They say college is the best time of your life. For many, it is a period of self-discovery, intellectual growth, romance and exploration. College students have an enviable amount of freedom, and if you’re fortunate enough to attend college, one might wonder how you could ever walk away.
In 2008, in the middle of his time at the College, Andrew Smith did something unexpected: He left school to become a Marine. Life would be hell at boot camp, Smith knew, and he would likely go to war. It didn’t matter. Smith was hungry for action, and the comparably tame coed lifestyle just wasn’t cutting it. Besides, the College would be there when he came back from battle. That is, if he came back.
by Jason Ryan
Photography by Terry Manier
He had flown with his fellow Marines halfway across the world, twitchy warriors tucked into the belly of a big plane. They landed at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, before traveling by armored truck to the town of Musa Qala, deep into Taliban territory. Finally, at 9 p.m. on March 13, 2011, Cpl. Andrew Smith arrived at Patrol Base Mehraj, one of the most southern and dangerous U.S. military outposts in Afghanistan. Weary and hungry from his long journey, Smith dropped his bags and began cutting into his dinner, a military issue MRE (meal, ready-to-eat). The field ration certainly wasn’t anything fancy, but it was food. Before Smith could take a bite, however, machine gun tracer bullets started flying over his head, forcing him to take cover. He had been on base for all of 10 minutes.
“That was our welcome from the Taliban,” Smith remembers. “From the next day on, we were in combat.”
It was a challenge he relished. For nearly three years, Smith had waited patiently to engage an enemy. He had left the College of Charleston during his junior year to enlist in the Marines, enduring months of training and two non-combat deployments before being sent to war as one of the U.S. military’s most elite soldiers: a Marine scout sniper. Now Smith was on the front line, dodging bullets and preparing for the chance to fight back. He would not have to wait long.
A month later, after moving to a different patrol base, Smith and his team members were called to a nearby, abandoned compound that had already been seized by fellow Marines. Such compounds are popular with the U.S. military, regularly used as temporary shelters during patrols for enemies. The Taliban knows this, and they often booby-trap the compounds and surrounding areas with explosives, requiring American soldiers to take great care when approaching a hideout, often scaling its walls rather than entering through doors or windows, where tripwires might lurk. And so it was for Smith and his comrades, who cautiously but quickly traveled the three kilometers to the compound through irrigated farm fields, careful to avoid footpaths and other direct routes that might conceal bombs.
Once inside the shelter, Smith ascended to the roof, the favorite spot for snipers to scout their surroundings from prone positions. He joined four other shooters up top, as well as two spotters, who help the snipers aim for their targets.
“Once you have eyes on, Andrew, we’re going to engage,” they told him as he settled into position and raised his rifle’s scope to his eye. Soon, he was able to see two men walking across a field of poppies. They were more than 1,000 yards away, barely visible to the naked eye. Through the scope, however, they were clear as day.
One of the men, Smith saw, was trying to conceal an AK-47 machine gun beneath his clothing. Under the Marines’ rules of engagement, possession of that weapon made him an enemy. He would be their target.
The snipers called out their DOPEs (data on personal equipment) to each other, sharing the settings on their scopes that adjust for wind and distance. The men lined up their shots, and a countdown began, each of the snipers knowing they would fire, as they had trained, on the “t” of “two.”
Five. Four. Three. T–
Five shots rang out, kicking up dirt at the feet of their target. The man turned his head in the direction of the snipers, perhaps startled, perhaps bewildered, perhaps simply out of instinct. In any case, whatever thoughts the Taliban soldier had, they didn’t last for long. In the 1.7 seconds the snipers’ volley of bullets took to reach the enemy’s feet, Smith, with the help of a spotter, had already delicately adjusted his aim. He pulled the trigger again. This time, Smith did not miss. The bullet traveled right between the Taliban soldier’s eyes.
As the soldier dropped and his companion dragged him away (because the companion was unarmed, the Marines would not shoot him), a transition in Smith’s life became complete. Long gone were the conflicted college student and raw Marine recruit. In their places stood a full-fledged, battle-tested soldier. As Smith’s rifle barrel cooled, he felt satisfied to put his training to use, and was convinced the killing was justified. He also felt the scene was surreal.
Man, that actually just happened, he thought to himself.
Little did he know there was a lot more bound to happen, and soon.
ITCHING FOR ACTION | Smith may not strike you as a typical Marine. The 25-year-old is on the small side, though strong and fast. He’s soft-spoken, polite and analytical, and seems not the least bit brutish. He’s cautious and meticulous to a degree that far exceeds the level of order demanded by the military. Before becoming a Marine, he had never picked up a gun.
Smith grew up in Easley, S.C., where he was a standout student and soccer player, before coming to the College with the intention of majoring in political science and preparing for law school. For two years, things went well at the College, except for the fact that he discovered he didn’t enjoy studying political science. Instead of John Locke, Machiavelli or Thomas Paine, he preferred reading Charles Henderson, a military writer and author of Marine Sniper: 93 Confirmed Kills.
That book landed in Smith’s lap courtesy of CofC classmate David Smunk, who went to high school with Smith and who left the College in 2007 to serve in Iraq as part of the U.S. Marine Reserves. Before deploying, Smunk was cleaning out his room in Craig Residence Hall and decided to bestow Marine Sniper on Smith, with whom he had often discussed the military. Smunk was impressed to hear a few weeks later that Smith had finished the book. By his junior year, Smith was becoming bored with classes, and was strapped for cash. During that fall semester in 2007, he took a job at Pita Pit, a popular late-night spot on King Street. While the job provided some money, Smith’s graveyard shifts left him tired and without time to study. His grades suffered, and he became so strung out by semester’s end that he skipped two finals, which, of course, made his grades even worse. He was restless at school, and dwelled on the fact that his life was without action, that he had never left the South and that he had never even been on an airplane.
“I didn’t feel I was getting enough life experience just going to class,” Smith says. “There were all these things going on in the world, and I was missing out.”
He felt his life was in need of a drastic change, that “there was just no way I was going to push through two more years and head off to law school.”
Before the semester ended, he visited a military recruiter. At year’s end, he visited again, signaling his likely intent to join the Marines, but also exhibiting some hesitation. The recruiter became exasperated over his indecision.
“You’re the one who came to me,” the Marine said to Smith. “Do you want to do this or not? “Give me 10 seconds to think about this,” Smith replied.
An eternity seemed to pass before Smith slowly nodded his head.
“Let’s do this,” he said.
Three months later, on March 23, 2008, while his former College classmates were still enjoying suntans earned over spring break, Smith boarded a bus in Charlotte bound for Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C. He had little with him beyond the clothes on his back and $20 in his pocket. Somewhere in South Carolina, the bus stopped at a Denny’s restaurant, where his fellow recruits were boisterous and playful. After boarding the bus again for the last leg of the journey, though, the bus was quiet, with each man pondering what lay ahead. They’d soon realize this was the calm before the storm.
Arriving on Parris Island, the bus slowed in front of a large building with a Marine Corps logo. As soon as the vehicle stopped, a drill instructor ripped open the door and began screaming obscenities at the men, who then hustled off the bus. Smith had never heard such loud screaming, especially not from a mouth hovering an inch from his face. In short order, Smith traded in his civilian clothing and had his head shaved. Three months later, with boot camp finished, he was a Marine. Not just any Marine, either, but one who distinguished himself as the Ironman, or top athlete, of his company of 300 men. To earn this title, Smith ran three miles in 18 minutes and 14 seconds, among other athletic feats.
From Parris Island, Smith went to Camp Geiger in North Carolina for two months of infantry school. Then he moved to Camp Lejeune and prepared for a seven-month Naval deployment that would take him to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. Upon returning home, he was back on base only two days before he was ordered to Haiti on January 15, 2010, to provide emergency aid for victims of a 7.0 earthquake that struck the Caribbean nation five days earlier, killing tens of thousands. In the weeks that followed, he and other Marines distributed water and rice – up to a million pounds of rice a week. The devastation in Haiti was overwhelming. Buildings were collapsed, corpses rotted in the street and food and medical care were scarce.
“I was just shocked by the poverty and level of destruction in the country,” Smith says. “It was great to help those people, but it felt like a drop in the bucket.”
Smith returned from Haiti in April 2010, trading one hellish landscape for another. Back at Camp Lejeune, he tried out to become a Marine sniper, which meant a two-week summer trial surviving and navigating the coastal swamps of North Carolina. For at least 12 hours a day in summer heat, Smith trudged through swamps with a 70-pound pack on his back, traversing the mucky terrain with the help of a map and compass. The first week he did this alone; the second week he worked with a team. In the end he made the cut, joining eight other men from his platoon being sent to Marine Corps Base Quantico for sniper school. There, he finished first in his class of 26 graduates, with especially high scores for his shooting and stalking skills. Following this training, he was able to hit a 10-inch target from 1,000 yards with each and every shot (Marine sniper standards only require 80 percent accuracy, and that’s with a human-sized target.) When he finished sniper school, Smith was one of about 850 scout snipers in the Marine Corps. They are some of the most lethal men in the U.S. military.
“It’s a test of will,” Smith says of being able to thrive during such intensive training. “I was focused on nothing but succeeding.”
FRONT LINE ETHICS | After making his first combat kill in Afghanistan, Smith and his comrades passed the remainder of the evening bracing for a counterattack. They used night optics to scan the dark horizon for enemies and took turns catching some sleep. When Smith woke up from his slumber the next morning, the landscape was bright and busy. Afghan men hurried about, transferring items between compounds and zooming around on motorcycles. Some of the men walked around with rolled-up carpets over their shoulders. When the Marines saw the carpets, they feared there might be weapons concealed inside.
Amid the hustle and bustle was a well-groomed man with a long beard and nice, clean clothing – an appearance, Smith says, that “is just screaming Taliban.” The Marines watched the man speak into a walkie-talkie, an action that, if seen by U.S. snipers, is essentially a death sentence in the warzone of Afghanistan. Poor farmers in Afghanistan don’t have electronics, explains Smith. Poor farmers don’t have expensive clothes and immaculate beards, either.
With permission from their commander, Smith and three other snipers prepared for another shot. This time their target was closer, approximately 850 yards away. Smith relaxed as he sized up the situation. He and the other snipers had practiced this type of shot at least 200 times at sniper school.
“This,” Smith says, “is exactly what I train for.”
The enemy soldier was strolling toward a compound, headed behind a wall. He didn’t make it. Four shots pounded into the man’s chest, dropping him to the ground.
Hours later, at dusk, Smith and the other Marines collected their belongings and used the cover of darkness to head back to their patrol base. They soon learned from the Afghan National Police that the long-bearded man they had killed that morning was a Taliban commander. The policemen were appreciative.
Smith learned, too, that his first target was almost certainly an enemy fighter. The man, who had briefly survived the shot to the head before dying, had been brought to an American patrol base for medical treatment, with the villagers who carried him claiming that an innocent farmer had been shot. This claim proved dubious. American soldiers detected at least four types of explosive residue on the man’s hands and found wads of foreign currency in his pockets. Suspiciously, the man did not speak the local dialect.
Such details proved comforting to Smith, who felt no compunction in killing an enemy who had apparently been handling bombs.
“It was good to hear confirmation on those two guys,” Smith says. “There’s not a single ounce of guilt or sympathy in my body.”
Suffice it to say, if one has qualms about killing the enemy and following orders, he should not be a Marine, and certainly not a sniper. In the opening chapter of Marine Sniper – the nonfiction book that inspired Smith (and one that he has read at least five times) – it is 1967, and U.S. Marine sniper Sgt. Carlos Hathcock II trains a machine gun on a 12-year-old boy pedaling a bicycle down a dusty road in Vietnam. The boy is carrying rifles for the Viet Cong, and Hathcock is caught in a predicament: He is loath to shoot the boy, but more loath to let those rifles reach enemy soldiers. His solution is to shoot a round of bullets into the bicycle, destroying the vehicle and dumping the boy, and the rifles, harmlessly onto the ground. To Hathcock’s dismay, though, the boy does not flee from the gunfire that destroyed his bike, but instead decides to fight back. Picking himself up off the road with astonishing speed, the boy gathers the nearest rifle, loads a magazine and begins to search for the sniper that has destroyed his bicycle. The boy hardly has the gun loaded before Hathcock shoots him dead.
When one chooses to pick up a gun, especially in a war zone, he or she becomes potential prey as much as a potential predator. A gun in hand signals one’s admission to the world of combat, where life, already frequently lopsided and unfair, further lacks order and justice. In combat, as any veteran knows, one must kill others before they kill you. In combat, mercy is not an option. The challenge then becomes not only how to kill, but how to try to do it with honor.
In a foreword to Marine Sniper, Maj. E.J. Land (retired) offers these thoughts:
Honor on the battlefield is a sniper’s ethic. He shows it by the standards and discipline with which he lives life in combat. By the decency he shows his comrades. And by the rules he adheres to when meeting the enemy.
The sniper does not hate the enemy; he respects him or her as a quarry. Psychologically, the only motives that will sustain the sniper are the knowledge that he is doing a necessary job and the confidence that he is the best person to do it. On the battlefield hate will destroy any man and a sniper quicker than most.
ON THE HOMEFRONT | When Smith first told his parents about his decision to join the Marines, they were supportive, but not exactly thrilled. His father, Tommy Smith, who was an Air Force bombardier/navigator aboard B-52 bombers, initially encouraged his son to finish college and then join the Marines as an officer instead of as an enlisted man.
“Andrew, why don’t you stay in school for three semesters?” Tommy Smith recalls nudging his son. “You’ve got the girls, the grades, you’re doing well.”
Smith’s mother, Dee Moore, worried for her son’s safety, knowing he was almost guaranteed to go to war.
“Please, please turn around and come home and don’t do this,” Moore remembers hoping when Smith discussed joining the Marines. But neither this wishful thinking, nor his father’s advice, could shake Smith’s resolve.
“I was a young, naïve 20-year-old kid with a lot of testosterone,” Smith says. “I wanted to do something challenging.”
In the years to come, Smith’s family celebrated his homecomings and the milestones he passed as a Marine, including his graduation from Parris Island, his return from deployments to the Indian Ocean and Haiti, finishing sniper school and so on. Then, come February 2011, they had to say goodbye again, wishing Smith well as he deployed to a destination his family dreaded: Afghanistan.
As Smith headed to war, his parents, who are divorced, and his siblings prepared for limited communication. His father heard from Smith every couple of months. Their conversations were short, because of each man’s tendency toward brevity and of the dangerous environment in which Smith had to make calls. Tommy Smith knew, too, that his son was forbidden by the military to divulge details of battle. If his son didn’t say much, it was likely that he couldn’t say much. After all, he was a sniper on the front line. Chances were, the Marine was busy fighting.
Like a good son, Smith called his mother more often than his father. Usually these calls were made on a Saturday, using a satellite phone. Their conversation would rarely last more than two minutes, leaving no time for small talk. Indeed, Moore would be able to reliably ask just two things: “Are you okay?” and “What do you need?” Nonetheless, Moore was always grateful for the chat.
“You can’t imagine what that’s like unless you’ve been through it. That worry never leaves your mind,” she says. “I knew for those few seconds or minutes that he was safe.”
One Saturday in May 2011, Moore did not receive a phone call from her son. Not that morning, not that afternoon, not that evening and not that night. The next morning Moore left for church without hearing a word from Smith. Her stomach was in knots.
“He was supposed to call, he didn’t call me,” Moore remembers. “I had a really bad feeling.”
THE KILLING SEASON | Around May every year in southern Afghanistan, the poppy fields that dominate the country’s landscape are ready for harvest. Men flock to the countryside to help gather opium from the poppies’ seedpods. Ninety percent of the world’s opium, which is used to make heroin, comes from Afghanistan. For many Afghans, opium production is the most reliable way to make money.
The Taliban is no exception. It facilitates the opium trade each year to earn cash to pay for weapons. Then, after the harvest, with new weaponry and replenished ammunition, the Taliban normally launches a spring offensive. In 2011, it would be no different.
In May of that year, Smith and his sniper team were ordered to a new patrol base being built just outside of Salaam Bazaar, a market for firearms and opium in territory controlled by the Taliban. While Marine combat engineers were clearing the ground with tractors and erecting barriers for the base, Smith and his sniper team sat in the back of a truck, keeping an eye out for the enemy. Soon enough, Smith spied a dozen or so men milling around, speaking into radios. He roused his team, some of whom had been sleeping in the bed of the truck, and prepared to pick off the suspected Taliban soldiers. A moment before shooting, however, orders came over the radio to hold their fire. The commander said he did not want to start a firefight while the base was being built. Smith and his teammates complied with the commander’s decision, but they were not happy about the hesitation to engage the enemy.
“It was the clearest example of Taliban I’d seen so far,” he says.
At sunset, Smith and his teammates moved near the half-finished base, removing their clothes to sleep on cots in the open air. The next morning, May 15, they woke up and began moving into the base, which was slowly being completed. At 4 p.m., they received orders to go out on a mission that night, prompting them to begin cleaning their weapons. At 5 p.m., however, plans changed, as the fight unexpectedly came to them.
An explosion boomed in the distance near the market, followed by the telltale whistle of an incoming mortar. Twenty seconds after being fired, the mortar exploded 200 or so meters behind the base. Realizing he and his fellow Marines were under attack, Smith hurriedly put on his helmet and body armor. He crouched behind a barrier erected by the Marine engineers, but then realized in horror that it was empty, yet to be filled with sand.
“I’m basically kneeling behind chicken wire and cloth,” Smith recalls.
Smith heard another mortar being fired from the bazaar. This time, the Taliban had better aim. Within seconds, a blast hit the hollow barrier, standing Smith, only a few feet away, up on his feet. He saw his legs were drenched in blood. So was his face. He fell onto his knees, then his back, yelling that he was hit.
Immediately, Marines rushed over to help, encountering a grisly scene.
“You could see blood just squirting everywhere,” says Cpl. Keith Cobb, a fellow Marine sniper.
Smith reached down to feel his legs and genitals, making sure they were intact, which they were. He asked the other Marines to double-check these body parts, too. Among the greatest fears in the military, Smith explains, is the loss of limbs and organs below one’s waist.
The Marines applied tourniquets to his left leg, which was bleeding badly from mortar shrapnel. The battle intensified, making medical treatment difficult. With each explosion, Marines piled on top of Smith, protecting him from the shrapnel of additional incoming mortars, but also aggravating his injuries and causing pain. Within a few minutes, his blood loss was significant.
“I could feel that my life was starting to slip away a little bit,” he says.
About 15 minutes after Smith was injured, a medevac helicopter, or dustoff, touched down behind the base. The chopper was a tempting target, and the Taliban fired furiously.
“The patrol base was under consistent fire from insurgents and as the dustoff helicopter came in to land, I could hear incoming rounds over the sound of the Blackhawk’s rotor blades,” recalls Kevin Frayer, an Associated Press photographer who was traveling aboard the helicopter. “I saw Marines on the ground taking whatever cover they could find … behind vehicles and barricades. The attack was intense.”
During the firefight, three other Marine snipers were hit by enemy rounds. Smith, however, was the most badly wounded and would leave the battlefield first. He was loaded onto the chopper amid exploding mortars, and soon was airborne. His condition appeared grave.
“Cpl. Smith seemed in really rough shape from his injuries. He was bleeding badly from his leg, losing a considerable amount of blood and battling pain. His situation and condition appeared dire, and the medics knew it. The U.S. Army flight medic Sgt. Jaime Adame worked hard to stop or at least slow the bleeding as the helicopter raced to get Smith to a U.S. Navy combat field hospital in the area,” says Frayer. “As I photographed the scene, I was uncertain Cpl. Smith would survive. The chaos of the patrol base, the extent of his injuries and the amount of bleeding all suggested the odds were stacked against him.”
Within another 15 minutes, the helicopter had landed safely and Smith was being treated at a field hospital. Since being given an anesthetic aboard the helicopter, he had calmed a bit, and a smile even crossed his face. He was blissfully unaware that his femoral vein and artery were severed by shrapnel, and that he was still in grave danger, the tourniquets barely keeping him from bleeding to death. While being treated in the field hospital, he became delusional, telling the master sergeant nearby that he wanted to rejoin his sniper team in two weeks.
Moving quickly, medics placed Smith aboard another helicopter for transport to a hospital at Camp Leatherneck, where Smith had first arrived in Afghanistan three months earlier. By now, the medics had replaced the field tourniquets applied by the snipers with a pneumatic tourniquet, which applied considerably more pressure. The 40-minute helicopter ride to Camp Leatherneck, Smith says, “felt like a month. It was like having a school bus parked on my leg.”
As Smith traveled through the air for the second time that day, the severity of his injuries became apparent. He became incredulous that he might die in the desert, in these circumstances. Despite being at war, never did he imagine that he might be a casualty. He had trained too hard, he told himself, and been too careful. Yet, here he was aboard a helicopter above Afghanistan, his life leaving his body.
The injuries and anesthesia had impaired Smith’s senses, and he soon was overwhelmed, too, by both the disbelief and the fear of dying. He started to pray, which he admits is an uncommon activity, before becoming consumed with terror as his vital signs deteriorated. “I couldn’t hear anything,” Smith remembers. “My vision was going dark, and I started freaking out and going into really bad shock.”
As the helicopter clipped through the air, Smith began screaming: “AM I STILL ALIVE? AM I STILL ALIVE?”
In the next instant, Smith became subdued, apologizing to the medics for being so difficult. Then, he abruptly lost consciousness.
THE CALL | When the phone finally rang at Dee Moore’s house on that Sunday, it was not her son’s voice on the end of the line, but rather that of another Marine. He was exceedingly formal, identifying himself before starting to read from a report that described Smith’s injuries and medical transport. The information came at Moore fast and furious, and left unsaid was a prognosis for Smith’s survival and recovery.
“At least I knew he was alive,” she says, “but I was so upset I really couldn’t even hear what the Marine was saying.”
Hours later, in the middle of the night, Smith called his mother from a hospital in Afghanistan, surprising her. Smith was drugged, and he told his mother that his injuries were nothing worse than the cat scratch fever he had once suffered as a kid. Whether intentional or not, this untruth from Smith was merciful, putting his mother at ease. It was only days later, when Moore received medical records from the Marine Corps and consulted with a doctor that she realized how close to death her son had come.
In Afghanistan, Smith underwent surgery to remove large pieces of shrapnel and repair the blood vessels in his legs. In the days that followed, Smith made a long, slow journey back to the United States via Germany, where he had three more surgeries. When he arrived at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., a week after being injured, Smith was placed in an intensive care unit for one night. The next day he was greeted by both his parents, who knew instantly that their son would be OK.
“There he was,” says Moore, “sitting up in bed like nothing happened to him, with this huge smile on his face.”
Smith was discharged from the hospital five days later, on May 27, 2011. He headed home to his mother’s house in South Carolina and began physical therapy in Clemson, where he was soon walking and hopping. A month later, he returned to Camp Lejeune and continued physical therapy among other Marines. He set a goal for himself: to be able to run with his platoon when they returned in September. He wanted to show them that “I just wasn’t sitting on my ass taking pain pills all summer.” Smith was jogging by August.
During his rehabilitation, Smith kept in touch with his fellow Marine snipers still in Afghanistan. They were seeing regular combat, which pained Smith. His injury, they told him, marked the beginning of an intense season of fighting.
“That was the most heartbreaking part of the injury,” Smith says. “I wasn’t going to be there to help them out.”
When Smith’s platoon returned to Camp Lejeune in September, Smith joined them all on a run. All, that is, except Sgt. Mark Bradley. He stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on June 3, 2011, and died 13 days later. He was 25.
THE NEW NORMAL | These days Andrew Smith is back at the College and enjoying life as a civilian. He was honorably discharged from the Marines in January, leaving the military as a sergeant. He has returned to Charleston a changed man, more grateful for each day alive, more outgoing and less uptight. Well, a little less uptight. Smith’s friends still rib him for his occasional bursts of road rage, his refusal to talk on the phone while driving and his focus on cleanliness.
Though Smith is well again, there will likely be no such thing as a complete recovery from his injuries. He experiences minor aches and pain each day, and tiny bits of shrapnel regularly come out of his body. Some of these bits are surgically removed; others squirm to the surface of his skin on their own, dislodged when he washes his hair, for example, or runs a Q-Tip around his ear and surprisingly draws blood. About the only area of his body that doesn’t shed shrapnel is his chest, where he had been wearing a protective vest when he was injured.
But these are small hassles and are eclipsed by the joy he finds in life. He rooms now with two fellow former Marine snipers in downtown Charleston. Their friendship allows him to keep a foot in the old world, but the three men also take great pains to forge new paths in Charleston.
“We do a lot more. We have fun. We do what we want to do,” says his roommate Cobb, who was with Smith when he was injured. “In the military, we were so secluded. … There’s a sense of freedom now. We don’t have the blinders on.”
When Smith shares stories from his military career, people are attentive and supportive. They don’t, however, have much context for what he’s talking about, requiring Smith to tell every story from start to finish, explaining the basics of America’s involvement in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan, he knows, is an afterthought for many Americans, if it’s any thought at all. He acknowledges this without bitterness.
Reflecting on his injury, Smith says one of the most meaningful lessons he has learned is how fine a line separates life and death. He walked that line, and nearly slipped across it while flying through the skies above Afghanistan. If not for a number of tourniquets, he knows, this story would have a different ending.
Instead, Smith is back in school, as determined as ever, and satisfied with what transpired since he took a break from the College to enlist in the Marines nearly five years earlier. In that time he became a sniper, tasted war, served his country, survived a near-fatal injury and made his family proud. He did his very best. Now it’s time for new things.