After the first week, you get used to the bullet sounds, machine guns, the booms, and the ‘kink, kink, kink’,” said Charles Smith, assistant athletic director at Tyler Junior College.
A wide-eyed 19-year-old kid from Troup, Smith enlisted in the Air Force Reserves on July 3, 2001, between his freshman and sophomore years at Texas A&M University.
“I had thought a little about it before [joining the military]. I thought I could get through school with the benefits [the military offers] before anything happens.”
Nearly two months later, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center.
In the spring of 2002, Smith did not return to A&M. He instead spent his semester in basic training and tech school for the military. It wasn’t until that summer that he was able to return to A&M where he attended classes until the fall of 2005.
Close to finishing school, Smith needed to do an internship and knew he wanted to come back toEast Texas and try to do something close to home. He had attended summer classes at TJC and thought the school might be a good fit.
“I e-mailed Ms. Angela Clemons [Staff Coordinator for athletics] and asked if it would be a possibility for me to do an internship with them. They welcomed me. I was very open and up front with my military obligations, and they were OK with it,” Smith said.
The internship came to a conclusion at the end of 2005, and Smith needed just one more class to graduate, but he was at a financial crossroad in his life. He needed money badly and still did not have his degree. That spring he worked on the Barksdale Air Force in Louisiana. While there, he also took a TJC online class and had to drive back every Saturday for a lab. On the Saturdays he would drive back into Tyler, he would often stop by to visit with Clemons and Athletic Director Dr. Tim Drain.
“I wanted to stay in contact with them and have a strong reference after I graduated. About the time that I knew I was going to graduate, the current Assistant Athletic Director Reid Kerr had just resigned. I remember asking Dr. Drain if there was a chance that I would be a candidate for the job since I was graduating right at the time Reid was leaving. Dr. Drain told me to fill out an application, and the rest is history,” Smith said.
Smith was the assistant athletic director for more than a year when he felt he might be called to active duty.
In July of 2007, they were all requested to be at Barksdale Air Force Base. The Air Force wanted to make sure that all of the soldiers were up to date on their shots and medical records. When they left Barksdale they flew to Wisconsin for more training.
Leaving for a foreign country can be problematic for co-workers left behind.
“As an athletic director, I knew we were going to be fine,” Drain said. “Chuck gave us enough prep time so that we could make other arrangements. As a friend to Chuck, the war seemed a lot closer. Walking by his office and him not being there made it real.”
They were in Wisconsin for about a month before heading over to the desert.
“When we were in Wisconsin, I don’t think it had hit me yet what I was about to be doing,” Smith said.
“In training you’re gearing yourself to respond,” Smith said. “When we were sitting on the tarmac to leave, that’s when it began to hit. It was a daze of emotion.”
Smith spent six and a half months in Iraq.
“One of the most important things we did was build a Toys For Tots program,” Smith said.
The Toys For Tots program was created to show the kids of Iraq that American Soldiers are there to help.
The bright spot in soldier’s daily lives was mail day.
“Mail day is like Christmas time over there. Everyone is happy on mail day,” Smith said.
Although there are days where letters from home can make a difference, it still is hard being so far away.
“Everybody else is back home going about their business as usual,” Smith said. “You realize that you have changed when you are over there due to your experiences.
“It struck home with me when I saw some of the marines who were stationed with us having memorial services, it showed that it [death] was a possibility,” Smith said.
Knowing that it is a possibility, the day a soldier gets word that his/her tour of duty might be coming to an end is a day of joy.
Smith and his fellow troops didn’t know a specific date when they were going to be coming home, but they did have ideas. Due to the military screening e-mails and phone calls they are not able to tell loved ones exactly when they were headed home, but they are able to drop hints.
“We would get updates on him from him or his mom,” Drain said.
Eventually Drain and Clemons received an e-mail that read, “I’ll be home in time to pay my taxes.”
Hearing the tires of the plane touch down at the Barksdale Air Force Base knowing that we are going to see the friends and family that we’ve left behind to go defend our country was overwhelming. It was awesome to feel the love and support, Smith said.
Drain and Clemons were a few of the many people who gathered to greet Smith as he walked off the plane. After the group said their hellos, they all went out to lunch. When the meal was over and the table was deciding who would be on whose check. The waiter walked over to Smith and said that his meal was taken care of. He also said two words, “thank you.”
After getting a much-needed vacation, Smith returned to the TJC Athletic Department.
“I felt as if I was a new hire. I had to place friendly reminders around my office to remind me of what I needed to do,” Smith said.
Soon the sticky notes began to come off the walls and as Smith eased back into his old job. It is something that every soldier has to go through, getting back to what is normal.