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Iraq

2 from Tampa die a day apart in war

The Tampa Bay Tech graduates followed similar tracks in the Army. ''It just hits home,'' their school's assistant principal says.

By BABITA PERSAUD and CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2003


TAMPA -- Their paths in life had the same starting point: Tampa. They grew up here, attended Tampa Bay Tech -- six years apart -- then joined the Army. Both were stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga. Both had traveled the world.

Wilbert Davis, 40, was staff sergeant with the 3rd Infantry Division, a mechanic who loved everything baseball.

Paul R. Smith, 33, was a sergeant with the 11th Engineer Battalion, a demolitions expert and a family man at heart.

A day apart, they became Tampa's first and second casualities in the war in Iraq.

On Thursday, Davis was en route to Bagdad with Michael Kelly, an Atlantic Monthly editor-at-large and Washington Post columnist. Family members say driver Davis was shot, which caused him to lose control near a bridge. The Humvee overturned into a canal and both men suffered fatal injuries. Army officials, still investigating, have released few details.

Smith, 33, died on Friday, killed at the airport in Baghdad, his family learned.

Monday, hearts sank at the east Tampa school.

"It just hits home," said assistant principal Jackie Davis, who has been at the school for 30 years. She is unrelated to the deceased.

"Makes you realize, this is not a reality TV show. This is reality."

The men had more in common than Tampa Bay Tech.

Each had joined the military for the long haul.

Davis enlisted in 1985, and had been to Germany, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War.

Smith had been in the service for 12 years and planned to serve eight more before retiring to Tampa. He, too, had served in the Gulf War and in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Smith met his wife while stationed in Germany. Davis met his wife while stationed in Texas.

Both were fathers.

And both loved their work.

Davis went to the Middle East against the wishes of his wife and his mother.

"He strongly stated it was something he believed in," said older brother Bob Davis, director of the Upward Bound program at the University of South Florida.

Smith, too, was driven.

His brother-in-law, Brad DeVane, called him a "constant soldier" who loved his men yet also felt empathy for the people of Iraq.

"Paul made it clear that it was his privilege to lead 25 of America's finest soldiers into war," said his sister, Lisa DeVane of Atlanta. After Smith graduated from Tampa Bay Tech in 1986, he left Tampa, said his stepfather, Donald Pvirre, who lives in Holiday. In the Gulf War, Smith helped destroy abandoned weaponry. When not working, he was a homebody.

"He didn't really like to go out with the boys," DeVane said. "He liked to be with his family. He was very happy with what he had -- a simple and happy person that way."

Wilbert Davis grew up in the east Tampa neighborhood of College Hill. His first love: baseball.

"He wanted to be Vida Blue," Bob Davis said.

In 1975, at age 12, Davis pitched for the Belmont Heights Little League. He led the team to the World Series.

"He was a real fiery kid," said Billy Reed, one of Belmont's founders. "A fighter even then."

A black-and-white photo in the league's scrapbook shows Davis holding up a second-place trophy as tall as he was and smiling beneath his baseball cap.

It was during that game, played in Williamsport, Pa., that Davis injured his pitching arm. After that, he played ball sparingly for Tampa Bay Tech, his baseball dream cut short. After graduation, he worked at a Tampa Electric Co. plant.

While a young man, he fathered two daughters before moving to Anchorage to live with his older sister. Cynthia Davis, an Army wife, persuaded her brother to enlist.

Before leaving for the Middle East, he lived outside Savannah, Ga., with his wife, Huiok, and their two young boys.

March 31 was the last time Huiok heard from him.

"He sounded fine," she said.

"I still can't believe it," she said.

The Davis family is making plans for a memorial service in Tampa.

Smith will be cremated, his ashes scattered in Tampa Bay.

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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