After nearly 800 rescue missions over 18 years with Vail Mountain Rescue, Dan Smith said he has had enough. At 73 years old, he’s retiring.
“This is not a volunteer job. It’s a lifestyle choice,” Smith said. “It’s time for me to make another choice. I’m proud to have worked with hundreds and hundreds of the finest people I’ve ever known under difficult circumstances.”
Two Purple Hearts
Smith served in Vietnam for 11 months, 15 days and 21 hours. He says he used to know the exact number of minutes and seconds. He earned two Purple Hearts; 28 guys from his unit did not make it out.
“I was blown up twice and shot once,” Smith said.
It would have been three Purple Hearts but he decided he didn’t want to deal with the paperwork.
He and his unit were on the last day of a mission when he was hit in the knee with an enemy round from an M-79 grenade launcher, new at the time in Vietnam. He says he’s lucky. If it had gone through sideways instead of lengthwise as it did, it would have taken his leg off. So, he says, it wasn’t too bad.
He hobbled to the aid station, grabbing two quart bottles of Jim Beam on the way, he said.
“I don’t want any paperwork on this,” Smith told the doc at the aid station.
“But if you do paperwork you’ll get a third Purple Heart,” the doc replied.
“If I get a third Purple Heart they’ll stick me in an office as a file clerk. I want to get back to my unit,” Smith said.
Smith sealed the deal by handing over the two bottles of Jim Beam. They stitched up the holes the grenade launcher left in his knee and sent him on his way. Smith dug shrapnel out of his knee until about 10 years ago.
Smith doesn’t have many Vietnam pictures because the round that hit his knee also hit the camera he was carrying.
He left the war, became an oil company executive and a career flew by. He retired at 55 years old and migrated to Vail in 2001. He met fellow Vietnam vet Tim Cochrane, one of Vail Mountain Rescue’s early leaders. They regaled each other with tales, and Smith joined VMR in 2002.
Mostly he coordinated missions for Vail Mountain Rescue.
“I did not hang off the end of a rope from a helicopter. That’s for younger people,” Smith said.
He learned that Domino’s pizza would deliver to a trailhead where he and others would be sitting in a truck, coordinating communications and people during a rescue mission.
Two radios and a rope
Back then, Vail Mountain Rescue’s gear cache did not extend much beyond “two radios and one rope,” Smith said smiling. They were headquartered in a Vail Health hospital space about the size of a closet — and not one of those big walk-in closets. They grew to a loft in the ambulance district building in Edwards. Now, Vail Mountain Rescue is considered one of the nation’s best search and rescue crews. VMR has five mission coordinators; Smith said he helped train four of them.
As with any volunteer nonprofit organization, money was always an issue. Vail Mountain Rescue does not charge a dime to rescue you. Organizers hold regular fundraisers because bake sales won’t cover their costs, Smith said.
Cochrane and some others set up the Friends of Vail Mountain Rescue, with Smith as the founding president. VMR’s financial future is now secure, Smith said — no more bake sales.
Vail Mountain Rescue crews do not get paid. They’re volunteers. They don’t ask who people are or how they got lost in the wilderness. They just rescue anyone who needs it.
“These are the best people you’ll ever meet trying to keep people from having the worst day of their lives,” Smith said. “Every mission is a hero story. These are people willing to put their lives on the line for other people.”
Most missions end in happy hugs and reunions. Occasionally, though, it’s the last day of someone’s life and ends with unfurling body bags. That takes a toll on everyone, including rescuers.
“We’ve pulled a lot of bodies out of the backcountry. That’ll have an effect on you,” Smith said.
His best memories are the people who stopped, turned around and thanked the crew for saving their lives.
“The number is small. They’re all grateful, of course, but in a moment that emotional and overwhelming they just don’t think of it,” Smith said.
There was the time a woman drowned in Beaver Creek, Smith remembers. As her 11-year-old daughter waited, she wrote thank-you cards for the rescue crews who found her mother’s body. The resourceful girl somehow slipped away from those who were supposed to be keeping track of her and started passing out her hand-drawn thank-you cards.
Tough people were in tears when the girl handed them theirs.
There was the guy killed in an avalanche three weeks before his body was found, Smith recalls. The crew zipped up the body bag, put his body on a sled and headed back. One rescuer looked up from the body bag, his face blank and his eyes glassy.
One of the Sheriff’s Office crew looked at Smith in amazement and asked, “Why do they do it?”
“There is only one answer. They’re very good people,” Smith said.
There’s a spot on the Holy Cross trail that Smith said looks like Southeast Asian rice paddies. As they were walking through, one of Smith’s crew smiled at the Vietnam veteran and said, “Don’t have a flashback, OK?”
Smith smiled and said, “No. But I do think I heard a mortar round.”
It’s been fun, but it’s over. Smith grins and quotes Jimmy Buffett: “Some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I had a good life all the way.”
Smith said he will still serve his community. He’s with the Salvation Army and on the ambulance district board.
He looks around where we’re talking, the wait staffs wearing masks and empty seats because of COVID-19.
“Now is not the time to do nothing. It’s never the time to do nothing,” Smith said.