NEVER TOO LATE: Army medal awarded after 56-plus years

Peter Smykla was discharged from the Army on Christmas Eve 1957 after a two-year stint during which he served a spell in potentially hostile Taiwan. With his mind soon turning from Army life to celebrating Christmas and preparing for a new year as a civilian, he figured that his military service was all but history.

A little more than 56 years later — on Saturday, Feb. 1, at Hot Springs’ Arlington Hotel during an Arkansas Republican Committee annual meeting — the 80-year-old Jefferson County GOP chairman learned that the Army wasn’t done with him after all.

Smykla didn’t expect to be called to the podium, and once he was, he was uncertain of what might be occurring.

As it turned out, Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin of Little Rock — a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve — pinned upon Smykla’s chest an Army Good Conduct Medal as state Republican Committee chairman Doyle Webb read an award citation as authorized by the late Wilber Marion Bruckner, secretary of the Army from 1955-61.

Smykla had known he was eligible for the citation before his Army discharge, but wound up thinking that he would never receive it, especially after the passage of more than a half-century.

“I had no inkling at all (of the presentation),” Smykla said. “I then found out that it was supposed to have happened in December, but that meeting was canceled, so it was in the works for a few months. I was shocked and awed. I couldn’t believe I was getting (the medal) after all this time.”

Smykla’s fellow local GOP leader Stu Soffer was the force behind the recognition effort.

“Once a soldier always a soldier, and it’s a leader’s job to take care of soldiers,” said Soffer, a retired Army chief warrant officer and civilian employee who also served in the Air Force. “I’m 72, but I still take care of soldiers.”

Soffer was pleased that Griffin presented the medal.

“It was nice that Tim could do it,” Soffer said. “He’s a serving officer.”

There was more to Smykla’s surprise, however.

As the retired general manager of Hoover Treated Wood Products in Pine Bluff began to exit the stage, he was surprised to see that he was being aided by his son-in-law, Keith Osborn of Perryville. Moments later, he realized that his wife, Sylvia, daughter Suzanne Osborn and grandchildren Evan and Chaney were also unexpectedly there. Also present was Mary Lee Hall, a neighbor of the Smyklas.

Peter Smykla called the event “a real honor.”

U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton had been scheduled to pin the medal on Smykla but notified organizers two days before the event that he would be unable to participate because of a previous commitment.