The honor and weight of legacy

The lives of Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith's widow and two children are about to change.

Published March 30, 2005

It was the fall of 1980 and parties were in full swing across the campus of Washington State University.

Sophomore Pam Clark, who spent the previous year buried in her books, decided it was time to experience the other side of college.

But as she dressed for a night out, a friend pulled her aside. "You have a legacy to uphold," he warned. "You need to be aware of how your actions reflect on that legacy."

It was not until that moment, Clark said, that she began to fully understand the impact of the Medal of Honor on her life. Her father was posthumously awarded the medal in Vietnam and yet, more than a decade later, it resonated with her friend, an ROTC cadet.

"I realized before my father had done something incredible, but I didn't think it meant anything to anyone else, except thee men he saved," Clark said. "I began to see the special place it has."

As the medal changed Clark's life, the announcement Tuesday that Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith of Tampa will posthumously receive it also will change the lives of his widow and two children.

Birgit Smith, who met Paul when he was stationed in Germany in the early 1990s, was already bracing for a media crush, having received dozens of calls from reporters since news of the medal first surfaced earlier this year. She was interviewed Tuesday by the New York Times and USA Today. This morning the CBS Early Show will air a segment.

Hollywood types are sizing up the story, wondering if it would translate to the screen. Smith's name is certain to adorn buildings. The post office in Holiday, not far from Birgit's home, is already named after him, as is an Army training facility in Orlando.

Families of recipients are often asked to attend or speak at military events and are afforded a high level of respect and admiration.

Smith's children, 11-year-old David and 18-year-old Jessica, may also feel the pressure to conduct their own lives at a higher standard.

"This will give them a sense of appreciation for what (Paul Smith) did. At the same time, there is going to be an enormous task they will take on their shoulders," said Clark, whose father was Staff Sgt. Elmelindo R. Smith.

"They are going to be basically lifted and burdened at the same time by the giant of a man their father was," Clark said.

"You feel obligated to act a certain way," said Joey Hooper, 29, whose father, Staff Sgt. Joe R. Hooper, was awarded the medal during Vietnam. "You just want to make sure your behavior is beyond reproach, that you are very respectful."

Paul Smith, she said, has joined the league of "true American heroes."

"They do things none of the rest of us would, and they do it without forethought for their own safety," Hooper said. "They never thought, "Maybe someone else will do it.' They did what was required of them at the time and it turned out to be amazing."

Smith's legacy may may fall heaviest on his son, David.

"People are going to expect him to follow in his father's footsteps," said Noel Benavidez, son of Medal of Honor recipient Roy P. Benavidez. "He'll be pressured when he gets older."

Benavidez said his father, who died in 1998, wanted him to attend West Point. Any child of a Medal of Honor recipient may attend any of the service academies, assuming they meet minimum academic standards.

But Noel Benavidez, wanting to stake his own place in life, didn't desire West Point.

"It was a sore subject around the house but (my dad) got over it."

The 32-year-old computer network technician plans on going back to college to study political science. As the son of a Medal of Honor recipient, he is eligible for a scholarship from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

As the Smiths will learn, the government rolls out the red carpet for the ceremony. Benavidez recalled a police escort to the airport and limousine ride to the White House. One of his most vivid memories is taking jelly beans from the jar on President Reagan's desk in the Oval Office.

Clark, who was 7 at the time she attended the ceremony for her father, recalled going to President Johnson's bedroom because he was ill.

Gina Townsend can still hear the planes flying over the White House in tribute to her dad. She remembers the white gloves and expensive wool coat she wore, along with dinner at a fancy restaurant.

When she and her mother got home to North Carolina, they hung the Medal of Honor on the wall. No one talked much about it after that.

"The Vietnam War wasn't very popular," Townsend said, "and my father was dead."

Only later in life - like Clark - did she grasp the meaning of the Medal of Honor.

"It's a prestigious honor and (Smith's family) should embrace it as such," said Townsend, whose father, Staff Sgt. Clifford Sims, hurled himself on an explosive booby trap in Vietnam in 1968, sacrificing his life to save his men.

"If I had any advice," Townsend said, "it would be don't let his life end with that medal."