Tom Ross: Legion of Merit medal awarded to Steamboat pilot |

Tom Ross: Legion of Merit medal awarded to Steamboat pilot

— Dean Smith gave up piloting aircraft two years ago with 26,000 hours in the cockpit. But the military aviation community has not forgotten him.

Chief Warrant Officer Smith, 59, of the Colorado Army National Guard, received one of the highest military honors last month when he was presented the Legion of Merit medal.

"I just don't see myself as being of the same caliber as other people who have won this award," Smith said Friday. "I'm very humbled by the whole thing."

The Legion of Merit is one of two American military medals intended to be worn around the neck. The other is the Medal of Honor.

Smith is a Steamboat resident and assistant manager of Yampa Valley Regional Airport.

Other people who have been presented the Legion of Merit since its inception in 1943 include Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, of pre-communist China, and grunts like Radioman First Class George Ray Tweed, who survived 31 months on Guam while being hunted by Japanese forces in World War II.

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Smith's award was given to recognize a career that has spanned 34 years and includes Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, the intervention in Kosovo and Afghanistan in 2001.

"I flew in Kosovo and Desert Storm and other stuff I can't talk about," Smith told me. "I've had bullet holes in my uniform. I have this little angel sitting on my shoulder. I've never crashed an aircraft, but I've been the only person in an aircraft to survive a crash without a scratch. Sometimes, I wonder how it was me who survived."

Despite his combat record, his legacy could be that of a pilot's pilot. He became an instructor pilot qualified for the CH-47 Chinook and AH-64 Apache helicopters. He's flown Blackhawks, Hueys and fixed-wing aircraft, from Learjets to P-51 Mustangs.

Smith stopped flying because he realized the job he loves at the local airport kept him away from the taut military aircraft he formerly strapped into and transformed into extensions of his own limbs.

"I decided if I can't be proficient, I'm not going to do it," Smith said. "I still like to fly fast and low."

— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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