Allan Smith always has known his way around a camera.
He began his career as a child actor in Hollywood, starring in commercials; TV shows like “The Brady Bunch” and “Gunsmoke”; and movies, including “Chinatown.”
But it wasn’t long before Smith, 54, wanted to try something new.
“I wanted something totally different,” he said. “I wanted a big challenge, and I guess I wanted to prove myself.”
More than 40 years later, the Cary resident now works on the other side of the lens as a filmmaker specializing in indigenous cultures, hostile territories and developing countries.
He treks through jungles and climbs Mount Everest, using skills he learned as a firefighter, paramedic and Marine to create his films.
And this month he traveled nearly 800 miles from Navarre, Fla., to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, to honor seven of his fallen brothers in arms.
Brothers in arms
On March 10, 2015, seven U.S. Special Operations Marines and four National Guardsman died when the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter they were on crashed into the Santa Rosa Sound in Navarre during a night training mission.
About a year later, active-duty and former Marines gathered at the crash site to begin a 770-mile, relay-style ruck march, called the Marine Raider Memorial March, ending in North Carolina.
One of seven two-man teams – each associated with one of the seven Marines on the helicopter – carried 45-pound packs on their back for about 11 miles before the next team took over.
The march represented the belief of leaving no man behind and the Marines bringing their brothers home to Camp Lejeune. The teams also carried a Marine Raider flag and a paddle that was recovered from the crash site.
“It was an emotional roller coaster for everybody, but also a physical one,” Smith said. “The goal (was) to never forget and continue the honor and recognition of these serviceman that gave all.”
Family members of the fallen servicemen joined the expedition, some looking to find closure after the loss of their loved ones.
Smith’s role was to capture footage of every leg of the ruck march along with his Cary-based production company, DreamQuest Productions, to create a keepsake film for the families of the fallen servicemen.
“I rucked, I filmed and I drove an RV,” he said. “Then at one point ... I also assisted in medical – taking care of one of our guys who was dehydrated.”
This didn’t allow Smith time to get much sleep over the 11-day journey. He averaged about two hours per day, but he said it was worth it to be able to document the memorable moments.
“Lack of sleep is temporary,” he said. “What we were doing was about honor and recognition. My personal hardship is nothing like what the families went through and are going through.”
The route ran through Panama City, where active-duty Marine Nathan Harris, who organized the march, met Master Sgt. Thomas Saunders, one of the fallen, at the USMC Combatant Diver Course. Harris and Saunders were paired together for the course, which teaches Marines diving techniques in two-man teams.
“He was a brilliant man,” Harris said. “He was a very hard worker. He was very headstrong. If he was ever given a task, he would find a way to complete it, even if it seemed impossible.”
That’s why Harris said he believed Saunders would approve of the long, strenuous trip they took, even if it seemed crazy to some.
“It really disturbed me how they lost their lives, and I knew that they were very deserving of something to be done in honor of their name,” Harris said.
From child actor to filmmaker
Throughout Smith’s career, he always followed many of the principles he learned while in the Marines, including honor and integrity.
“One thing that I personally gained was the understanding that anything was possible, no matter what age you are,” he said. “If you believe in yourself and what you’re doing, you can overcome any obstacle in life.”
Smith enlisted in the Marine Corps in his senior year of high school, looking for a challenge in what he believed was the “best of the best of the armed services.”
He served for nearly seven years and was stationed in Camp Pendleton in California.
After leaving the Marines, Smith worked as a paramedic and firefighter in Los Angeles before deciding to start his production company part time. This hobby soon evolved into a full-time profession.
Smith refers to his “self-sufficient” production team as the “special ops team of film.” They have traveled around the world, including Death Valley, Indonesia, Alaska and Mt. Everest, for their work.
But Smith always stayed involved with the Marines as a board member for the Brothers in Arms Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the Marine Special Operations Community, which is how he got involved with the Marine Raider Memorial March.
While Smith did not personally know any of the fallen, that didn’t stop him from being a part of this month’s journey, no matter how difficult.
“It meant supporting my brothers in arms, regardless of their age or the generation gap,” he said. “To have the opportunity to have them know that your Marines both former and current stand beside you meant everything to me.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608: @KTrogdon