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The family the hero left behind

Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, featured in a special section today, gave it all in Iraq to save his men. Here, we look at how his family copes.

ALEX LEARY
Published January 25, 2004

HOLIDAY - The silver ring with the sparkling blue stone is too big, so Jessica Smith wears it on her middle finger. It looks like any class ring except that it's not hers, or her boyfriend's.

"It's my dad's," 17-year-old Jessica says, proudly pushing her hand out.

Tampa Bay Vocational-Technical High School is etched in a circle around the stone. Below that, one side reads 1989; the other says Smitty. "I guess that's what they called him," she says.

Jessica has worn the ring since her father's death on April 4, 2003. He was not very popular in high school, and he was one of tens of thousands of soldiers who went to fight in Iraq.

But in dying, Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, 33, has become to many an extraordinary hero, his name and picture appearing in newspapers and on television nationwide.

As told in full in a special section in today's St. Petersburg Times, Smith manned a .50-caliber machine gun and sprayed a field of Iraqi soldiers as his men got to safety. He died moments later from a bullet to the head. For his actions, Smith has been nominated for the military's highest award for bravery, the Medal of Honor.

With the anniversary of his death approaching, the Smiths - Jessica, wife Birgit and son David - are slowly but measurably coming to terms with the loss, in ways more than emotional.

Birgit, 37, has assumed unfamiliar roles as disciplinarian and handyman with mixed results. It is a struggle for her to keep David, 9, from running outside to play before doing his homework. She has no idea how to attach the wheels on his bicycle and now pays hundreds for repairs for things Paul could have done for far less.

She longs for social interaction and often makes trips to Fort Stewart, Ga., the place she fled after Paul's death to avoid the constant reminders of military life. Getting along in Holiday, in her mother-in-law's former home, has been tougher than she thought. "It's hard to find friends and people with the same interests," she said.

Even so, Birgit appears far happier and more in control of her emotions than in the initial weeks after Paul's death. "I'm finally at the stage where I can see the light," she said. "I don't want to sit here and cry. It doesn't bring him back and it doesn't make me any younger." She plans to start an exercise program and is weaning herself of a cigarette habit renewed after Paul's death. "At least they are ultra lights," she said, laughing, of the Marlboros on a table near the pool.

Between her husband's pension, life insurance and other benefits, Birgit said she does not have to work again. She feels restless at times, though, and might eventually seek a job working with babies in a hospital.

David, who went through counseling at Sunray Elementary School, does not talk much at home about his father's death. But he laughs at the good times they had fishing and playing ball in the back yard.

He is a silly, playful, energetic kid, tall and skinny like his dad, a mop of light brown hair on his head. When he smiles, David looks like a carbon copy of Paul, only smaller.

"I think he's the strongest of us all," Jessica said. When she and her mom are feeling down, he is the one who comforts them.

The personal changes stemming from Paul's death might be most visible in Jessica. She is not his biological daughter. Birgit had Jessica with another American soldier she met in Germany, but that relationship did not last. After Paul and Birgit married in 1992, he adopted Jessica as his own.

He took her mud bogging, taught her how to change the oil in his Jeep. They wrestled on Sundays. Paul could be hard on her, criticizing the clothes she wore, the friends she hung out with. He got on her about being lazy with schoolwork. She snuck out of the house or had people over when she was not supposed to.

"There was a period in her life when she really didn't care about what we had to say," Birgit said, sitting on the couch next to Jessica on a recent afternoon.

Like the young soldiers who fought alongside Smith on April 4, Jessica said she knows now why her father was tough on her. "I feel he was trying to prepare me for life," she said. Not literally, so that she could change the oil in the truck - though she can. But, rather, so that she would be independent.

At school in Georgia, Jessica earned C's and F's. Now, at the Renaissance Academy, a private school in New Port Richey, she gets A's. "She's one of our top students," principal Janine Caffrey said. "What we've seen happen over last semester is growth. She is much stronger now. She takes responsibility not only for herself but helps other students. She's a real leader."

Jessica is taking extra classes this year so she can graduate early in June. She plans to attend the University of South Florida and major in child psychology. With Paul's death, Florida has awarded Jessica and David full-tuition scholarships to a state college. Before now, Jessica said she envisioned herself working as a waitress or some other low-wage job, her family unable to afford higher education on an Army sergeant's pay.

"With my dad dying, a lot of good things have turned out from the bad," Jessica said, her deep-set brown eyes getting tearful. "My future got started in my mind after he died."

Her mom echoed that sentiment.

"I think she wants to prove herself even if he's not here," Birgit said, adding her daughter gets home on time now and is more responsible about checking in with her when she is out. The pair leans on each other for support. "We confide in each other," Birgit said, "comfort each other."

Not long after Paul died, Jessica started dating a friend she met near Fort Stewart. David King, now 19, is fresh out of Navy boot camp, stationed on a ship based in Norfolk, Va.

Birgit was surprised to hear her daughter would show interest in a soldier.

"His plans are to not be there (in the military) for good," Jessica said. "He wants to have college paid for."

"That's what they all say," Birgit replied.

She was only half kidding.

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