very little about the confrontation.

“All we knew was we were on the verge of going to war,” he said.

Ten years later, Smith was deployed to another trouble spot: Vietnam. This time serving on the USS Parsons, he said their job was to provide “harassment fire” to prevent the Vietnamese from moving their troops and supplies around at night. Smith served off the coast of Vietnam from 1972-75.

Because he arrived in Vietnam during the latter part of the war, he was fully aware of the protests and political strife back home. The military was not looked upon favorably, and the men were told not to wear their uniforms while in town and not to provoke the war issue.

“A lot of it was generated by kids, people in college; Berkeley (University of California) was a big instigator of all that stuff,” Smith said, adding that there was also too much media attention on the war. “Vietnam was the first war that was really televised.”

People could sit down to eat dinner and watch the war and the protests unfold on the evening news.

“It was a bad situation. There was wrong on both sides,” he said. “Even though I was in the military, I don’t believe in war because you never resolve anything with war, but I believe in my country and I believe in my way of life. I have been to many, many countries and I see what other people endure; we have it easy in the States.”

Smith started his naval career as a gunner’s mate. When he wasn’t at sea, he worked as a recruit company commander and instructor at various schools. He spent four years deployed to Japan where he and Frances assisted other enlisted people arriving for duty. He advanced through the enlisted ranks to senior chief petty officer and command senior chief. In 1982 he was commissioned a chief warrant officer 2 and retired in 1990 with the rank of chief warrant officer 4.

Smith said he liked the CWO position because he worked with both the commanding officer and the enlisted men.

 “It was a very, very good position. I think I did well,” he said.

Looking back on those 30 years, Smith said the Navy was a good career for him.

“It took a snot-nosed kid and taught me I didn’t know everything. It was a transition – from running my mouth all the time to shutting my mouth and listening,” he said. “It brought discipline to my life. It made me grow up and be a responsible citizen and a responsible parent for my kids.”

He and Frances moved to Kissimmee in 1997, after spending a few years exploring the country in their RV. They got involved with Veterans of Foreign War Post 4225, where he served as quartermaster and post commander. Smith said he thinks every veteran should receive full military rites when they pass, but he had noticed many were not. He joined the Veterans Council and devoted 1,500 hours to conducting military funerals. He also served two years as council president.

In 2004, Smith became treasurer of the newly formed Veterans Tribute and Museum. The museum soon began to run out of room in its location at the Osceola Square Mall. Smith agreed to help conduct a feasibility study for a new museum and spent 2007 and 2008 visiting other museums to get ideas and learn how they operate. In 2007, he was named chairman of the board of directors, a position he continues in today, and Frances served as treasurer.

The Museum of Military History was formed in 2011 and opened its doors at the current location in 2012.

“I’m proud of the museum. I think we have done a great job here,” Smith said.

The museum tells, “The story of the sacrifices that our military’s men and women have made ensuring the freedom and liberties that all American citizens enjoy today.”

This is done with a variety of exhibits and displays that provide an interactive, hands-on experience that encourages critical thinking while at the same time inspiring a sense of fun and adventure.

The Museum of Military History is located at 5201 W. U.S. Highway 192. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.