San Mateo County Veteran of the Year is a hero who helps heroes

in Community

After bravely battling alongside fellow U.S. Marines in the Vietnam War, George Smith returned home and became a San Mateo firefighter who rescued a baby girl from a house fire. Years later, Smith’s heroism continues. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith was yet again on the front line, working to ensure final honors for veterans were given at funerals of all Marines and FMF Corpsmen in San Mateo, San Francisco, Marin and Sacramento counties when requested.

For these reasons and more, Smith, described as “the embodiment of duty and service,” was named San Mateo County’s Veteran of the Year.

“I’ve never seen George do anything other than enjoy what he does with fellow veterans,” said Mike Belmessieri, U.S. Marine Corp. who nominated Smith for the County honor. “It really brings a great deal of satisfaction to George, be it serving fellow veterans, serving deceased veterans and their families and just serving the community.”

I’ve always had compassion for a veteran, and it just makes me feel good to help just one.

Smith joined the U.S. Marine Corps. in December 1966. He was deployed to Vietnam under two years later, where he spent 13 months often fearing for his life. Smith said he survived “quite a few” brushes with death, including a direct hit on his “hootch,” or hut, that would have killed him had he not been on the night crew in that moment.

“We got hit by rockets many times, they would come in groups of four, we would either get four, eight, twelve, or sixteen, and you never knew how many were coming and where they were coming from,” Smith said.  “I was very, very fortunate. I never thought I’d see my 19th birthday.”

Upon flying out of Vietnam, Smith said everyone onboard the plane was “screaming and hollering and laughing and crying.”

“We were so happy to have survived and got out alive,” he said.

After returning to the states, Smith attended the College of San Mateo, where his classmates were “two to three years younger” and where there weren’t the supports for veterans that there are today. He would later become a San Mateo firefighter, serving for seven years. During his firefighting tenure, Smith recalls entering a house on fire to search for possible victims. When entering a bedroom, he saw a crib, reached into it and grabbed what he thought was a teddy bear.

“I brought it down, put it to my face and it was a little girl,” Smith said.

He rushed her outside, where she was resuscitated.

Smith would later spend 33 years in the private industy, retiring at 62.

In his retirement, Smith wanted to give back to veterans. He asked the American Legion in San Mateo if they had a riding group. They did not, so he started American Legion Riders Chapter 82 in San Mateo. He later helped start American Legion Riders Chapter 105 in Redwood City.

Today, Smith remains active as post commander of Post 105, as well as with the American Legion Riders, and the Marine Corps League. He’s also served on the San Mateo County Veterans Commission, with the aim of ensuring all veterans know what resources are available to them.

Smith called the honor of being named San Mateo County Veteran of the Year “humbling.” He said he doesn’t do what he does for recognition, but because “I love what I do.”

“The reason I ride with the riders and do the funerals, it gvies me the satisfaction of knowing that I’m doing something for our departed bother or sister, and it’s helping the family,” Smith said. “I’ve always had compassion for a veteran, and it just makes me feel good to help just one. It’s our duty to give back to our veterans who have given so much for our country.”