As a young, combat-hardened infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles,” Sp4 Robert C. Smoker survived one of the bloodiest and most ferocious battles toward the end of the Vietnam War.
He and his fellow troopers occupied Hill 927 near the A Shau Valley in northern South Vietnam in mid-April of 1970. Soon the activities of the artillery and infantry of Fire Support Base Ripcord had caught the attention of the North Vietnamese Army, and a long and deadly battle ensued.
Ripcord was big–very big. The Screaming Eagles had lost 74 Killed In Action and more than 400 Wounded In Action during the fighting of July 1-23, 1970. The carnage and intensity of Ripcord played havoc with men who served there. Many had long-lasting emotional and mental scars from post-traumatic stress disorder. Marriages fell apart. Some committed suicide.
Once off the hill, Smoker completed his military obligation with seven months in Georgia, and was discharged in May of 1971.
Today he is pastor of the Susquehanna Grace Brethren Church of Wrightsville, PA, and is one of an increasing number of Grace Brethren Vietnam vets with a growing burden to take the message of Christ’s love and salvation back to the land of a former enemy.
Smoker was one of the Ripcord veterans featured in Oliver North’s “War Stories” program on the Fox Network, which aired last year. Smoker says, “I make no bad associations with the war. I used to think of them as Gooks and enemies–now I have a real love for the Vietnamese people.”
A Vet Returns to Vietnam
On Smoker’s first return trip to Vietnam in January of 2002, along with 12 other Americans and four Cambodians, he connected with Cambodian church leaders and met GBIM missionaries Steve and Deb Wise.
Returning to an interest in Vietnam is not possible for some vets, and it is a lengthy journey for most. Smoker admits to having repressed some of his war experience. In fact, it was only in March of 2004 that he was able to understand some recurring dreams and nightmares that had dogged him for years.
Through the ministry of the Grace Brethren Church of York, PA, and pastor Kenneth Wilt, Smoker committed his life to Christ on December 5, 1971. He and Jeanne were married in February of 1972.
Wanting to know more about the Bible, he enrolled at Lancaster Bible College in 1975, but had no intention of becoming a pastor. He graduated in 1982, and by now he and Jeanne were parents of four children.
In 1985 the Smokers helped plant a church in Vermont for two years, then returned to Pennsylvania. They began attending the Susquehanna church in 1990, which was then pastored by Les Nutter. Smoker taught Sunday school, served in various capacities, and occasionally filled in as a preacher when needed, and then became pastor of the church in July, 2001.
General interest in the Ripcord story is beginning to build. Military historian Keith Nolan published Ripcord: Screaming Eagles Under Siege, a 522-page Ballantine paperback book in 2000. Smoker appears a half-dozen times in the book for his part in various engagements. More information can be found at www.ripcordassociation.com or at www.herolibrary.org.
GBIM’s Jay Bell is a Vietnam vet who served three tours with the US Navy river force in the Mekong Delta. His work with GBIM takes him to Grace Brethren churches all across America where he regularly encounters Vietnam vets.
More Vets Than One Might Think
He has discovered there are more vets than one might think. Some are reluctant, even refuse, to talk about Vietnam. Bell has a passion to see vets face their Vietnam service for their own good and for the cause of Christ.
In January, 2002, GBIM sponsored a team visit to explore the possibility of ministry in Vietnam. There were four Vietnam vets on that team, including Bob Smoker.
“Bob certainly has a story to tell,” says Bell. “Maybe God will use his story to track down Vietnam vets in our churches and help them process themselves into their inheritance of spiritual freedom (Galatians 5:1).” Smoker and Bell, with the assistance of western Pennsylvania Grace Brethren pastors Jim Laird (Martinsburg) and Rick Clark (Pike Brethren, Johnstown), convened a group of Vietnam vets in Martinsburg this past January 21. Seven vets and their wives attended–14 in all. Although several were very hesitant to open up about their experiences, eventually the conversation flowed, and from that meeting, five or six are planning to be part of the team going to Vietnam this May in search of ministry opportunities.
Jay Bell will be leading the team May 9-23, 2005, under the sponsorship of Grace Brethren International Missions. The team’s goal is to explore teaching English and working in humanitarian and community development projects as a way to win a hearing for the Gospel. The team is open to all, not just Vietnam vets.
Bell and Smoker would love to speak with any Vietnam vet, or anyone else interested in the mission to Vietnam. Contact Jay Bell at firstname.lastname@example.org“>email@example.com or by calling GBIM at (574) 268-1888 ext 14. Smoker may be contacted at //firstname.lastname@example.org“>email@example.com or by calling the Wrightsville church at (717) 252-1233.