Then-Staff Sgt. Mark Smith greets his family May 20, 2012, during the 33rd Rescue Squadron's homecoming at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Smith died Aug. 5. (Airman 1st Class Maeson L. Elleman / Air Force)
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Tech. Sgt. Mark A Smith was known as a devoted family man at home and a fierce warrior in combat.
“He wouldn’t hesitate for one second to neutralize a threat, if you know what I mean, but when he’s here and I see him around his family, it’s just amazing to see the father side of him, the husband side of him, that kind of love, I guess the softer side of him,” said Lt. Col. Pedro Ortiz, commander of the 33rd Rescue Squadron.
Smith, known as “Smitty,” was killed Aug. 5 when his HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crashed in Okinawa, Japan. He is survived by his wife, Jessica, and their two daughters.
The cause of the crash is under investigation. Three other crew members from the helicopter were treated at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Okinawa.
Ortiz knew Smith well.
“As soon as he arrived here at Kadena, at the PAX terminal, when he walked out, I met him and his family and his wife Jessica, and his little girl, she jumped into my arms,” Ortiz recalled. “She had just had a birthday party in the States prior to them PCSing over here, so she was telling me all about her birthday party and everything. There was an immediate bond there.”
Later, as Ortiz was waiting to get on the bus for his second deployment downrange, Smith’s little daughter once again jumped into his arms.
“They were the type of family that they were always, always at the PAX terminal or Naha [airport] when we get a new rescue family in,” Ortiz said. “He was quick for any young, single airman to [say], ‘Hey, if you need to talk, you need any help, assistance, we’re here to help you out; you’re not alone, so here’s my number, give me a call if you need any help.’ ”
Smith joined the Air Force in July 2000, straight out of high school, and went on to deploy to Afghanistan twice as a flight engineer with the 33rd Rescue Squadron, participating in several rescue missions, according to Kadena officials.
A combat photographer took his picture during one mission in which he was “rock solid” while under fire, a news release said. The picture went viral, and Smith was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal after coming home.
“He was all business downrange,” Ortiz said. “I remember guys joking around and kind of playing around; I don’t ever remember him doing that. He was always pretty serious. Even when we were out on our decks smoking cigars and stuff, he very rarely would partake in that.”
But when flying a mission, Smith was a different person, Ortiz said. He never hesitated to correct people making a mistake, regardless of rank.
“You may not have liked his delivery, but it worked, it was effective,” Ortiz said.
On one mission, his bluntness achieved legendary status. An Afghan commando had been shot, and Smith was trying to hoist him into the helicopter in bad weather, at night and during a firefight.
“Normally, when he does the hoist, he comes off the gun to do the hoist and at that point, if there’s a combat rescue officer, a CRO on board, they usually hop on the gun,” Ortiz said. “But in this instance, I don’t know if he was just shocked at what all was going on or what, but he wasn’t on the gun while Smitty was doing the hoist.
“He looked, saw no one on the gun, looked at the CRO, told him directly, ‘Get on that f---ing gun!’ That story, after that mission, that was a pretty famous story there; pretty typical of Smitty.”