Medal of Honor recipient Paul Smith's measure of devotion lives on

Everywhere, the father was honored as a hero. Ceremonies held, buildings renamed. The boy stood politely, because that's what you do in the presence of the president and in front of your entire school. • Inside, sadness burned in the question the son asked over and over. You got on the big gun, why didn't you get off sooner? • Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith died in Iraq in April 2003, struck by enemy fire as he operated a .50-caliber machine gun to save fellow combat engineers from a surprise attack near Baghdad airport. He was 33.

Two years later, President George W. Bush presented his family with the Medal of Honor, the first awarded for the Iraq war. "Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty," the citation read. With the nation watching, Bush handed the medal to 11-year-old David Smith.

Today the St. Petersburg Times presents an audit of the wars spawned by the 9/11 attacks, from the thousands of lives lost and the many more irrevocably maimed, to the financial costs and personal freedoms sacrificed.

David Smith embodies a less measurable impact: the turmoil family members have endured and their struggle to move forward.

A 17-year-old senior at Holiday's Anclote High School, David has found understanding and comfort but still asks the question. And, enrolled in Army Junior ROTC, he faces the same decision his father did years ago in Tampa.

"I can see myself dressing up in the same uniform," he said.

Cries awoke him the night the news was delivered to his mom, Birgit, and older sister, Jessica, at their home at Fort Stewart in Georgia.

"The door was wide open and there were two guys there," David said. "As a kid I had no clue what that meant. I walked over to my mom and gave her a hug. I really didn't know where I got the strength. I just sat there and held my mom."

The family moved to Pasco County to be near Paul's parents. David did not talk about his feelings. Already shy, he grew more withdrawn at school.

"I felt drained," he recalled. "I used to be a really active kid and I just stopped. I wouldn't have people over. I didn't like going places. I didn't like questions. I didn't want to deal with it. It slowed everything I did down."

Attention from classmates — he attended Paul R. Smith Middle School — was uncomfortable. He hated when people told them they were "sorry." Sorry for what, he wondered. They did not cause his father's death.

"I told him, 'Your father got the Medal of Honor,' " said Birgit Smith, who turns 45 this week. "You do not have to live up to that. People respect you for you, not because you're your father's son."

• • •

Birgit met her husband when he was a young Army combat engineer stationed in Germany, her home country.

She descended into her own depression and delusion.

Like David, she wondered why her husband exposed himself to danger, why he left her alone with two kids. For the longest time she was convinced her husband's death had been faked and he was working as an undercover operative.

"I saw him in the casket," she said, "but the government can do a lot of things."

The military events honoring her husband were exciting, then utterly confining. "Two years ago I told the Army, 'No more,' " she said. Last summer she had a breakdown.

"It was a wake-up call," she said. "I forgave Paul. I still love him with all my heart, but I am starting to move on."

David pulled out of his funk by turning to the military. In ninth grade, he joined Junior ROTC, eager for a window into his dad's life.

• • •

Paul Smith was a career solider who was, by his wife's description, a "military goofball" in the early years but returned from the first Iraq war a changed man. By the time the second war arrived, he was an exacting sergeant, requiring his men practice over and over. They called him the Morale Nazi.

On the morning of April 4, the Army engineers found themselves manning a roadblock not far from Baghdad International Airport.

A call went out for a place to put some Iraqi prisoners. Smith volunteered to create a holding pen inside a walled courtyard. Soon, Iraqi soldiers, numbering perhaps 100, opened fire on Smith's position. Smith was accompanied by 16 men.

Smith called for a Bradley, a tank-like vehicle with a rapid fire cannon. It arrived and opened up on the Iraqis. The enemy could not advance so long as the Bradley was in position. But then, in a move that baffled and angered Smith's men, the Bradley left. Smith's men, some wounded, were suddenly vulnerable.

Smith could have justifiably ordered his men to withdraw. The Army believes Sgt. Smith rejected that option, thinking that abandoning the courtyard would jeopardize about 100 GIs outside — including medics at an aid station.

Sgt. Smith manned a .50 caliber machine gun atop an abandoned armored personnel carrier and fought off the Iraqis, going through several boxes of ammunition fed to him by 21-year-old Pvt. Michael Seaman. As the battle wound down, Smith was hit in the head. He died before he could be evacuated from the scene.

Only after the battle did his men realize why he wanted them to be so prepared. The Army said his actions on the battlefield saved many lives.

At school, David had to follow a regimen, too, and was forced to work in a group. "Now I like to be the one who's sitting with everyone, kind of leading the way."

The confidence carries in his voice, and he projects the sentimentalism of youth. His wishes: world peace and an end to hunger. He has a steady girlfriend and a roster of friends.

David stands at 6 feet, a mirror of his father. When he gets in trouble at home, a smirk crosses his face, like his dad. "I just can't help it whatsoever."

Another resemblance: He has a favorite spot on the couch — in the corner so the glare does not reflect off the TV while he's playing video games.

• • •

Through Facebook, David has connected with some of the men his dad helped save. He has asked them what it felt like to be deployed for the first time.

The emptiness still lurks, the memory of fishing with his dad, or building models, daring each other to eat sour gummy worms, wrestling in the living room.

"I don't get as sad as I used to," he said. "The good times were amazing, but I don't want to drag myself down about it. The hardest part was grasping it was real. It was something you didn't want to believe. It gave you a small sense of hope. But the longer the days went the smaller that little window of hope went."

Now he must decide what to do after high school. David said he hopes to go to college and is interested in studying marine biology at the University of South Florida. As the child of a Medal of Honor recipient he could also go to one of the military colleges, such as West Point.

He's considering the Army, but maybe after college. The thought — and the prospect the United States could still be at war — conflicts Birgit Smith.

"As a mother, I say hell no," she said. "As an American, I want him to go. We need soldiers. We will need them forever."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.

Decade's toll

An audit of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, counting the costs in financial and human terms, comparing what political leaders said then and now, assessing the freedoms sacrificed and examining mistruths. Perspective, 1P

Last full measure
of devotion

Read the St. Petersburg Times account of Paul R. Smith's life and the battle near Baghdad at tampabay.com/paulsmith.

Medal of Honor recipient Paul Smith's measure of devotion lives on 09/30/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 1, 2011 10:41pm]

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