Veteran, POW shares story

Navy pilot who served in Vietnam gives talk at Jackson-Milton

Members of the American Legion Lake Milton Post 737 were among the more than 500 guests at a Veterans Day assembly Friday at Jackson-Milton Middle / High School. The assembly featured a flag ceremony, readings, music and a presentation by Vietnam POW Bradley Smith, a 1957 Jackson-Milton alumni and Navy pilot. Tribune Chronicle / Emily Earnhart

JACKSON TOWNSHIP — Bradley E. Smith defines a veteran as “one who gave of themselves for something bigger than themselves.”

Smith should know. He was a prisoner of war for nearly seven years during Vietnam, where he served as a Navy pilot.

The 1957 Jackson-Milton High School graduate, now 79, returned to his alma mater Friday morning to talk to students as part of a Veterans Day assembly at the Jackson-Milton Middle / High School cafetorium. More than 500 people were in attendance, including 50-plus military members, community residents, students and school staff.

“You can’t tell a veteran by how they look. But whether they served in war or peace, they have certain traits in common. They are patriotic and have a sense of duty to their country. They give without expectation of recognition,” Smith said.

The highly decorated veteran participated in approximately 70 missions before being shot down and crashing into a field with his plane’s tail on fire in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 1966.

“I remember reaching up my hand, looking at the instruments registering 600 miles from the ground and thinking, it’s too late, I won’t survive,” Smith said.

But survive he did, despite seven years in and out of prisons with names like the “Hanoi Hilton,” the “Zoo,” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” as named by the captured men there. Despite hunger, deplorable conditions, terror tactics — both psychological and physical, and being moved at midnight into places and conditions without notice — Smith said he had one focus: survival.

“I always thought I would survive. You communicate with others and you get as tough as nails,” he said. “It’s about setting goals, small ones.”

And the goals that led him forward included keeping his fellow captives alive as well until his release in 1973.

Smith and other veterans, including nearly 100 Jackson-Milton alumni who had served in the military since World War I, were honored during Friday’s assembly. Guests included the American Legion Lake Milton Post 737 which showed the colors, as well as local Boy Scouts and student participants from grades 7 to 12.

“The committee led by the teachers puts this all together,” Principal David Vega said, giving credit to all in attendance and the support of the local community.

The event concluded with a luncheon for guests provided by the Jackson-Milton student council members, who served and conducted the luncheon — a tradition that has continued to promote the schools’ dedication to veterans, Vega said.

A second ceremony also took place at Jackson-Milton Elementary School Friday afternoon that included musical performances and the reading of poetry.