Valley Neighbors: Vet reflects on decade of military service
by Sandi Olson
Nov 07, 2013 | 1622 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Shawn Smith with his Marine unit on the Iraq-Kuwait border. Courtesy photo
Shawn Smith with his Marine unit on the Iraq-Kuwait border. Courtesy photo
Shawn Smith with his Marine unit on the Iraq-Kuwait border. Courtesy photo
Shawn Smith with his Marine unit on the Iraq-Kuwait border. Courtesy photo

Shawn Smith of Santa Cruz has carried shrapnel in his brain since April 13, 2004 when he led his squadron of Marines in the battle of Fallujah. As part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Sgt. Smith and his men located and retrieved classified material and coalition weapons from a U.S. helicopter that had been shot down in Fallujah, Iraq.

Born in 1979 in Santa Cruz, Smith felt called to join the military at an early age. His father was a Vietnam veteran and strict disciplinarian. He enlisted in September 1997, right after graduating from high school and completed recruit training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.

“Boot camp is where everything starts and camaraderie is established among the recruits,” Smith said. “We were put in situations where we had to adapt and rely on our teammates. We were no longer individuals, but a team working together.”

In 1998, Smith was deployed to the Mediterranean and lived on a ship, the USS Nassau, for 11 months. The ship’s focus was a “show of presence.” He was assigned as an infantry scout sniper. Smith’s team was trained to go ashore in various countries and do what was needed, from cultural relations to intervening in ethnic cleansing and Serbian genocide in Kosovo. During his down time, he took online college courses from the University of North Carolina and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology.

“We were a search and rescue team,” he said. “Bombing missions went on throughout the night, and we had to always be on the alert for downed aircraft and tactile recovery of air force personnel.”

Smith was deployed to Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan 10 times for a duration of 11 months each. He saw every country in the Mediterranean and was always ready to protect people who couldn’t fight for themselves.

In April 2004, Smith was sent to Fallujah.

“Our job was to eradicate ‘high targets’ on the most wanted list and take them down. One of them was Mohammad Zarqawi – a top al-Qaida leader,” Smith said. “I was now a sergeant and had approximately 30 young men from all different countries under me. I had to earn their respect and trust before leading them into combat.”

Smith’s biggest battle, the Battle of Fallujah, occurred on April 13, 2004. A U.S. helicopter was shot down, and his squadron was called in to recover the sensitive material and any deceased soldiers or weapons on board. While there, they were ambushed and everyone in his unit was hit. All their vehicles were destroyed. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded beside Smith and among other injuries, lodged shrapnel in his hip and brain.

Ignoring his injury, he led his squad to safety as they repelled the enemy’s attacks. Several of his men were killed and Smith suffered a traumatic brain injury. Due to his perseverance and dedication, Smith was awarded a Purple Heart. However, his injuries did not prevent him from carrying on his service, and he served as a U.S. Marine for more than 10 years. He was honorably discharged in February 2009.

The transition home was hard.

“When I arrived back home I didn’t know who I was,” said Smith. “I wasn’t a combat Marine anymore, but at the same time I was no longer just a kid who’d grown up in Santa Cruz. I’d never had a job outside of the Marines. This was a very difficult time for me. I digressed and lost faith in people. I found many people to be mean and closed-minded. I also felt discriminated against for my military service. I became bitter and reclusive,” he said.

Smith finally decided to get a Weimaraner and he named the dog Gage. They quickly bonded, and they began doing marathons and endurance mud runs together.

“Now when my motivation is gone, Gage pushes me to live a life of honor for my fallen comrades,” said Smith. “Even though I suffer from Traumatic Brain Injury and several other disorders, I know that it’s my duty to help and encourage others.”

Smith, who battles memory loss, PTSD, depression and emotional ups and downs, sees himself making progress every day. He works at Palace Arts and focuses on the positive things in his life.

“I’m grateful for my girlfriend, my support group and Gage,” he said. I owe my life to the Marines who gave their lives for me. I’ve been given a second chance to live and have found hope again.”

- Sandi Olson of Scotts Valley is a writer, speaker and teacher. She writes about interesting people in Scotts Valley and the San Lorenzo Valley. E-mail her at

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