Remembering Fallen Hero ... The Man Behind Smith Gym
Hanging on a wall at Smith Gym on the Henderson Hall campus of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall and tucked away from view is a mural of a young man who gave his life so others could live.
The man’s name is Cpl. Terry L. Smith, and he was a radio operator with Company M, Third Battalion, Twenty-sixth Marines, Third Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force in the Republic of Vietnam.
Smith was born May 13, 1947, in Nashville, Tennessee, to Henry and Dorothy Smith. He was an avid outdoorsman and liked to stay physically active. Among his many pursuits, some of his favorites were hunting and fishing with his father and playing football in high school.
After high school, Smith attended college at Middle Tennessee State University, but Smith’s sister, Donna Smith-Hagan, said after his first year, he felt compelled to step in line with his friends and volunteer to serve his country. He joined the Marine Corps on May 17, 1966.
“When he went into the Marines, he had just gone to college and was feeling that was not what he wanted to do,” Smith-Hagan said. “I think that he decided to go into the Marines because, to him, he would want to be in the best, and he considered the Marines the best.”
Smith was killed in action February 20, 1968, on Hill 881S near Khe Sanh, Vietnam.
On that day, a helicopter landed in an area targeted by the North Vietnamese Army. Fearing for the safety of the Marines on the helicopter, Smith tried unsuccessfully to contact the pilot by radio.
When contact failed, Smith left the safety of his bunker and ran out into the open field, manually signaling the pilot to take off. Before he could reach the safety of his bunker again, he was mortally wounded by mortar fragments.
“This helicopter that he was waving off turned around and came back to pick Terry up,” said Ron Smith, a lance corporal who served briefly with Terry Smith. “Something I didn't know until years later, which was recounted to me by a sergeant up there that we called Sgt. Rock, was that Terry knew that he was mortally wounded and said he didn't want the helicopter to come back and endanger anybody because it wasn't going to do him any good.”
“He saved the guys in that helicopter, which I would have expected him to do,” Smith-Hagan said. “He went out there because it was necessary. He would do the necessary.”
Smith was recommended for a Silver Star within days of his death, but when the command bunker at Khe Sanh sustained a direct hit, all the paperwork was lost.
Upon hearing that Smith never received his medal, retired Col. William Dabney resubmitted the paperwork. The honor of the Silver Star was finally bestowed on Smith nearly 20 years later.
Prior to Smith’s death, he also received the Navy Commendation medal, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and the Vietnamese Military Merit medal, which is equivalent to the United States Medal of Honor.
“Terry personifies that there are things bigger than us individually and he put others first,” Ron Smith said.
A Legacy Worth Honoring
It was Smith’s selfless act that inspired late Gen. Paul Kelley to approve naming the new gymnasium at Henderson Hall after Smith, and on Sept. 30, 1985, the Cpl. Terry L. Smith Gymnasium at Henderson Hall was opened.
Smith-Hagan said when the decision was made to name the gym after her brother, her family was told it was because he represented a typical Marine.
“He had volunteered, and then he volunteered to go up there on the Hill again when he didn't have to. He volunteered, and he looked after people,” Smith-Hagan said.
Smith’s selflessness didn’t stop at his fellow Marines. He also cared about the Vietnamese children who stood in harm’s way.
“I heard that he was talking with another radioman, maybe on another hill, and they were discussing how beautiful the land had been before it was being bombed and how those kids had a right to grow up like he had grown up in Tennessee - to be able to go hunting or fishing and enjoy the land that God had given them,” Smith-Hagan said.
Cpl. Terry L. Smith Gymnasium
Smith-Hagan said she felt a gymnasium was an appropriate tribute to her brother who always strived to be the best he could be.
“I know Terry would have been thrilled to have had a gym named after him,” Smith-Hagan said. “When they cut the ribbon to go into the gym, after we went in and all the dignitaries who were there for the ceremony went in, we were followed by all the Marines coming in to use the gym. It was wonderful because they were so excited to have this place that they could go and get stronger and better and just get closer to each other. (Terry) would have loved that.”
Today, the gym offers a variety of programs and services, including: personal training, spinning classes, yoga, HITT classes, fitness-related competitions and year-round intramural sports programs, said Willard Sturdivant, Semper Fit director at Henderson Hall. It’s open to anyone with a valid Department of Defense identification card and serves roughly 300 people each day.
“The mission of the gym is to assist our leadership in sustaining the transformation, and to be a force multiplier that helps maintain Marines as the nation’s premier warfighters,” Sturdivant said. “It benefits the community by providing the opportunity for active-duty service members to stay fit and mission capable.”
When the gym was renovated and expanded in 2003, the name on the façade was shortened to Smith Gymnasium.
Smith-Hagan said her family didn’t know the gym had been renovated and expanded until the project was completed, and at first the shortening of the name bothered her, but she feels what is going on inside the building is more important than the name on the outside. She said she is happy it is nearly twice the size and offers Marines the opportunity to become the best that they can be.
“I think he would be thrilled that if there was some kind of memorial that went up, it would be something that would be a place where people were happy,” Smith-Hagan said. “I can just see Terry’s spirit hovering there, watching those guys and ladies bettering themselves.”