Vietnam veterans honored at Welcome Home Ceremony

Lieutenant Colonel Richard "Gene" Smith, a Vietnam veteran, was the keynote speaker during the Welcome Home Ceremony. (Photo by Mary Rumore, SDN)
Staff Writer

Mississippi State University Center for America's Veterans and State Veterans Affairs Board honored Vietnam War Veterans in a Welcome Home Ceremony Tuesday morning at the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex at MSU.

While introducing the program, MSU Center for America's Veterans Interim Director Lot. Col. Brian Locke said a welcome home ceremony was 40 or 50 years overdue for many veterans.

"You and your family will no longer have to wait for that welcome," Locke said. "Our purpose for today is simple: we want to honor you, we want to honor your service and sacrifice, and most importantly, we want to say 'welcome home.'"

MSU President Dr. Mark Keenum introduced the guest speaker for the ceremony, Lieutenant Colonel Richard "Gene" Smith.

"This is a day of welcome home to all of our veterans who served our nation so valiantly in the Vietnam War," Keenum said. "I'm proud to be here among you."

Smith, a Vietnam War veteran, is a graduate of MSU, and had a 22-year career with the Air Force.

Smith said he flew close to 30 missions during the Vietnam War.

"I discovered one thing in flying that magnificent airplane in that absolutely screwed up war was that, I wouldn't say I enjoyed it, but I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to do. I was doing what I was trained to do, and I was doing what my country was asking me to do."

While flying F-105Ds with the 333rd Tactical Squadron out of Takli Air Force Base in Thailand, Smith was shot down Oct. 25, 1967 over Hanoi.

"God didn't want me to die that day," Smith said.

Smith was a prisoner of war for over five years until he was released March 14, 1973.

Smith said faith in God, his country and his family helped him survive being a prisoner of war.

"I can't tell you how proud I was, and how excited I was to see that C141, which is the last mode of transportation we ever thought would take us out of Vietnam, and it had that big American flag on it," Smith said. "That flag means something to me."

After his Air Force career, Smith was the director of the Golden Triangle Regional Airport and served as president and board member for many local organizations.

Smith's military decorations include two Silver Stars, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, Legion of Merit, two Air Medals, two Purple Hearts, POW Medal, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry and Meritorious Service Medal. Smith also received several civilian awards.

Smith now lives in West Point with his wife Lynn, and he has three grown children: Kelly, Richard and Stacy.

Keenum said about 650 students are active duty or veterans at MSU, and about 2,000 more students are dependents or survivors of veterans.

"I'm proud that Mississippi State is consistently ranked among the nation as far as being a veteran-friendly university," Keenum said. "We bear that badge of honor with pride."

During the ceremony, MSU Center for America's Veterans Veteran Service Officer Sharon With the help of student veterans at MSU, Dollarhide presented the Vietnam War veterans in attendance with a copy of "A Time to Honor", a book written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

The book is filled with first hand accounts and photos from Mississippians who served in Vietnam, and was given to veterans free of charge.

"God bless you guys for doing what you do," Smith said. "Don't ever forget that your country cares, and that your country is worth fighting for and standing up for, and your flag is always worth paying your respects to."