BONANZA — It has been many years since Lafe (short for “Lafayette”) Smith served as an Army officer during the Vietnam War, and the experience has both influenced his commitment to the community he has called home for over four decades, yet harmed him personally.
For his service as an officer and his extensive community work, Smith was among a handful of individuals recently inducted into the 2018 Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Ga.
Smith grew up in Colorado, but became familiar with the Klamath Basin working on his uncle’s ranch in Dorris each summer. He has called the Klamath Basin home for more than 40 years, running a business in Klamath Falls while operating a small 80-acre farm in Bonanza with his wife Peggy. While his time in the military was short, the experiences and lessons learned have applied to his life for decades, going from service to his country to service to his community.
Smith retired seven years ago from the family business, Pacific Linen & Uniform Supply, but has not let up in his other calls to duty. For decades he and Peggy both have been active with Bonanza youth, overseeing the 4-H Twin Valley Sheep Club. Smith has been a 4-H and FFA leader for about 30 years, and may best be known simply as ‘Coach Smith’ after 30 years as the Bonanza High School wrestling coach. These days, he has stepped back somewhat, taking on an assistant role instead.
Smith was a successful wrestler in high school and had continued his athletic pursuits into college until, as he puts it, “I discovered beer.”
His military experience was oddly timed, receiving a draft notice the same day he married Peggy. The couple had inexplicably met earlier at the Klamath County Fair as Smith and his uncle came to the aid of Peggy and her father, residents of Alturas, whose vehicle had broken down on Highway 97.
“We talked for a bit, and when I got back in the truck I thought, ‘wow, she was cute!’, but never thought I’d see her again,” laughed Smith. “We both ended up at Colorado State University. My uncle wanted me to get in touch with her to sell her dad some bulls, and it turned out her dad wanted her to get in touch with me to buy some bulls from my uncle…We never sold them any bulls, but we did get married.”
Their first daughter was born while Smith was under heavy attack for three days pinned down by North Vietnamese forces, learning about the momentous occasion two weeks later.
He served a total of two years, 10 months and 22 days in the Army as an infantry captain in Vietnam and Cambodia. During his service he earned a Purple Heart, an Air Medal for 25 combat assault missions successfully completed, a Combat Infantry Badge, an Army Commendation for Valor and two Bronze Stars for Valor.
Smith trained at Fort Lewis, Fort Dix and Fort Campbell until he qualified for officer candidate school at Fort Benning. At the time, 200 officers were qualifying each week to the war demand. Since 1941 more than 250,000 graduates from the school have served across all branches of the military.
Honoring the classmates
To honor the most remarkable achievements of those who have graduated, a small handful are inducted into a hall of fame at the military museum at Fort Benning each year. This year Smith was among 32 graduates selected.
It was at the behest of his wife and a few friends that Smith agreed to attend the event, though he wasn’t sure why he was chosen.
According to Smith, the honor is supposed to be granted for those who went above and beyond in the call of duty, but for Smith he believes it is for the service he provided to the community in civilian life applying lessons learned from the military that led to this honor.
“I still don’t think I deserved it, it meant a lot to me until I got there and everyone else had done so much more, I felt a little inadequate,” said Smith. “The gentleman in front of me was a co-Nobel Peace Prize winner for global anti-landmine efforts and the one behind me had served as an advisor for three presidents. I appreciated the honor, but there were all these guys who did all this incredible stuff, and then me.”
His military record may not have matched some of his induction ceremony colleagues, but according to Smith they showed him tremendous respect for his accomplishments in life.
“I had guys coming up to me patting me on the back for all that I’ve done,” explained Smith. “I did things in the public carrying on lessons learned in the military about leadership and responsibility.
“They said I had done so much outside of the military that gives credit to what I did while in the military, a lot of these guys who spend their whole careers do a tremendous amount but they move every three or four years so they can’t put roots into a community the way we have.”
It isn’t the honors Smith has received that he is most proud of, but what he was able to do for another soldier in recognition of their heroic action.
A surprise reunion
During one mission in Vietnam one of his soldiers jumped on a hand grenade, smothering it with his helmet and absorbing the blast with his stomach, saving the lives of six nearby soldiers. Smith and others carried their colleague, who was near-death, to an Army hospital, where doctors told Smith there was no way that the soldier would survive due to the severity of his wounds.
Smith nominated the soldier for the Congressional Medal of Honor, believing it to be a posthumous petition. The award was approved, which made Smith enormously proud.
Instead, surprise was the emotion Smith experienced at a platoon reunion last year when the soldier who had smothered the grenade, John Baca, showed up at the event still very much alive with his Medal of Honor in hand.
His time in the military has affected him personally, too. Upon returning stateside from Vietnam he was spat on and called a “baby killer” when he tried to enter a restaurant in Stockton, Calif., and chose to never wear his uniform in public again.
He didn’t talk about his military experience for many years, and suffered from nightmares and anger issues at home. Smith admits to have been affected by his personal experiences in war, inflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though it didn’t start to really bother him until after he retired because, “I was just too damn busy to notice.”
Military honors aside, Smith is most proud of his family and the life he has led in Bonanza. All four of their children have gone on to earn Masters Degrees and make a huge difference in their communities.
Their oldest daughter works with Sky Lakes Medical Center, another is a teacher at Shasta Elementary School, a third is an agriculture teacher at Central Linn High School, and their son is the youngest school superintendent in the State of Oregon in Echo.
Both Lafe and Peggy remain active in Bonanza as 4-H leaders, proud of their accomplishments serving the community that they love with the same kind of motivated call to duty he first learned carrying a rifle through the jungles of Vietnam.
“I like the small town atmosphere and friendly people,” added Smith. “I have really enjoyed my time here, it’s been a nice community to have kids grow up in.”