Days before South Carolinians decide their next governor, a handful of combat veterans — and the Afghan interpreters who led them through a war zone a decade ago, all known as PMT Viper — will descend on the Palmetto State, helping their friend run for the state’s highest office.
They include Steven Bogardus, or “Bogie,” of New York, who credits his life and business success to state Rep. James Smith.
And interpreter Haris Kakar, who says he would not be living a better life at his new home in Texas if not for Smith.
“It is hard to say everything I would like to say about this man,” Bogardus said of Smith on Facebook as he asked South Carolinians to vote on Nov. 6 for Smith over Republican incumbent Gov. Henry McMaster.
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“If it wasn’t for James I would not be here or where I am today.”
Smith’s military service at home and abroad has been the linchpin of his campaign to become South Carolina’s first Democratic governor in 20 years. It’s a campaign strategy to appeal to pro-military Republicans in a largely red state.
Smith, a Columbia attorney, was a Judge Advocate General officer for eight years in the S.C. Army National Guard before he resigned his officer’s commission and enlisted in the infantry after feeling “a call to serve” following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
At the “old age” of 37, Smith jokes, he left the S.C. House of Representatives and started basic training. In early 2007, he deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. There, he commanded a nine-man team as a combat adviser embedded with Afghan security forces.
His decorations include a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
But how would that service translate to the S.C. Governor’s Mansion?
The state’s 400,000-plus veterans make up an important voting bloc in South Carolina — home to eight major military installations — and Smith’s campaign proposals have tactically targeted them.
Smith, for example, wants to create a cabinet-level secretary of veteran affairs position to promote veterans’ issues, including suicide prevention and veterans’ transition into civilian jobs, such as teaching.
If elected, the 22-year House veteran says he would work to eliminate taxes on military retiree pay.
And, at the final debate between Smith and McMaster in Greenville on Thursday, Smith again expressed his support for medical marijuana for patients who suffer debilitating health problems, including seizures and post-traumatic stress disorder.
McMaster — who was in the U.S. Army Reserves and the Judge Advocate General Corps, but never deployed overseas — has proposed similar initiatives and has won support from veterans, hoping his appeal as a pro-veteran governor keeps him in his seat.
The men in uniform that served with Smith in Afghanistan, however, say Smith’s service makes him more qualified for that job.
“There are some principles involved with service in the armed forces that tie directly to leadership and example in hardship in shared sacrifice,” said Smith’s friend, U.S. Army veteran David “Ink” Perry on Tuesday. Perry said Smith’s nickname in the Army was “MacGyver,” after a 1980s TV character known for his resourcefulness and ability to quickly escape danger.
“We need leadership like that.”
‘An officer of unrivaled potential’
Two days before Smith’s 40th birthday, he almost died after the Taliban released a barrage of bullets at him over a 45-minute span.
On top of a steep mountain ridge — during a mission deemed Operation Edisto — radio chatter caught Smith’s attention. More importantly, it caught the attention of his translator, Mohammad Amin, who years later would settle in Columbia.
“He (Amin) came flying down the mountain along the side of the ridge and ... with a great deal of urgency, said, ‘You have got to inform James to take some type of cover. They are about to open up on him,’ “ Perry said. “Then all hell broke loose.”
That pivotal moment in one of the most remote parts of Afghanistan plays out in Smith’s TV ad, “The Call,” when, after Smith fell down the mountain after the firefight, the Taliban took his cell phone and placed calls to his wife, Kirkland, among others.
“I just remember thinking about my little girl,” Smith said on Tuesday of that moment. “ I remember thinking, she just can’t not have her father.”
And it would not be the only scrap Smith and his team got into.
On another day, Smith’s vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device, or IED, blowing off the front of the vehicle and sending Smith and others into the air. Smith suffered a traumatic brain injury and still hears ringing in his ears. He also has permanent hearing loss in his right ear.
“Most South Carolinians have no idea what all they are getting with him (Smith),” Perry said. “You’re getting the full toolbox with him.”
Smith’s senior officers agreed.
“Smith’s potential is unlimited,” supervisors wrote in his performance and potential evaluation. The documents also referred to Smith as a “warrior” for continuing to lead his team without complaining or hesitation despite being wounded.
“His vision, innate operational instincts, hard-nosed execution and that of his great team made a real difference in the war here,” the evaluation continued. “His innovative operations and training radically improved Afghan Police effectiveness, and routinely ran the enemy down and killed them in an aggressive fashion not seen before in this part of Afghanistan. An officer of unrivaled potential, uncommon judgment and impeccable character.”
‘We’re going to work infinitely harder’
Before deployment, Smith says he admits he was a bit more energetic in the State House.
“Now, I don’t sweat the small stuff,” Smith said of his time back in state, which has included service in the S.C. National Guard. “I care more about getting it right regardless of the consequences.”
If elected in two weeks, Smith says his military service will be threaded through his work in the Governor’s Office.
Perry notes, for example, Smith knows how to build strong coalitions and has the “technical wherewithal to see through through things that are legitimate and things that are not.”
“As hard as we are working to win this race, we’re going to work infinitely harder to serve (the people of South Carolina),” Smith added. “We’re not going to miss a moment of that opportunity.”