The last full measure of devotion
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published January 25, 2004
[Photo: courtesy Sgt. Kevin Yetter ]
|As a young soldier in Germany, Smith, right, in the words of a friend, enjoyed beer, women and fast cars."
Beer, women, fast cars
Fate had sent Smith to war once before, and the experience brought focus to what had been an uneventful life. After enlisting in 1989, Smith was trained as a combat engineer. The next year, the Army sent him to a post in Bamberg, Germany.
He was not much of a soldier then.
Yetter, who served with him, said Smith seemed more interested in offpost activities. Smith was a showoff for the girls, Yetter said, and "he could definitely hold his liquor."
On a couple of occasions, Smith got so drunk he slept through morning formation. Once he showed up with alcohol on his breath. An irate officer made him stay late and scrub floors.
Smith, in the words of his close friend Patrick Thompson, "definitely enjoyed the things Germany had to offer - beer, women, fast cars."
A favorite GI hangout in Bamberg was a bar called the Green Goose. One night in June 1990, Smith caught the attention of a 23-year-old German woman named Birgit Bacher.
Birgit had sworn off Americans three years earlier, after a soldier got her pregnant and then deserted her and their daughter, Jessica. But a friend persuaded Birgit to travel to Bamberg that night from their home in Bayreuth 40 miles away.
She started talking to Smith as Bon Jovi wailed through the speakers. Smith acted cool - sunglasses on, the collar of his jean jacket turned up. He was a skinny 6-footer with an angular face, long nose and light green eyes with long lashes. He wore a thin moustache and a wide, toothy smile.
When the bar closed at 1 a.m., Paul and two buddies followed Birgit and her friend to a park, where they sat near a river and gazed at the stars. Then they walked them back to the hotel.
Birgit went to her room. The faint sound of singing drew her to the window. Down on the street, Smith was on one knee.
"You've lost that loving feeling, ooh that loving feeling. You've lost that lovin' feelin'. Now it's gone, gone, gone . . . whoaohoh."
Smith was re-creating a scene from Top Gun, the Tom Cruise movie he had watched earlier that day. As he sang, Birgit picked petals from red flowers in the window box and dropped them to the ground.
They met again and again.
In November, Smith shipped out to Saudi Arabia for the first Gulf War. Inexplicably, he never called, never wrote. The war was a rout. By March, it was over.
Smith still didn't call.
On April 15, 1991, Birgit heard that he was back and headed for the Green Goose. She was sipping a Coke at the bar when Smith came in. He saw her but walked right past, saying nothing.
Birgit followed, confused. "Why are you ignoring me?"
"I just don't want to talk."
Birgit didn't understand at the time, but war had changed Smith, as it does many other men. He never articulated exactly what happened to him in Kuwait in 1991 or what he saw.
"As much as I wanted to go," he told his mom, "I never realized how war was." He mentioned that someone died in his arms but seems to have confided the details to no one.
Smith's friend Patrick Thompson also served in Kuwait.
War, he said, "made us think about how we would be as leaders. I mean that we often spoke about how we train, and if it was the best we could do. As a new soldier you sometimes don't think or even realize that the training you do will ever be used in combat.
"As we found out, it did."
Thompson's wife, Heidi, added a spouse's perspective:
". . .the experience has a profound effect on them . . . some for the better, some for the worse. They say that once you are in combat, you make up your mind real quick that you will either get out of the Army or stay in for a career. . . . Patrick and Paul took similar roads in their lives, family, kids, backed off on the partying. . .
"They just both experienced a resolve to correct mistakes, be better prepared and better trained. . . . It is an unspoken thing, and I don't know if it is that way on purpose or if they just don't know how to articulate the changes that happen."
In love and war
[Photo: courtesy of Birgit Smith]
|Smith and Birgit on their wedding day, Jan. 24, 1992. Denmark required less paperwork than did Germany so they married there.
Paul Smith and Birgit Bacher were married Jan. 24, 1992.
Smith became a homebody, a family man so attached to the house that Birgit sometimes urged him to "go out and have a drink with the boys."
Of course, you have to be home to be a homebody. Birgit figures her husband was away for half their married years, attending training schools to hasten his climb through the ranks, or serving tours in Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Their son, David, was born in March 1994. Smith took him fishing and fashioned a T-ball pole in the back yard. To his stepdaughter, Jessica, Smith passed on the basics: how to change the oil and transmission fluid in his Jeep Cherokee.
And Smith was not just a changed man at home. The soldier Birgit described as a "military goofball" became something entirely different.
Smith earned his sergeant's stripes and became a stern teacher determined to prepare his men for war - something he had seen and they hadn't.
The men did not appreciate his methods.
They didn't like Smith's reaction the day he discovered a soldier had not packed correctly for a training mission. Smith made the entire platoon unpack and start again.
They thought Smith went too far when, during an inspection, he found a screw missing from a soldier's helmet. Smith called the platoon back for reinspection. It lasted until nearly 10 p.m.
"If you f--d up, everybody f--d up," said Cpl. Daniel Medrano. "Teamwork was everything to him."
Smith was obsessed with keeping weapons spotless - "freaking crazy about it," according to Medrano. Smith would push a Q-tip into rifle barrels, looking for dirt.
In Kosovo in 2001, Medrano and others urged Smith to lighten up.
Smith snapped at them: "What are you going to do when the enemy is in front of you and your weapon isn't clean? The reason for all this is I've been to a place where it matters."
"We would joke that we're going to go to war, and then we can say we've been in a place where it matters," Medrano, 27, recalled.
The men did more than joke about Smith. Some mocked him, a few despised him. One of them keyed his silver Jeep parked outside the company headquarters at Fort Stewart.
"He would come home and say, "They hate me. I know they are talking about me,"' Birgit said. "But Paul knew sooner or later they would understand why he was tough on them."
On occasion, Smith showed his men a different side.
A week before Thanksgiving in 2001, the 18-month-old daughter of Sgt. Harry DeLauter was hospitalized with anemia. DeLauter was in Elizabeth's hospital room in Savannah when someone knocked on the door.
It was Smith. He had driven 40 miles from Fort Stewart to bring Elizabeth a teddy bear. The bear was bigger than she was.
"I was speechless," said DeLauter, 31. "He was a perfectionist, always demanding 110 percent from everybody, his way or no way. To see him show feeling outside of work like that was a surprise."
Smith and the rest of the 3rd Infantry Division's First Brigade left for the Middle East on Jan. 23, 2003. In Kuwait, the soldiers spent two months practicing for war.
Some worked harder than others.
At night, when most other soldiers unwound in their tents watching DVDs on laptop computers, playing cards or gawking at Maxim, Smith had his men out running drills.
Even his superior, 1st Sgt. Tim Campbell, took notice. "Your guys," Campbell told Smith, "are not having any fun."
But Smith's methods were extreme only in degree. For centuries, armies have hammered men with the same lesson: Their fate in battle is inextricably linked to that of their comrades.
In combat, when every natural instinct tells them to flee, men so trained will stand and fight, so as not to let down their buddies.
The payoff comes at storied places like Little Round Top, Bastogne and the Ia Drang Valley. For the men of B Company, 11th Engineer Battalion, the payoff would come in a small courtyard outside Baghdad.
After they got to Kuwait, Smith encouraged each of his men to write home, to say the things that need to be said.
On Feb. 26, Smith wrote his own letter to Birgit:
By the time you get this the war will probably be started if it's going to. So I just wanted to say a few things, first I love you and the kids with all my heart. . . . I miss you all very much. And I want you to know that I promised you I would write at least once so here I go. . .
At the end, he added:
P.S. You're still the one.
It was a reference to a single by Shania Twain that had become their song.