By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
CHARLESTON — A local priest’s distinguished service in the military has finally received an award of merit, 31 years after the event.
Father Gabe Smith, 57, pastor of St. Joseph Church in West Ashley, was awarded the Purple Heart recently, for a wound he received during the Vietnam War. The Order of the Purple Heart for Military Merit is awarded to anyone who is wounded or killed in armed conflict with an enemy of the United States. As a young Air Force Staff Sgt. from 1967-68, Smith was in the medical corps at Da Nang flying with helicopter rescue in Vietnam. It was their task to transport dead and wounded men.
“Living among the dead,” he said, “deadens your sensitivity to death. We had to do the best we could.”
After a short tour back in the United States, Smith was stationed in Vietnam again in 1969 to an advisory team as part of the 632nd Dispensary at Bihn Thuy Air Force Base.
The team helped train Vietnamese personnel in emergency medical procedure while treating American soldiers, transporting dead and wounded men, and visiting neighboring villages to provide medical assistance to civilians.
His squad was featured in the book Air War: Vietnam by Frank Harvey.
On the day that he was wounded in 1969, Smith, his fellow airmen and the Vietnamese soldiers were making a sick call visit to the village of Omon. The chopper that was to return them to base was canceled because monsoons caused heavy flooding so the squad of six took a motorized boat, called a sampan, back to the base.
They were ambushed on the Ba Sac River and Smith was shot in the calf. His Vietnamese counterpart was also wounded.
“I just felt something hit my leg like dead brush or something,” he said.
But the soldier was familiar with bullets.
“I was able to reach in and pull the bullet out with my fingers,” he said. He kept the bullet as a sad momento of the war and his experience.
Smith was awarded a Bronze Star, but not the Purple Heart. He said the reason was because Air Force regulations precluded personnel from being in combat support situations.
However, his medical corps was assigned to the Army and was thus placed in that position.
It wasn’t until 1992, at the urging of peers and some retired Navy veterans in his parish that Father Smith began petitioning the Air Force for the award.
His medical records were incomplete so the priest had to find his former commander to validate the event. Five years of red tape later, Sen. Strom Thurmond stepped in and finally gave the assistance needed to receive the medal.
The priest received a certificate of award in February and hopes to have the medal in his hands by the end of the year.
“I’ve earned it, in a sense,” he said modestly.
The Purple Heart was created by General George Washington in 1782. It is the oldest military decoration used by the U.S. military.
Throughout his life, Father Smith has been active in some sort of military service.
“I was raised by nuns in a Catholic orphanage in Pittsburgh,” he said. “After that, the military was a refreshing change. It was a lot more relaxed.”
He served the two assignments in Vietnam and eventually left the Air Force to get his master’s degree and begin a career in recreation therapy. Something was missing, however, and he found his way to the priesthood.
Father Smith was ordained in Charleston in 1982. He came to St. Joseph’s in 1991.
The pastor is an active reservist and was called to duty during Operation Desert Storm where
he served with the 18th Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Father Smith also holds the distinction of being the first and only Catholic chaplain in the South Carolina National Guard and serves the whole state in that capacity.