KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Thousands of American service members are in foreign countries this holiday season, far away from their families and homes. In December 53 years ago, a young army captain was new in Vietnam.

The helmet that then Army Captain Steve Smith wore as a helicopter pilot is well worn. In Vietnam, he flew a Cobra attack helicopter, Designed specifically for direct fire support of ground troops and air protection.

Steve Smith’s helicopter pilot helmet (WATE)

However, before becoming a pilot, Smith was a radar repairman, a Private First Class. When he first joined the Army in 1966, he never saw himself as a helicopter pilot.

“Airplanes fascinated me, aircrafts fascinated me. But it was nothing, I thought would really happen. And the Army was the only place you could fly without a degree,” said Smith.

He finished officer candidate school and then flight school because he “loved the freedom” you have in a helicopter.

“If you are in an airplane and you want to land somewhere, you have to find an airport. In a helicopter, you can just go wherever you want,” said Smith.

In Vietnam, he was assigned to the 101st Aviation Division. He and his fellow pilots had little downtime.

“You would fly two hours a day or maybe 16, 17, 18 hours a day. And you never had days off. We were busy all the time,” said Smith. He added that he flew over 800 missions.

The walls at his home are filled with commendations of achievement, bravery, and courage. He would earn a Bronze Star, 29 Air Medals, and 3 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

As the new guy in January of 1970, Captain Smith flew in the co-pilot’s seat looking for the enemy when his Cobra was shot up that Sunday morning. There were more than 30 holes in his aircraft. One bullet struck the knee of pilot Mike LaMiell. Another hit the controls of the helicopter, knocking out its stabilization.

“Using only the co-pilots emergency controls, Captain Smith flew the crippled aircraft to a medical facility,” the description of the Distinguished Flying Cross Award from that mission reads.

“I knew he was hurt. The intercom was out. We were yelling back and forth over the sound of the engine and the rotors. He was bleeding very badly. So we needed to get back and we were way out,” said Smith.

Smith said it took about 20 minutes to get himself and his badly injured pilot back – it wasn’t easy.

“So I’m landing here and all around are tents, personnel for the hospital and I’m trying to avoid the tents,” said Smith.

“For your courage, he is alive today,” said Dare.

“Yes. But as I tell everybody, He was back in the back seat, I was upfront. I was trying to save myself too,” he said.

“I think I made a difference and my job was to protect the other helicopters, that was my mission. That is what I always look at As long as I was able to do that, I feel good about it,” said Smith.

He would leave Vietnam in October 1970 and he served nearly another two years stateside. By completing his missions, Smith saved the lives of many US soldiers on the ground.