WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — For Claude Smith III, the military is not only a way of life. It’s a way of life for his family tree.
Many of his extended family members served before him, and several of his children and grandchildren continue to serve today. It’s a tradition Smith says he’s honored to be a part of, adding he’s grateful the national dialogue surrounding veterans has changed drastically since his time in the service.
“I want to say the United States Army was good to me,” Smith said.
After joining the U.S. Army in 1972, Smith would deploy overseas as part of the Cold War effort as a duty driver at Second General Hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, assisting with the transport of medical supplies.
“It was something exciting because I wasn’t used to stopping. As I was a duty officer, I always traveled down what they called the Autobahn,” Smith said.
But just days after arriving in Germany, Smith and his team at the hospital would assist in the aftermath of one of the most infamous tragedies in sports history.
“It was something I don’t like talking about because two days after I was there in Germany, we had (what you call in Germany) the Munich Massacre,” Smith said.
The Munich Massacre was an attack on the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, by the Palestinian terrorist group “Black Saturday.” During the initial attack, the terrorists shot and killed two members of the Israeli Olympic team. They then took nine more Israeli coaches and athletes hostage. While West Germany police eventually ambushed and killed five of the eight terrorists involved, a rescue attempt failed. All nine Israeli hostages were killed.
“My team and us were sent there to do what we could to help the people there,” Smith said.
Smith would remain in Germany for over a year.
“We carried blood, we carried all kind of things and send it to SE Asia and other places around that needed, needed our services,” Smith said.
On Jan. 18, 1974, Smith would return home, but he says that given the political climate at the time, his welcome home was anything but.
“As I was walking down the airport, people was running, and screaming, and hollering,” Smith said. “I was pushed in the bathroom, and a guy told me (I had my duffle bag on me, and it said U.S. Army), the guy told me, ‘Man, you need to get out of that uniform because they’re attacking veterans out there.'”
Like many Vietnam and Vietnam Era veterans, Smith endured horrific mistreatment upon his return to the United States.
“As I was going out, I was hit, I was spit on, rocks was thrown on me, not only me, [but] other GIs, and that day, I made a promise to myself and said I would never fly again and go to a airport because I didn’t want to be mistreated or see anyone else mistreated like that,” Smith said.
But Smith also made somewhat of another promise to himself: helping others (specifically his family) better understand the military and its significance.
For Smith, watching the next generation follow in his footsteps has been an incredibly healing process.
“Today is a different than other day that ever been in life for me, now being a veteran makes me a prouder veteran,” Smith said. “The first thing people say is ‘Thank you for your service,’ and that brings a chill to my bones, and I am proud to be a veteran.”
Smith eventually did go back to the airport 50 years later. He flew to Jamaica earlier this year to walk his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day.
If you would like to nominate a veteran for our Veteran Salute, email KSN reporter Hannah Adamson at email@example.com.