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Reunion will warm mom's heart

Bonnie and Bill Smith were high school sweethearts who married and had six kids: three boys and three girls.

"We planned it that way," Bill jokes.

Bonnie was the faithful homemaker; Bill the breadwinner working in commercial real estate.

In 1970, they moved from Toledo, Ohio, to South Tampa, where Bill was drawn by new development opportunities.

Their daughter Deborah finished up her studies at Robinson High, while her younger brothers and sisters went to Plant.

They're all grown up now, but Bonnie says the family is still what she lives for. Everyone remains in Tampa — except one, the youngest.

His name is Eric.

And he has something in common with the Smiths' oldest grandson, Adam. Their story is among the reasons this weekend will be so special.

Of course, Sunday is Mother's Day, and the men are planning a get-together at Bonnie and Bill's, out by the water at Windward Lakes mobile home park off S Dale Mabry. Most in the family clan, which numbers 26 strong, plan to be there.

They have a few blessings to celebrate, namely that both Eric and Adam survived the Iraq war.

Bill served in the Korean War, and his father, in World War II, but neither chose the military as a career. Eric did, though, nearly a quarter-century ago.

When he was a boy, his mother had asked if he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. "All I know now is I don't want to sit behind a desk," she remembers him saying.

He grew popular in high school and played tennis and baseball but didn't care to continue his education. So when recruiters touted the benefits, the military seemed like the best fit, at least to him.

Mom wasn't so sure. Would he be safe?

As the years passed, he was stationed throughout the world and served during the Persian Gulf War. Then, about seven years ago, his nephew was considering the military, too. Eric encouraged him to enlist and take advantage of the Army's program to pay for college.

Like her mother years before, Adam's mother, Deborah, was scared. Adam graduated at age 17, so she had to sign off on his enlistment. She hesitated at first, but the recruiter told her she could fill out a form exempting her only child from serving in combat if a war ever broke out.

Adam signed a two-year contract with the military at a fateful time: Sept. 5, 2001.

Inevitably, Adam was called for a stint in Iraq. Eric, who also served tours there, felt terrible for encouraging his nephew to enlist.

But perhaps Deborah felt worse. She wanted to fill out that form, but Adam wanted to put his military training into practice. "Mom, I can only shine my boots for so long," he told her.

At one point, Eric and Adam were stationed in Iraq at the same time, but in different areas.

Deborah was glued to the TV, soaking in reports of soldiers killed by roadside bombs and the like.

For days after Adam told her he was being deployed, "I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't think. I was just out of it," she said this week, holding back tears.

Early in the war, Eric's military office was near a tragic bombing in Mosul. The Smiths heard about it in the national news and held their breath until they got his call, saying he was okay. Eric's office had been destroyed, but he was safe.

After that, Eric told his mother to stop watching news reports of the war. "It's not the truth what they tell you," he told her. The media focused on bombings and death, not the good that American soldiers were doing in the Middle East, the Smiths said.

But time passed, and Eric's last tour in Iraq ended.

Adam's contract ended while in Baqubah, north of Baghdad. His commander told him he was free to go, but no military planes were flying directly into the United States, so he'd have to chart his own course back home.

He found empty seats on planes out of Iraq. He hopped a flight to Kuwait, then Germany, then Maine. He phoned home along the way. The call from Maine was one of the happiest Bill ever received. His grandson was out of harm's way. Finally, Adam landed in Texas, at Fort Hood.

That was about five years ago. A few days ago, the 24-year-old was making plans to come home this week from Tallahassee after graduating with a degree in political science from Florida State University. He planned to send out resumes and attend a job fair, his mom said.

Eric, 42, hadn't liked school much before the military, but later earned degrees from Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida, his father said. He and his wife, Valli, also a 1983 Plant High graduate, have three children and live in San Antonio, Texas.

Recently, the lieutenant colonel announced his retirement from the Army after 24 years. He now works for a private logistics company that does work for the military, and he planned to be in the area this weekend for a business conference.

Of course, he would join his brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.

What more could a mother ask for?

"This is my life, to have them all together," Bonnie said this week. "We never had a lot of money, but we sure had a lot of love."

Reunion will warm mom's heart 05/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 8, 2008 4:31am]
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