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Spirit of '76 Museum puts spotlight on Vietnam veteran

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    Pilar Smith, 8, granddaughter of Col. Weston "Ted" Smith, and Brian Smith, youngest son of Ted Smith, stand next to a photo cut out of the decorated Vietnam veteran Saturday in the Spirit of '76 Museum in downtown Wellington.

    ANNA NORRIS / CHRONICLE

  • Wellington-VietnamVeteranDisplay01-JPG

    Brian Smith, right, youngest son of Colonel Weston "Ted" Smith, a decorated Vietnam Veteran and graduate of Wellington High School, talks with his uncle Gordy Smith, left, as they gather at the Spirit of '76 Museum in Wellngton Saturday afternoon to take a first look at a new display in honor of Colonel Smith.

    ANNA NORRIS / CHRONICLE

  • Wellington-VietnamVeteranDisplay02-JPG

    Brian Smith, the youngest son of Colonel Weston "Ted" Smith, checks out a military display that pays tribute to his father's military accomplishments at the Spirit of '76 museum in downtown Wellingotn Saturday afternoon. Colonel Smith, a graduate of Wellington High School, is one of the most decorated Vietnam War veterans from Wellington.

    ANNA NORRIS / CHRONICLE

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WELLINGTON — A new exhibit at the Spirit of ’76 Museum brought the family of a former Wellington man home Saturday for a touching reunion to honor the Vietnam War veteran’s place in local history — a fitting homecoming for the Veterans Day holiday.

Brian Smith was at a loss for words and a bit emotional to see the life-sized image of his father, Col. Weston “Ted” Smith, prominently displayed on the second floor of the downtown Wellington museum. It was a familiar picture of Smith, taken when he was a young Air Force pilot, and one his son said he had seen many times in the years before his father’s death in 1990 at the age of 55.

“For my life, this picture has always been a 4-by-6 on my mom’s bedside table,” said the younger Smith.

Now it stands as a representation of the contributions southern Lorain County residents made during the Vietnam War. It is just one piece of the museum’s growing tribute to military veterans, which also includes artifacts from World War II and the Korean War.

“Our goal is to represent and pay homage to as many southern Lorain County veterans as we can, and we are fortunate that so many family members help us in that mission,” said Scott Markel, who’s on the museum’s board. “… The family history is what builds this place here.”

The project that brought the Smith family together in Wellington — the son is stationed at Fort Carson, Colo., where he serves as a chief foreign officer in the military intelligence detachment of the 1st Brigade 4th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army — was made possible by Al Leiby, a retired Elyria police detective and archivist for the Spirit of ’76 Museum.

“I received an email from Mr. Leiby. He was inquiring about old picture or any other information on my father because he was putting together this fantastic display of Wellington veterans,” Brian Smith, 45, said. “My father ranks certainly among some of the most decorated Vietnam vets for what he did … so, of course, we had to come on Veterans Day to see the display. It is amazing.”

Leiby is related to Smith through a younger brother, Gordy Smith, and said he knew of the war hero for many years. When it came time to expand the second-floor exhibits, it felt natural to start with a man who has done so much.

“I was always pretty impressed by him,” Leiby said Saturday. “His service meant a lot to him, and it is an honor to see him displayed here.”

Smith, a 1953 graduate of Wellington High School and 1957 graduate of Ohio State University, is probably one of the most decorated veterans from Wellington who served during the long war against the Viet Cong. During his tour in Vietnam, where the Air Force veteran was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division as a forward air controller/air liaison officer, Smith flew 664 combat missions, mostly in a Cessna 0-2 Skymaster with just a .45-caliber pistol and M16 assault rifle by his side.

Smith is the recipient of the many honors, including the Air Force Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for bravery; the Air Medal with 10 oak leaf clusters; the Bronze Star; the Defense Meritorious Service Medal; the Meritorious Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters; and the Air Force Commendation Medal. The Republic of Vietnam also twice decorated Smith for bravery.

“He never talked about it much,” said Gordy Smith, 76, of Spencer. “He was the first one to go off. We were really proud of him when he went, and you knew he was going to be good because whenever he did something it was always done very meticulous and right.”

After his time in Vietnam, Smith continued his Air Force career with assignments that included serving as base commander at Indians Springs, Nev., from 1978 to 1980 and commander of the 8th Combat Support group at Kusan Air Base in Korea. Upon his retirement from the Air Force in 1987, Smith began working for the State Department. In that role, Smith was involved in working for the release of hostages in the Middle East.

Brian Smith said he looks forward to adding to his father’s exhibit.

“When my father earned the Air Force Cross in Vietnam, he was the air support that supported the 1st Brigade 4th Infantry Division, the same unit I am a part of now, so it is a sort of full-circle connection for us,” he said. “… It’s something else. Growing up, I was really fortunate. I had great people — these men right here — to look up. My father was the oldest, but they were cut from the same cloth. It’s extra special to see this, but extra special to be with my Uncle Gordy and Uncle Mark. It’s fantastic. It’s great there are still pockets of this country that are not tied up in whatever the cause of the day is and are really focused on the people who have given them the freedoms to do whatever they want to do.”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter @LisaRobersonCT.

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