MERIDIAN, Idaho — Wayne Smith is a Vietnam War veteran, who lives in Meridian. Smith may be retired, but make no mistake about it, he's out working. He spends his days making people smile.
It's been a tough year for Wayne, as he lost his wife to cancer, but he loves making a difference. Smith has quite a story. Some of it is painful to tell, with his eyes filling with sadness as he describes it.
He is also an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War.
“There were 325 of us that went to Vietnam on two planes. 110 came home,” he said through tears. “I have no idea why I'm still here.”
Despite the pain of what he saw in the war, Smith says there were moments of joy in his service.
“We pulled a lot of children out of villages that were on fire in combat situations,” he reminisced as he looked at the photos on his wall of the little children that he rescued. “Here you see the children that I pulled out. This is my life here on this wall. That's where it all began.”
Smith came home from the Vietnam War at the age of 20 with scars, both physically and mentally.
It was a tumultuous time in America so there was no hero's welcome on his return to the states.
“There were protests all over the place. I remember this like it was yesterday, the bus pulled into a terminal. This lady got on the bus and she said are you coming home from Vietnam and I said yes mam, and she pulled out two eggs and threw them at me,” he explained. “I just sat there, and she called me a baby killer.”
Wayne was devastated and struggled to readjust to life away from war. He says marrying his wife, Cheryl, was what brought him back to life.
Sadly, a year ago, she passed away from cancer. They were married for 51 wonderful years.
“My life was over,” he said. “But, then I started thinking that maybe it's not over. Maybe there’s more left for me.”
Before she died, he promised Cheryl he would continue to make a difference in the lives of children. That is something he has always been passionate about.
“I have a 100% disability with the VA, and I take that agent orange portion and spend it every month on children,” Smith said.
Smith buys stuffed bears to give to children, and even some adults. He says he gives the teddy bears to whoever he meets who needs a smile.
“Everywhere, no matter where I'm at. You just open up a conversation with strangers,” he said.
Recently, he did just that at a local restaurant. That’s where he met Brandie Thomson and her husband Scott. They started talking about his teddy bear mission.
“I was so intrigued by the story, at the end of our two-hour conversation, I said to my husband can you take a picture of me and my new BFF? Wayne was like what's a new BFF? and I said you are my new best friend forever Wayne, and we laughed and right then my wheels were turning,” Thomson explained. “How can I help this guy get more bears? He tells me he's a disabled vet, he tells me he's spending 400 dollars a month of his own money doing this. I need to do something.”
Thomson posted that photo and Wayne's story on Facebook, and her post blew up. It quickly went viral.
“It was over labor day weekend and My phone was ringing and ringing, messages, texts, it was crazy,” Thomson said of the response.
People wanted to help, they wanted to donate bears and money, and they did - close to $6,000 was raised.
Boxes of bears and other stuffed animals have been shipped to Smith from all over the country and even Canada. He says he is in awe of the reaction.
“Bam! I'm no longer retired,” he chuckled. “So it's Brandie’s fault, it’s Brandie’s fault. I feel very fortunate that I met her.”
Now, Wayne Smith is known around town as the Teddy Bear Vet. He says it’s been an amazing experience, something he knows his wife would be proud of.
“If you don't have something to turn to or something to do, you'll go nuts," he said. “My avenue just so happened to be the teddy bear. It's kinda cool, huh?”
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