Jimmy Lee Smith
During the Vietnam War there was no overriding reason to keep close track of names of the men and women who died as a result of military service in the war zone. A decade after the withdrawal of US forces, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was approved for construction. The service branches went back through their records to identify our dead by name.
Inevitably some men who should have been named on the "Wall" were not. Over the years additional names have been inscribed on the Wall - some were men who died after the war as a result of wounds received in the war or from disease or illness, and others were men whose names were overlooked in earlier years.
The Department of Defense approved having his name etched on the Wall during May 2016, along with 7 other names. His name was etched as close to the names as possible of those who died the same day where space was found to add his name. These are the 8 men who were added to the memorial this year:
Special Memorial Day
Effingham man's name now etched on Vietnam Memorial Wall
The Army drafted Jimmy Lee Smith and sent him to Vietnam as a medic in 1969. During a patrol just days before his 21st birthday, an explosion severed Smith's spine and left him a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. He'd been in the war for about a week.
Smith met the love of his life while rehabilitating at a Milwaukee VA hospital in 1970. Four years later, the wounded soldier married his physical therapist, Marilyn Picago.
Their daughter, Sara, described her father as enigmatic about the war. That it changed his life profoundly was obvious, she said. But his upbeat attitude is what she remembers most about him, not the devastating injury.
"He was happy he made it home alive," Sara Smith said. "We really didn't talk about Vietnam. As a kid, I knew he had been hurt while he was there."
Her father, who grew up in Flora and later moved to Effingham, died at age 65 in 2014. The physical therapist who tended him, and later loved him, preceded him in death in 2007.
This Memorial Day is taking on an extra special meaning for the Smiths' daughter, 35, of Effingham. She worked for almost two years to get her father's name on the Vietnam Memorial Wall at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. She'll read his name and branch of service aloud during a special ceremony at the memorial on Monday.
"We wanted him to be honored as he should be, after his death," said Smith. "As an adult, I understand more how Memorial Day is important. It's because of these men and women that we can fly our flag and go about our days as we want - because of what they did for us."
Getting his name on The Wall meant filling out seemingly endless government paperwork. The Department of Defense wanted the family to demonstrate that Jimmy Lee Smith's eventual death was directly related to the injuries he sustained during military service.
More than 58,000 military personnel died due to combat or combat-related injuries and are listed on The Wall. The family was given the general area of where his name has been engraved. Seeking it out was an emotional experience for the daughter of Jimmy Lee Smith, who served with the 60th Infantry, Ninth Medical Battalion, Ninth Infantry Division.
He was honorably discharged with the rank Army Specialist 5. He'd been awarded a National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Combat Medical Badge and a Purple Heart.
All Sara Smith knows about the blast that earned him the Purple Heart is that his unit was on a mission when someone stepped on a "booby trap," and the explosion severed his spine. Knocked unconscious, he was evacuated immediately. Sent first to a hospital in Japan, he was later transferred to Milwaukee, where he met his future wife.
"He was 22 and she was 24," Sara Smith said. "He was on some kind of a 'strike' but agreed to give it up if my mom would go on a date with him."
After his rehabilitation, the former soldier earned a degree from UCLA in communications. He returned to this area in 1989, settling in Effingham. The couple had a family and enjoyed traveling together.
Sara Smith said her father sometimes wondered about the friends in his unit who were also caught in the explosion that wounded him.
"Toward the end of his life, he attempted to find and reconnect with those who may have been involved," she recalled. "He died in 2014 still searching for that exact information."
Letters and military documents she has uncovered have given Sara Smith glimpses into the life that her father rarely discussed. One letter from the American Red Cross summed up his positive disposition, even after being injured.
"The box of stuff I've been going through includes telegrams alerting my grandparents of my dad's injury," said Smith. "One really special letter was hand-written by an American Red Cross worker, as dictated by my dad. In it he says, 'Please don't worry.'"
While Sara Smith believes her jovial father would be proud to see his name engraved on The Wall, he'd also be thinking about thousands of other soldiers who didn't leave the battlefield alive.
"I think part of me is still stuck hearing him say, 'But, I made it home.' But, his life wasn't without struggles," said Smith. "If he could see the names, he'd be saying he knew many of these people."
Shown from left to right are Marilyn, Jimmy and Sara Smith.
Sara pulled this Christmas 2005 photo from her album.
Her father was wounded just before his 21st birthday.
He lived his life as a quadripalegic until he died at the
age of 65. His name was added to the Wall in May 2016.
Dawn Schabbing, from Effingham Daily News (dot com) published article May 27, 2016. Used with daughter's permission
From local area newspaper announcements:
Jimmy Lee Smith, age 65, of Effingham, Illinois passed away Saturday, May 24, 2014 at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in Mattoon, Illinois.
Jimmy, the son of Ralph and Elsie (Elliott) Smith was raised in Flora, Illinois. He graduated from Flora High School in 1966 and was drafted into the Army and after his basic and medical training, he was sent to serve in Vietnam.
He was injured a few days before his 21st birthday, after having served 5 months in Vietnam as a combat medic. He was honorably discharged as a Sergeant and received a National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Combat Medical Badge, and a Purple Heart.
During 1970 while in Milwaukee, Jimmy met Marilyn Picago, a physical therapist, the daughter of Dominic and Mary Picago. Jimmy and Marilyn were married on December 28, 1974 and together, with their love of travel, adventure, mountains, and beaches, landed in Santa Monica, California, where he graduated from UCLA.
They returned to live in Effingham in 1989 and Jimmy did not let his quadriplegia slow him down. He drove himself, traveled independently in the U.S. and Australia over the years, and even went tandem skydiving in the Florida Keys. He was patient, generous, a life-long learner, and a definite dog person.
Jimmy Lee Smith is survived by his daughter Sara Smith of Effingham; brothers: Bob (Marlene) Smith of Rinard, Earl Smith of Wasco; sister: Kathy Smith Anthenat of Springfield; along with many nieces and nephews and other family and friends around the country. He was preceded in death by his wife Marilyn and her parents, an infant son (Samuel), and a sister (Pat Scott), and his parents (Ralph and Elsie Smith).
The funeral service for Jimmy Lee Smith will be at 12 p.m. (Noon) Wednesday, May 28, 2014 at Frank & Bright Funeral Home, Flora. Interment will follow in Bunker Cemetery, Rinard, with military rites. Visitation will be from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday and from 11a.m. until time of service on Wednesday at the funeral home. The family has requested that memorial donations be made to the American Legion or VFW Post or charity of your choice.
Jimmy Lee Smith is buried in Bunker Cemetery, Rinard, Wayne County, Illinois as are his mother Elsie E. Elliott Smith (1918-1994), father Ralph R. Smith (1920-1988) and sister, Patricia Mae Smith Scott (1946-2007)
- - - The Virtual Wall, June 19, 2016
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