Beans, Bullets and Band-Aids
First Sergeant Joe Vance Smith spent 28 years serving his country in the US Army and US Army Reserves before he “hung up his boots” in 2004 He joined up in 1969 and got out in 1972, after doing a year’s tour in Vietnam. In 1980 he joined the Reserves and was called back to active duty four times: in 1991 during Desert Storm, 1995 Joint Endeavor Bosnia Conflict and the Iraqi War in 2002. During all of this combat experience, Joe never saw the inside of a Med-Evac helicopter.
“I spent 36 years working for the Federal Government,” he said. His career covered multiple jobs, in addition to his tours of duty. “As a 1SG I was in charge of making sure that everyone in my company was taken care of, what we call Beans, Bullets and Band-Aids. My responsibilities were to ensure that all the administrative areas were covered before sending reservists and National Guard soldiers off to Iraq and then receiving them back in when they returned. Essentially making sure that they were properly trained on their equipment, that they went through the medical process, etc.” He also worked as the postmaster in Cookeville, Texas for 10 years, before his retirement in 2010.
He settled in to enjoy his retirement, farming. “I have 25 acres, and run cows, turkey and chickens. I also cut hay for hay production and am getting ready to get some baby goats for the grandkids,” he smiled. Joe and wife Connie have nine grandchildren, ranging in age from two to 15 years old. With regards to their children, they are the true “yours, mine and ours” couple. Between the two of them, they have four adult children, ranging in age from 29-36, and a 17-year old that is their child together. According to Joe, wife Connie “doesn’t know what she is going to do once our 17 year old leaves home, after 31 years of raising kids!”
Strong family ties, an iron will and a positive attitude are what got him through in the dark days following the tractor accident that took his lower left leg in 2013 “It was an entirely preventable accident, I hate to say. I was digging postholes with the auger on the tractor, which is supposed to have a kill switch. The kill switch wasn’t working. Of course, I should have turned off the PTO, but decided to just jump down and knock off some dirt and jump back on. But, while I was down there, a bolt wrapped my pant leg around the shaft, tearing my foot off at the ankle.
The only thing that saved me is that I called my father in law who lives on our property and he came down and immediately I called 911. I told him to tell them to send a Med-Evac, not to bother with waiting for an evaluation by a regular ambulance team. I knew it was bad.”
And that was how a soldier who had been posted to multiple tours of combat duty unscathed saw the inside of a Med-Evac helicopter close up and personal.
Joe continues: “I asked my father in law if it looked pretty bad and he said all he could see was bone, and what did I want him to do. I told him to cut me off of here. That didn’t work out so well, since all he had on him was a little pocket knife.”
Joe never lost consciousness during the ordeal. In fact, once the first responders arrived, 1SG. Joe, who had evaluated the situation and the solution, helped to direct them as to what to do to get him freed up from the shaft and on his way. He never lost his sense of humor, even after it taking an hour and a half to free him.
“Once they got me off the tractor and onto the gurney, we had to cross the field, which was littered with pot holes. I told the guys: hey, I think you missed bumping me over a couple of those pot holes.” The EMT responded: “Do you want us to go back over the ones we missed?”
Once they got him to the helicopter, the EMTs proceeded to get out a body bag. Joe, still awake and aware told them there was no need for the body bag, he wasn’t ready for that. “I think they really had the bag in order to keep from getting blood everywhere, but making quips and cutting up with those guys helped me to keep my spirits up.”
Wife Connie was at work in Longview that day, so when asked where they wanted him transported to, he asked to be taken to the hospital in Longview: “I called her at work and told her that I had messed up pretty bad and gave phone to the EMT. They let her know where they were taking me and she was there when I arrived at the hospital.”
Joe’s ordeal was just beginning. He was in the hospital for 21 days, underwent three surgeries and then spent six months in a wheelchair and re-hab before starting down the path to get a prosthesis: “I knew where I was before the accident and knew where I wanted to be after I got back on my feet. That’s what kept me going. I wasn’t going to let this slow me down. I wasn’t ready to leave my family, who surrounded me with love and support throughout the process.”
Once Joe was healed enough to consider a prosthesis, the VA presented him with a list of potential prosthetics clinics. He had already done quite a bit of research and determined that he had two “non-negotiables” on his list, a Rush Foot and a vacuum-sealed socket. “Clyde from Snell’s was there at the VA that day and I asked him if they could provide me with those two items and he said they could. He walked me through the procedure and I decided on Snell’s,” he recalled. That was the beginning of a long and mutually respectful relationship between the two men.
“I could call Clyde right now and ask if I could come in and he would say come on. I don’t have to have an appointment. He’s built me 4-5 legs now and does a great job.”
In 2016, Clyde invited Joe to speak at the company’s annual team building and educational meeting, Snell’s Stars. He had noted Joe’s positive attitude and perseverance and wanted him to share his success story with the employees.
Asked about his experience with Snell’s, Joe said: “I could give you a sales pitch for Snell’s! I would recommend them to anyone for their prosthetic needs. You can’t beat the personal touch they give patients. Thanks in a big part to Snell’s and Clyde, I am going to live a long and productive life.”
Today, Joe is still farming and not surprisingly, he does more than he really should. He pushes himself hard every day, and some days suffers the consequences with soreness and tingles in his residual limb. “I told my daddy that retirement is fine as long as you don’t let yourself sit around and just get old. That will kill you.”
That being the criteria, we can happily expect Joe to be around for a very long time.