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Wife's peace carved in stone

ALEX LEARY
Published April 6, 2004

HOLIDAY - Birgit Smith rested soundly Saturday night, without the sleeping pills she sometimes needs to smother the memory of April 4, 2003. She spent a year searching, coming close at times, slipping far away at others, but she now has it in grasp - "my inner peace."

Just before midnight Saturday, a man arrived at Smith's door with a heavy black slab of marble. He went past the pool to the back yard and laid the stone in the spot Smith had carefully prepared.

The etching was clear under the full moon, and Smith ran her fingers across the grooves in the marble that read, "Paul Ray Smith."

"Honey, you're home," Smith said. And then she went inside and slept, knowing she had a permanent reminder of her husband, who was killed in Iraq a year ago Sunday.

"This is my holy ground," Smith, 37 and a mother of two, said Sunday afternoon as she stood with her family at the memorial stone.

One by one, they stepped forward and laid a red rose on the marker. Paul's mother, Janice Pvirre, touched her hand to her lips, then pressed it against the image of him smiling from beneath a combat helmet.

That picture and many others have been seen in newspapers and on televisions nationwide. In dying, Army Sgt. 1st Class Smith has become a symbol of the American fighting resolve. He remains the only known soldier in Iraq nominated for the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor.

On the morning of April 4, 2003, Smith and a handful of other combat engineers were preparing a courtyard to hold enemy soldiers when a fight broke out. Smith organized his men but they were outnumbered.

Iraqi fire hit an armored personnel carrier, wounding three Americans and leaving the biggest American gun silent. Smith climbed on the vehicle and sprayed the field with .50-caliber machine gun fire. His men made it to safety as a result, but Smith, 33, died from a single bullet to the head.

That night, the Army notified Smith that her husband was dead. She hasn't really stopped crying since.

"It's a hard day, harder than I thought," Smith said moments before the memorial stone was unveiled for the family Sunday. Her mouth trembled and her eyes began to tear. Smith's sister-in-law, Lisa DeVane, sat at the patio table with her and sipped coffee.

The women share a struggle of wanting to grieve yet also to move on, not only for their own sake but so they can be better wives and mothers.

"You feel comfortable being miserable. You feel like everybody must know how I feel if I don't change," DeVane said.

"I'm never going to forget him and he'll always be in my heart," Smith said. "But I know I've got to go on. I've got to start living my life. Paul would have wanted that."

The memorial stone, she said, is the surest way to achieve that balance. If she feels sad or just wants to talk to Paul, she can go outside instead of making the long drive to Fort Stewart in Georgia, to visit his memorial tree, or going to the Florida National Cemetery near Bushnell.

"I need this for myself," Smith said.

Under Paul's name are the words "You're still the one," a reference to the Shania Twain single that had become their song.

Smith is glad the past year went by so fast, because that will only bring her closer to the day when she can sit in the back yard and laugh and smile and be happy.

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