- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

ASHBURNHAM, Mass. (AP) - On April 15, 2013, just before 3 p.m., Massachusetts Army National GuardBrig. Gen. Paul G. Smith was in his car on his way home to Ashburnham when his cellphone rang.

On the line that sunny day was Lt. Col. Mark Merlino, the commander of the National Guard troops assigned to help out at the Boston Marathon.

“He said to me, ‘General, I need to inform you there have been two blasts in the finish line area with extensive casualties and multiple fatalities,’ ” Smith recalled recently. “He said, ‘What are your orders?’ “

The general, the highest-ranking Army officer in the state National Guard, was momentarily flummoxed by the question.

Then the decades of battle drills booted up in his head like software.

“What comes out is, ‘Mark, we need to secure the area, provide assistance. What medical assets do we have? Who’s the incident commander?” Smith said.

Soon he was striding into the state National Guard headquarters at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford to oversee what would turn out to be among the last major emergency responses of his military career.

On Monday, the 57-year-old Central Massachusetts native will hand over command of the state Guard’s land forces to his successor and retire from the military after 35 years in uniform.

Smith’s career as a Guard officer has spanned many blizzards, ice storms, tornados, homeland security missions and combat deployments of units under his command.

It all started with a river overflowing its bank during his first weekend drill in 1979.

“On the first day I arrived, they called a formation. The company commander said, ‘Go home. Pack for three days. We’re going to go fight a flood,’” Smith recalled.

The young Guardsman, who had finished ROTC training at Worcester Polytechnic Institute but hadn’t yet been commissioned as a second lieutenant, soon found himself filling sandbags along the swollen Concord River.

“I left thinking this is exactly what I want to do, respond in an emergency, help out where we’re needed,” he said.

“That whole Minuteman thing stuck with me. The idea I could be a teacher, an educator, and then the phone would ring, and I put on my uniform, get my gear and go do what I have to do.”

As he rose up through the state National Guard ranks over the last four decades, Smith also maintained a civilian career as an educator, first as special education teacher and then as an administrator.

He has been the assistant principal at Oakmont Regional High School in Ashburnham for about seven years.

His boss, Principal David Uminski, said he most values his assistant’s years of experience as a teacher and administrator, but he conceded there are advantages to having a general as your right-hand man.

“Obviously, his leadership skills are off the charts and same with his organizational skills. I have an enormous amount of trust in him,” Uminski said.

But while one might expect a career military officer to be the school’s fire-breathing disciplinarian, Smith’s role at Oakmont is more that of a diplomat. His responsibilities include mediating disputes between students and between parents and teachers.

“He’s always quick with a jolly laugh. He does a great job taking tension out a tense situation,” Uminski said.

Samuel Bath, an assistant professor of military science at WPI, also noted the general’s natural ability to put people at ease. The future general studied education at Fitchburg State but completed his cadet training at the Worcester university, where he has returned several times to speak to ROTC cadets about leadership.

“Generals tend to have a lofty atmosphere around them because of their rank and responsibilities, but his down-to-earth manner really set the cadets at ease,” Bath said. “They had some trepidation about a general coming, but he got them comfortable with some funny answers and then it was a deluge of questions.”

Over the last five years, Smith has served as a task force commander for nine major emergency responses, including the marathon bombing last year, a crippling ice storm in 2008 and the 2011 tornado that chewed through parts of Brimfield, Sturbridge and other area towns.

But his responsibilities also have included sending units under his command far from Massachusetts to chaotic cities in Iraq and the rugged, hostile landscape of Afghanistan.

Early in his military career, the Guard handled disasters at home while the regular Army was responsible for fighting abroad. The Guard had a reputation during the Vietnam War as a place people went to avoid combat.

Then men armed with box cutters hijacked jetliners and flew them into buildings killing thousands of Americans.

“The National Guard sort of transformed overnight from this sort of second string, ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ kind of organization to be an operational force that was responsible for defending the country,” Smith said.

“It was a sobering, weighty experience to look into people’s eyes and say, ‘I need you to go to Iraq for nine months, and I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen,’” he said.

While he didn’t lose any soldiers under his direct command, some came back struggling with problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder or just difficulty getting back to a productive civilian life.

“Anybody who deploys into a combat theater is touched by that experience in very profound ways,” Smith said. “There’s a cost to sending young men and women to war.”

He and his wife, Nora, also a special education teacher, have three adult children, including a son who serves in the Vermont National Guard.

A history buff, Smith studies and writes about the Fenian Movement, an Irish revolutionary secret society, in his spare time. He will continue as assistant principal at Oakmont Regional and has been tapped to teach a class on homeland security and emergency response at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, this summer.

He hopes to spend some time writing on those topics in the coming years. He will continue to serve, now as a civilian, on a commission appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick that is charged with ensuring the state is properly supporting the children of military families.

“Things have happened to me in the military that I never expected and, you know what, that I never earned,” the humble general said. “My luck has been incredible.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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