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Preview – Zeroed In – Jim Smith

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The Quiet Professional
Despite Scaling Some of the Highest Peaks as an Adventurer and Earning Top Military Accolades as a Delta Operator, Jim Smith Has Shied from the Limelight. RECOIL Coaxes Him Out to Reminisce and Talk About His Current Role as a Premier

Throughout history, the term “Spartan” has been synonymous with the concept of the ideal warrior. The fighting spirit ethos derived from this ancient Greek people has long been admired — so much so that the word has transitioned from noun to adjective within the modern lexicon.

In contemporary military context, few deserve that adjective more than Jim Smith and his brethren. As a former U.S. Army Delta operator, he’s served his nation admirably around the globe and been highly decorated for his courage and tenacity. Much like the children of Sparta, Smith had an affinity for overcoming tough challenges at an early age. As a kid who preferred Field & Stream over Mad magazine and backpacking in the Sierra Nevadas over trading baseball cards, a young Jim Smith was far more interested in pushing his own limits than he was with the trivialities of teenage life. “Anything difficult, hard, and challenging — that’s what I wanted to do,” Jim says a few decades later in his stately Texas home.

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This explains not only the core of the man himself, but also a few of his choices in interior décor. A variety of substantial hunting trophies adorn his home office, and adjacent to that room, the home’s calming hues of brown meet a framed picture of the snow-capped Matterhorn in the Pennine Alps. While the only Matterhorn most of us have conquered resides in the land of Disney, Jim has actually scaled the real mountain itself, along with Mont Blanc, The Eiger, and a handful of other substantial peaks. He’s also tackled the grueling Haute Route between France and Switzerland.

If these are the types of activities Smith engages in for fun, you can imagine the boundaries he’s been willing to push throughout his military career. It’s no wonder, then, that he’s among the few Army enlistees to have worn the Ranger tab, become a Special Forces soldier, and serve in the elite counter-terrorism unit called Delta.

Perhaps the most celebrated of Jim’s military service exploits are the Silver Star and the Purple Heart he earned as a sniper during the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu, Somalia. A successful book and movie by the same name were released and subsequently pushed the incident to the forefront of mainstream consciousness, though Jim is quick to point out that both have an aspect of Hollywood error. “There are definitely some wrong and misleading aspects to the book and the movie,” Jim cautions. “They got some crucial things wrong.”

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RECOIL: What made you decide to go into the Army?

Jim Smith: I was going to a junior college in Southern California, and it was like high school all over again. I hated it. I wanted to get out and do something. As a kid in San Diego County, I grew up shooting. We used to be able to ride motorcycles for literally 50 miles with no fences in sight. We’d always be outside, out with a .22. Once I was 5, my dad would take me up into the Sierras every year to go backpacking. Back then you couldn’t buy certain gear, so he would literally make our backpack frames. That gave me a love for nature and being outside. Reading Field & Stream made me want to be an Alaskan guide.

The Army had a program for a three-year commitment, which gave you money for college. A neighbor kid and I were gonna go in together, but he backed out at the last minute. [Laughs.] I ended up joining the Army in 1980, and they had a pinpoint location to the 2nd Rangers Battalion. I wanted to go to Alaska, but there weren’t Rangers in Alaska, so the closest I got was Washington State, which was my first station.

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When was your transition into Delta?

J.S.: I actually went to a briefing way back in my Ranger days, but I hadn’t been in the Army long enough to be eligible. Several years later, I was stationed overseas. They were sending a lot of Rangers to the LRRP (long-range reconnaissance patrol) companies during the Cold War, and I got transferred into the ILRRPS (International Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol School). It was administered by 22 SAS (Britain’s Special Air Service) out of concern for all NATO LRRP forces. These 22 SAS guys were like, “Why aren’t you in Delta, Jim? You do everything we do.”

They were into athletic sports, and they felt that if you had a junior leader climbing a mountain, those junior leaders had essentially the same skills utilized on a mission —  but American forces thought it was more like f*cking around. I climbed Mont Blanc, which is the highest peak in the Alps. I also climbed the Matterhorn, the Eiger, and I even did the Haute Route. I did a 300-kilometer ski tour, and I was the only American doing any of this with these guys. They really loved me, and actually called back to Hereford on my behalf. There was an American there on an exchange program, and he got the number of the Delta recruiter and they called him, unbeknownst to me. He came down, called me, and invited me to go through the process.

What was the biggest thing you took away from your experience in Delta? How did it shape you?

J.S.: I just loved the professionalism of it. In my whole military career and in life, I hate to waste time. When I got to Delta, it was so efficient. I mean, the whole system was so efficient. Even the team room layout, the paths to equipment; there’s no wasted effort and time in Delta. I loved that.

Obviously, you’ve been through a lot in your military service. Do you share that with your family and children? Are they aware of the tough situations you’ve endured?

J.S.: I haven’t shared a lot with them, so they’re always pretty surprised if they hear about or see something I’ve done. For me, I definitely stand behind the Delta mantra of being the “quiet professional.” That was hammered into us in Delta for years, and I think that’s another reason why we aren’t quite so vocal about our service.

The other side of it is just the fact that war is horrific. You’re trying to destroy people. Your mates are getting destroyed, blown up. I think Hollywood overdramatizes it and makes it sound so exciting. There’s adrenaline, of course, but I want my children to know that it is truly horrific. They have seen things regarding the Black Hawk Down incident in which we were shot down over Mogadishu. That was a trying day for our whole team, and obviously it has gotten a lot of publicity since then.

For the rest of this article, subscribe here: RECOIL Issue 16


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