Colonel David O. Smith reflects on life in military
Smith, a 1969 graduate of MU, served in the military for 31 years.
Nov. 11, 2014
Applause thundered through Memorial Stadium.
During halftime of the Missouri-Kentucky football game on Nov. 1, veterans marched onto the field in their neatly pressed uniforms. The group was made up of newly-inducted members of the MU Army ROTC Hall of Fame.
Among them was Col. David O. Smith, a 1969 graduate of MU who served in the military for 31 years.
After Smith retired from the Army, he became a civilian employee of the Department of Defense, serving as the senior director for Pakistan in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and later as the senior Defense Intelligence Analyst for Pakistan in the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Smith’s military career began at MU. As an undergraduate, he studied political science and received a master’s in international relations in 1974.
Through this time, he became close to several faculty members. He still keeps in contact with many today, such as professor emeritus of political science Paul Wallace.
“He came here as a grad student, and I got to know him relatively quickly in his first or second semester,” Wallace said. “He was very active in the Army ROTC here and was a cadet commander and became a military attaché.”
Robin Remington, professor emeritus of political science, met Smith through their involvement with the ROTC program.
When Smith graduated college, the Vietnam War was in full swing. He assumed he would end up serving in the war eventually, so he decided to join the military early on.
Because of how long the Vietnam War had been going on, he ultimately decided to take his first assignment in Europe, rather than Asia.
“There was a program in Fort Benning, Georgia, that allowed you to finish the last two years there, so you could choose where you wanted to go,” Smith said. “And since, at that point, we all thought Vietnam would last forever, I decided for my first assignment I would like to spend 12 months in Europe.”
After a year, he was given command of field artillery battle, and he was stabilized for another 13 months in Germany. In his overall course of service, Smith spent two years in Germany, two years in Korea, served three tours in Pakistan, had multiple assignments in the U.S. and served more than 10 years at the Pentagon.
While Smith served in Europe, the Vietnam War began to dwindle down. He was confident he would eventually serve there, so when the orders came that he wouldn’t, it took a toll on him that he hadn’t expected.
“Fifty percent of my group went to Vietnam and 50 percent didn’t,” Smith said. “That was a bit of a handicap that I managed to overcome.”
Smith said that when the Army draws down after a long period of warfare, as in Vietnam, and even today, those who were eligible to go and didn't go are handicapped a bit for future promotions and assignments because of their lack of combat experience.
At the beginning of his time in the military, Smith held two positions: field artillery officer and foreign area officer.
“We had two positions and alternated between the two,” Smith said. “That system made it difficult to succeed in competition with full-time field artillerymen. However, I managed to command field artillery battalion and eventually to become a colonel, which is very difficult for foreign area officers, so I was very satisfied with my military career.”
Wallace said he believes it takes a special type of person to rise through the ranks and achieve what Smith has.
“He’s always been quiet and reflective and never rushed into things,” Wallace said. “Considering he was in the military and then worked for the government, that’s a good thing. He thought through things, and he isn’t easily categorized. He is all around a sober and responsible person.”
Remington saw, and still sees, certain qualities within Smith that not only made him an excellent military officer, but also the person he is today.
“He’s a very persistent and dedicated person with a great deal of integrity,” Remington said. “I have had the utmost admiration for him for many years.”
While training to become a foreign area officer, Smith attended the Pakistan Army Command and Staff College, a top military school in Quetta, Pakistan.
Although he had many experiences over his time in the service, the one that stands out most to Smith was during his 1982 mission in Pakistan. On this particular trip, his wife, Ellen, and daughter, Courtney, went with him.
Smith said the exotic location near the border with Afghanistan, living in a very cosmopolitan community where he and his family were the only Americans and the isolation of Quetta were what made the experience memorable.
“We had only a shortwave radio link with the rest of the world,” Smith said. “We had the opportunity to travel all over India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, as well as Pakistan. It was unlike any military tour before or since.”
Smith said the experience brought him and his family closer.
“This time was fantastic because it would never be repeated,” Smith said. “It was what started me on my path to my second career in government as a Pakistan expert.”
Smith said that if he had any claim to fame it wouldn’t be from his service in the army itself, but in the years after, when he was working with Pakistan after he left the military. He was preparing intelligence in Pakistan during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I personally believe that I was in the right place at the right time with the right experience and right background to take the right action at that time,” Smith said, regarding the attack.
Though officially retired from the military, Smith is still highly involved in foreign affairs. He is still working on many Pakistan-related projects and travels overseas four or five times a year.
“He’s the leading specialist on Pakistan in the U.S. military,” Wallace said. “I’ve seen him develop and mature his knowledge of Pakistan, and now he knows more than I probably do.”
In addition to his government-related work, Smith writes essays and has a published piece coming out soon dealing with Pakistan’s nuclear program. He also travels frequently to Florida to visit his grandchildren and daughter, who he considers his “greatest achievement.”
His pride only intensified after his daughter, Courtney Corcoran, finished high school.
While on his first assignment as a military attaché, or foreign liaison, in Pakistan, Smith had to miss his daughter’s senior year of high school. She was what he described as a “military brat,” moving approximately 25 times while she was growing up.
After her graduation, she decided to to take a year off of school to spend with her parents in the Middle East. Once her time there was done, she went to the University of Richmond in Virginia.
“Six months later, we got a call from Courtney, and she said she wanted to talk to dad, and that’s when you know it’s serious,” Smith said. “She told me she had decided to enroll in Army ROTC and had been competing for a scholarship and had gotten it. It was pretty good to hear her life hadn’t sucked nearly as bad as I thought. She’s such a wonderful person. That was my best accomplishment.”
Smith said he has taken his most valuable life lessons with him from two very important figures in his life, whom were both honored with him during the ROTC Hall of Fame induction: Col. Timothy Donovan and Lt. Col. Karl Teepe.
Donovan was a professor of military science at MU in 1974 when Smith was attending graduate school. Smith went to meet Donovan when he was first assigned as an assistant professor of military science. “Colonel Tim,” as he was called, had been a young officer in the Korean War after he graduated from MU.
Donovan served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, where he earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star for valor and seven Purple Hearts. He passed away in 2009 at the age of 80..
“The United States paid a terrible price for its lack of preparedness after World War II,” Smith said. “What I learned from (Donovan) is you have to prepare because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Smith and Teepe met in 1974 when Smith was in graduate school. The two later served together in Germany and worked together at the Pentagon in the 1990s. The two spent a lot of time together, and their families became close. They even celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas together.
Teepe’s daughter got married in November 2000, the same time Smith was called to go back to Pakistan. He missed the wedding. This would have been the last opportunity for Smith to see his friend before he died.
Teepe was killed while working at the Pentagon during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 at age 57.
“He was a guy who was all very dear to us in Pakistan,” Smith said. “He taught me that you have to appreciate the present. You have to live in the moment because the present is not guaranteed.”
Because of his prestigious service, Smith was one of the veterans inducted into the MU Army ROTC Hall of Fame on Nov. 1 in Crowder Hall.
Smith originally planned on attending the ceremony to honor Teepe. A few weeks later, he found out he was being inducted as well.
“I’m deeply humbled to be honored with men such as Rich Kinder and Karl Teepe,” Smith said. “I never expected it, and I don’t necessarily think I deserve it, but I’m very grateful.”
Wallace said he was not surprised and was very pleased when he found out about Smith’s honor.
“He hasn’t had headlines or made national or international news, but he’s made a major contribution to policy in this country and with Pakistan,” Wallace said.
After Smith was initiated into the Hall of Fame, he thanked Wallace and Remington for everything they had done to help him get to the point he was. He said he felt everything he had achieved in his professional career was because of what he learned at MU from his former professors.
They answered with a response to remind Smith that his success isn’t the end of his journey but just the start. In an email from Wallace and Remington to Smith, they wrote, “Remember, today is the first day of the rest of your life. Being inducted into the Hall of Fame isn’t an end, it’s the beginning.”
Smith was able to teach others along the way.
“David had a really successful career in the military and essence and government and policy towards government,” Wallace said. “We’ve had people like David, who are solid and are really good at making friends. Once you get to know him, the friendship gets deeper, and those are the types of friendships you want. He represents a category of students who go to the university and go through the building blocks and are very active and remarkable.”
Remington said she continues to learn from Smith and all of his accomplishments by his way of virtue and success.
“I think the biggest lesson is, people who are steadfast in behavior and integrity provide examples for all of us, and that’s true for David,” Remington said.