- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

DUMAS, Texas (AP) - For Oleta Smith of Dumas, the three men in Florida, Alabama and California are in some ways like sons. They will, of course, never replace her only son, Green Beret Sgt. Warren Smith, but they provide stitches to the hole in her heart that hasn’t closed in nearly 47 years.

“Those three,” Smith said. “No words can express what they mean to me. They are part of my family.”

Jack Wesson of Jacksonville, Alabama; Lynn Hughes of Melbourne, Florida; and David Eggleston of Sebastopol, California, were with “Smitty” in the jungles of Vietnam in 1968.

“Warren was a special person, just like his mother,” Wesson told the Amarillo Globe-News (https://bit.ly/1J77uIf). “If you knew him, it didn’t take long to realize that. Warren wasn’t scared to take charge. He would be right up front. I thought the world of him.”

It was a humid Friday, Aug. 23, 1968, in Darlac province. A Special Forces airborne base, an easy target in a valley, was under attack from Viet Cong. Smith, an expert medical officer in Special Forces A Team, and Hughes ran to a mortar pit to return fire.

A huge explosion hit in front of their pit. The burly Smith grabbed the 5-foot-4 Hughes and carried him to a nearby bunker. Hughes then saw Smith grab his chest and fall to his knees. He had taken major shrapnel.

Two days later, a Sunday night in Gallup, New Mexico, Oleta and husband Ben were in their church parking lot reading a letter from Warren. They noticed two servicemen walking around, but went on to the service.

Afterward, a neighbor asked whether those servicemen had found them. No, but their knees became weak and their chests heavy. They knew. A knock later on their door confirmed that.

On the first Friday after Labor Day 1968, the funeral was at First Baptist Church in Smith’s hometown of Dumas. James Warren Smith was buried at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

“Today Vietnam is a tourist destination, and sometimes you wonder if war is worth it,” Eggleston said, “especially when you see how it impacts his mother and know what Smitty could have been. We lost a great guy.”

There’s a gold star in the front window of Smith’s comfortable home across from Hillcrest Elementary in Dumas. She returned to Dumas shortly after Ben died in 1988.

Smith will be 98 in June, the oldest Gold Star mother in Texas.

The walls of a hallway are filled with certificates, pictures and medals - including a Silver Star - of her son. His shrine, Oleta Smith called it.

Warren was president of the 1960 Dumas High School student body. He was a starting offensive lineman for the Demons. He went on to Texas A&M; and Wayland Baptist before he enlisted in 1964.

Smith pulled out a certificate from one of two albums on her son. It showed he was an honor graduate from Fort Sam Houston in medicine before the first of two tours in Vietnam.

“I’ll say it this way,” she said. “There are no words in the English language to express the loss of a child. Part of you goes with him. You can replace a mate, but not a child. He’s in the Lord’s hands. I’ve never felt bitter, but there’s a real big empty spot in my heart.”

But there is comfort found in unexpected ways, from those who saw Oleta’s only son at his best and at the end. For more than 30 years, Hughes hungered to talk with the parents of the one who saved his life that August day of 1968.

When Internet searches began to take hold in the late 1990s, Hughes began to make progress to find the family of the uncommon man with the common name. In 2000, he finally reached a Smith family cousin, who called Oleta to see whether she would want to speak to Hughes.

Oleta thought she called the cousin back only to accidentally dial Hughes. Realizing her error, she nervously hung up. But seeing the number on caller ID, Hughes called back.

“We talked for an hour and a half,” Smith said. “We cried. We laughed. I don’t know how to explain it. Some of it hurt, but I felt honored he would want to meet me.”

Hughes flew to meet Smith two weeks after 9/11. Through that, Wesson and Eggleston, two others who were close to Warren, established contact. Wesson was able to give Oleta her son’s Special Forces ring, which he had kept over the decades.

This was not a one-time thing. Through the years, the three men, their families and the mother of the buddy they admired, have kept in touch.

Smith was part of the groundbreaking at the Vietnam Veterans Monument at the state capitol in Austin in 2013, and the men were there with her in Austin at the dedication in March 2014.

Smith, nearly 98 going on about 38, is flying to California next week to see the Egglestons, even seeing her beloved Texas Rangers play baseball in Oakland. On June 20, Jack and Faye Wesson are driving from Alabama for her 98th birthday.

“She’s like a mother to me because I lost mine a long time ago,” Wesson said. “I know she loves us. I know we mean a lot to her.

“There’s no doubt when she tells us that the love is there, and it’s our connection to Warren. Through all of us, he remains with us.”

___

Information from: Amarillo Globe-News, https://www.amarillo.com

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