Smith lever­ages mil­i­tary ser­vice in elec­tion bid

The State (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY MAAYAN SCHECHTER mschechter@thes­tate.com

Days be­fore South Carolini­ans de­cide their next gov­er­nor, a hand­ful of com­bat vet­er­ans — and the Afghan in­ter­preters who led them through a war zone a decade ago, all known as PMT Viper — will de­scend on the Pal­metto State, help­ing their friend run for the state’s high­est of­fice.

They in­clude Steven Bog­a­r­dus, or “Bo­gie,” of New York, who cred­its his life and busi­ness suc­cess to state Rep. James Smith.

And in­ter­preter Haris Kakar, who says he would not be liv­ing a bet­ter life at his new home in Texas if not for Smith.

“It is hard to say ev­ery­thing I would like to say about this man,” Bog­a­r­dus said of Smith on Face­book as he asked South Carolini­ans to vote on Nov. 6 for Smith over Repub­li­can in­cum­bent Gov. Henry Mcmaster.

“If it wasn’t for James I would not be here or where I am to­day.”

Smith’s mil­i­tary ser­vice at home and abroad has been the lynch­pin of his cam­paign to be­come South Carolina’s first Demo­cratic gov­er­nor in 20 years. It’s a cam­paign strat­egy to ap­peal to pro-mil­i­tary Re­pub­li­cans in a largely red state.

Smith, a Columbia at­tor­ney, was a Judge Ad­vo­cate Gen­eral of­fi­cer for eight years in the S.C. Army Na­tional Guard be­fore he re­signed his of­fi­cer’s com­mis­sion and en­listed in the in­fantry af­ter feel­ing “a call to serve” fol­low­ing the ter­ror­ist at­tacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

At the “old age” of 37, Smith jokes, he left the S.C. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and started ba­sic train­ing. In early 2007, he de­ployed to Afghanistan as part of Op­er­a­tion En­dur­ing Free­dom. There, he com­manded a nine-man team as a com­bat ad­viser em­bed­ded with Afghan se­cu­rity forces.

His dec­o­ra­tions in­clude a Bronze Star and Pur­ple Heart.

But how would that ser­vice

trans­late to the S.C. Gov­er­nor’s Man­sion?

The state’s 400,000plus vet­er­ans make up an im­por­tant vot­ing bloc in South Carolina — home to eight ma­jor mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions — and Smith’s cam­paign pro­pos­als have tac­ti­cally tar­geted them.

Smith, for ex­am­ple, wants to cre­ate a cab­i­net-level sec­re­tary of vet­eran af­fairs po­si­tion to pro­mote vet­er­ans’ is­sues, in­clud­ing sui­cide pre­ven­tion and vet­er­ans’ tran­si­tion into civil­ian jobs, such as teach­ing.

If elected, the 22-year House vet­eran says he would work to elim­i­nate taxes on mil­i­tary re­tiree pay.

And, at the fi­nal de­bate be­tween Smith and Mcmaster in Greenville on Thurs­day, Smith again ex­pressed his sup­port for med­i­cal mar­i­juana for pa­tients who suf­fer de­bil­i­tat­ing health prob­lems, in­clud­ing seizures and post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

Mcmaster — who was in the U.S. Army Re­serves and the Judge Ad­vo­cate Gen­eral Corps, but never de­ployed over­seas — has pro­posed sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives and has won sup­port from vet­er­ans, hop­ing his ap­peal as a pro-vet­eran gov­er­nor keeps him in his seat.

The men in uni­form that served with Smith in Afghanistan, how­ever, say Smith’s ser­vice makes him more qual­i­fied for that job.

“There are some prin­ci­ples in­volved with ser­vice in the armed forces that tie di­rectly to lead­er­ship and ex­am­ple in hard­ship in shared sac­ri­fice,” said Smith’s friend, U.S. Army vet­eran David “Ink” Perry on Tues­day. Perry said Smith’s nick­name in the Army was “Macgyver,” af­ter a 1980s TV char­ac­ter known for his re­source­ful­ness and abil­ity to quickly es­cape dan­ger.

“We need lead­er­ship like that.”

‘AN OF­FI­CER OF UN­RI­VALED PO­TEN­TIAL’

Two days be­fore Smith’s 40th birth­day, he al­most died af­ter the Tal­iban re­leased a bar­rage of bul­lets at him over a 45minute span.

On top of a steep moun­tain ridge — dur­ing a mis­sion deemed Op­er­a­tion Edisto — ra­dio chat­ter caught Smith’s at­ten­tion. More im­por­tantly, it caught the at­ten­tion of his trans­la­tor, Mo­ham­mad Amin, who years later would set­tle in Columbia.

“He (Amin) came fly­ing down the moun­tain along the side of the ridge and ... with a great deal of ur­gency, said, ‘You have got to in­form James to take some type of cover. They are about to open up on him,’ “Perry said. “Then all hell broke loose.”

That piv­otal mo­ment in one of the most re­mote parts of Afghanistan plays out in Smith’s TV ad, “The Call,” when, af­ter Smith fell down the moun­tain af­ter the fire­fight, the Tal­iban took his cell phone and placed calls to his wife, Kirk­land, among oth­ers.

“I just re­mem­ber think­ing about my lit­tle girl,” Smith said on Tues­day of that mo­ment. “I re­mem­ber think­ing, she just can’t not have her fa­ther.”

And it would not be the only scrap Smith and his team got into.

On an­other day, Smith’s ve­hi­cle drove over an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice, or IED, blow­ing off the front of the ve­hi­cle and send­ing Smith and oth­ers into the air. Smith suf­fered a trau­matic brain in­jury and still hears ring­ing in his ears. He also has per­ma­nent hear­ing loss in his right ear.

“Most South Carolini­ans have no idea what all they are get­ting with him (Smith),” Perry said. “You’re get­ting the full tool­box with him.”

Smith’s se­nior of­fi­cers agreed.

“Smith’s po­ten­tial is un­lim­ited,” su­per­vi­sors wrote in his per­for­mance and po­ten­tial eval­u­a­tion. The doc­u­ments also re­ferred to Smith as a “war­rior” for con­tin­u­ing to lead his team with­out com­plain­ing or hes­i­ta­tion de­spite be­ing wounded.

“His vi­sion, in­nate op­er­a­tional in­stincts, hard­nosed ex­e­cu­tion and that of his great team made a real dif­fer­ence in the war here,” the eval­u­a­tion con­tin­ued. “His in­no­va­tive op­er­a­tions and train­ing rad­i­cally im­proved Afghan Po­lice ef­fec­tive­ness, and rou­tinely ran the en­emy down and killed them in an ag­gres­sive fash­ion not seen be­fore in this part of Afghanistan. An of­fi­cer of un­ri­valed po­ten­tial, un­com­mon judg­ment and im­pec­ca­ble char­ac­ter.”

‘WE’RE GO­ING TO WORK IN­FIN­ITELY HARDER’

Be­fore de­ploy­ment, Smith says he ad­mits he was a bit more en­er­getic in the State House.

“Now, I don’t sweat the small stuff,” Smith said of his time back in state, which has in­cluded ser­vice in the S.C. Na­tional Guard. “I care more about get­ting it right re­gard­less of the con­se­quences.”

If elected in two weeks, Smith says his mil­i­tary ser­vice will be threaded through his work in the Gov­er­nor’s Of­fice.

Perry notes, for ex­am­ple, Smith knows how to build strong coali­tions and has the “tech­ni­cal where­withal to see through through things that are le­git­i­mate and things that are not.”

“As hard as we are work­ing to win this race, we’re go­ing to work in­fin­itely harder to serve (the peo­ple of South Carolina),” Smith added. “We’re not go­ing to miss a mo­ment of that op­por­tu­nity.”

JEFF BLAKE Jeff@jeff­blakephoto.com

Demo­cratic gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date James Smith, left, speaks with Army soldier David Lau­rie dur­ing a town hall meet­ing at Bene­dict Col­lege.

Pro­vided by James Smith

James Smith poses with his Afghan in­ter­preter dur­ing his tour of Afghanistan with the S.C. Na­tional Guard. Smith is run­ning against Repub­li­can Gov. Henry Mcmaster.

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