SEMINOLE — Ray Smith pressed his face against the plaque affixed to a wall of a tiny room on the fourth floor of Bay Pines VA Medical Center on Monday.
The disabled former Marine corporal kissed the image of his son, Sean Patrick Smith, a State Department employee killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, along with Ambassador Chris Stevens and two other Americans.
"Welcome home buddy," the Pinellas County man said in a husky voice just loud enough to be picked up by the TV cameras recording the moment. "Welcome home."
U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, stood just a few steps away. He watched the scene in silence. His wife, Beverly, put her hands to her face and sobbed quietly.
Smith turned and faced the cameras. His hands shook.
"My son was a hero. He gave his life. He should have been protected. He wasn't," the 64-year-old said. "I want answers. I want accountability. . . . I want these people brought to justice. . . . My son was murdered."
• • •
No one came to Ray Smith's home in Gulfport to tell him of his son's death. He found out through the media that the 34-year-old, a married father of two who grew up in California, was killed.
The two men hadn't spoken in six months. But Smith said an estrangement that lasted for years had started to thaw. A couple of years ago, the younger Smith sent his father a picture of his children.
Ray Smith was devastated when he saw his son's casket on television. He spiraled.
Already on painkillers for an injury from his time in Vietnam — more than 60 percent of his body was burned during a firefight in 1970 — Ray Smith started drinking heavily.
He also started calling Young and his wife, searching for answers.
"I hate to say he was a basket case, but he really was," Young said Monday, adding that his wife speaks to Ray Smith several times a week.
About a month ago, Young asked Bay Pines if there was a way to honor Sean Smith. Ray Smith receives his primary care there.
The hospital decided to put up a plaque, featuring Sean Smith's picture and a copy of the remarks Young made about him on Nov. 30 on the House floor. The memorial, unveiled at noon Monday, hangs in a room hospital staff uses to counsel families.
"I thought it was a fitting place," said Bay Pines director Suzanne Klinker.
• • •
Ray Smith called the Youngs "angels" for making the memorial happen. But he had harsh words for the government's handling of the attack.
"He's looking for answers, and so is everyone else," Young said. "The people of America are demanding answers."
The incident has become a political flash point in recent months. It also has become the basis of conservatives' opposition to the potential nomination of UN Ambassador Susan Rice to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
Young said he and other lawmakers will continue to press the Obama administration for information, particularly regarding security at the embassy.
Smith said President Barack Obama is responsible for letting the attack happen.
"I'm disappointed. It's a disgrace," Ray Smith said. "What kind of message are we sending those people, that they can just attack us like this? The president should have done something."
Sean Smith joined the Air Force when he was 17, leaving in 2002 as a staff sergeant. He then served 10 years at the State Department, and was helping to build information technology infrastructure while in Benghazi.
His prowess with technology went beyond the military and government. He also was an avid online gamer and was known as a skilled competitor around the globe.
Hospital staff has told Ray Smith he can come visit his son's plaque any time.
"I wanted him home, but not like this," Ray Smith said. "But at least it's something."
Times staff writer John Woodrow Cox and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8643.