Capt. Erik Anthes never knew Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith. Still, he felt a common bond, one that hit him squarely during the summer of 2005 when Anthes got his first look at Smith's Medal of Honor citation during an ROTC training session at West Point.
"It was a defining moment," said Anthes, who was attending West Point with the University of Central Missouri ROTC program. "Talk about getting chills — goose bumps."
Like Smith, Anthes, grew up in the Tampa Bay area. A 2004 graduate of River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, he'd heard all about Smith's heroics. He knew about how Smith — a husband, son, brother and father of two — gave his life on April 4, 2003, while defending the lives of about 100 of his men during an unexpected attack in a courtyard outside Saddam International Airport in Baghdad. Anthes knew about the tower that was used as a lookout in that Iraqi courtyard; the Medal of Honor that Smith was awarded posthumously in 2005; and the school back in Holiday that was named in Smith's honor.
Fast forward a few years, and the bond grew. Now 24, Anthes is stationed in Fort Stewart, Ga. He has served two tours in Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division — Smith's unit.
On Monday, the eighth anniversary of Smith's death, Anthes came to Paul R. Smith Middle School to deliver three pieces of brick from the tower in Iraq. The bricks were framed along with pictures of Smith in uniform and an American flag that had flown at the battle site.
The presentation was two years in the making, Anthes said, but well worth the effort.
"This community has sacrificed a lot," said Anthes, who wears a bracelet bearing the name of Pfc. Patrick Miller, a 2003 graduate of Mitchell High who died in March 2008 of combat injuries in Iraq. "I want the kids to know what that means. I hope they can get a fraction of the chill I had when I saw that citation."
Some 500 students filed into the school gymnasium. Members of the J.W. Mitchell High JROTC presented the colors. The Paul R. Smith Middle School band played the national anthem. Guests watched a heart-wrenching slide presentation featuring photographs of some of the special moments in Smith's life: an elementary school portrait, birthday party celebrations, family lineups, scenes from Iraq, his stone at Arlington National Cemetery. Anthes then spoke about the valor of an American he never knew, and others from Pasco County who have made the ultimate sacrifice in recent years.
"I was so surprised because after eight years they are still doing something for Paul," said Smith's widow, Birgit, who came with their son, David, 17. "It's bittersweet. It awakens my grief."
"It's been the hardest year — I don't know why," said Smith's mother, Janice Pvirre, as she wiped away tears. "We moved to Georgia, but we just came back home where Paul was raised, where he grew up. It's so hard."
Even so, the presentation "was really beautiful," she said. "So many soldiers are forgotten, and they need to be remembered every day and blessed."
Joseph Geiniman, 18, said he recently enlisted in the Army because of Paul R. Smith.
"I was 10 years old when all this was going on," said Geiniman, who grew up in a house in Hudson, just down the street from Smith's brother. "It really impacted me. I hope to be half the man he was."
Friends Greg and Heather Harris also attended. They knew Smith back in their crazy teenage years and had a chance to get together with him just before his last deployment.
"This brings up good memories," Greg Harris said. "But it's hard, too. They say it's supposed to get easier, but it doesn't. I keep thinking, he'd be retiring this year. We talked about that. He'd be 20 years in now, and that was his plan."
What did he think Smith would say now about this latest honor?
"He'd be wondering, 'All this for me?' " Harris said. "He would just say he was doing his job."
Michele Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.