President Bush will give 11-year-old David Smith his father's Medal of Honor today, the two-year anniversary of his death in Iraq.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published April 4, 2005
HOLIDAY - David Smith was chatting about his father, and the subject turned to cookies. When there was only one left, David said, his dad always took it.
"Come on, that's not fair," David would protest.
"Life," Paul Smith would playfully reply, "is not fair."
So they would tussle, David vs. Dad. Over cookies. Over the good seat on the couch. That's just the way the Smith household worked, until April 4, 2003.
Since that day, David gets to sit wherever he wants. He always gets the last cookie. Sometimes he holds one up, looks skyward and says, "Ha-ha. I got it."
David gets pretty much anything these days, except what he wants most.
"When I come in the door," David says, "he's not there to hug me."
Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith died in Iraq two years ago today. The soldiers he led still talk about how Smith single-handedly manned a machine gun to cover their retreat from a courtyard near Saddam International Airport. They think he saved many lives that day.
This afternoon, President Bush will award Smith the nation's highest award for bravery. In preparation for the ceremony, the White House asked Smith's wife, Birgit, to decide who should accept the Medal of Honor. She responded without hesitation.
Man of the house
David is 11 years old, a fifth-grader at Sunray Elementary School in Holiday. His mother brought him and his older sister, Jessica, to Pasco County after Smith's death.
"He's the man of the house now," Birgit Smith likes to say.
David has heard those words before. On the morning Smith left Fort Stewart, Ga., with the rest of the 3rd Infantry Division, he gave his son one of the ready-to-eat meals soldiers carry, then asked him to watch over his sister and mother.
"You're the man of the house now," he said.
David had his own request: After the war, could they finish the model tank they had been assembling? "Yeah, sure," Smith answered.
Life at Fort Stewart was modest but pleasant for the Smiths. They lived in a rented three-bedroom house with a small yard and garage. Smith taught his son how to hit a baseball there, fashioning a tee from a sawed-off clothes hanger.
When Mom wasn't looking, Smith would put David on the back of his Harley-Davidson and go for a ride. On Sundays, they wrestled in the living room. They dared each other to eat sour-flavored gummy worms. They fished, flew kites.
Many times, though, Smith was gone, sent to Bosnia, Kosovo or to a school for noncommissioned officers.
"David was used to not having a father figure around," said 38-year-old Birgit Smith, who met her husband when he was stationed in her native Germany in the early 1990s.
She has assumed even more of an authoritative role now, getting on David to clean his room and take out the garbage, making sure he finishes his school work. When David acts up, Birgit Smith grounds him for a week. "But then I give in two days later. It's kind of hard to discipline him because my heart aches knowing he doesn't have a father."
For months after his dad died, David kept quiet about his feelings, storing them, as his grandmother put it, in a "secret little pocket."
In fall 2003, a school counselor tried to coax the feelings loose. She asked David to picture himself on a bridge filled with traffic. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 representing the beginning of the healing process and 10 the end, where are you?
David put himself at 5.
He blamed President Bush for sending his father to war and vowed to say something if he ever met him. "He would cop an attitude for no reason and talk back," said Jessica Smith, 18.
The anger is less acute now. On the bridge, David puts himself at 8.
"I understand more now," he said. "In the beginning I didn't understand anything. All I understood was Dad's dead. Now I know what the Medal of Honor is and what it means. I understand he did something great."
David is tired of answering questions about what the medal means to him. When the TV cameras come around, he usually gets lost. "It means something real good, but it doesn't bring back my dad," he said, recounting what he told a reporter from CBS's Early Show .
His mother walked in from the kitchen and finished the thought. "It opens up the wounds," she said. "Not that we're not grateful to talk about it, because in my mind it keeps Paul alive, but we are trying to heal."
Jessica Smith, who lives on her own now, saw her brother tear up in the television interview, a sign, she said, he is more comfortable with his feelings.
Despite his progress, David remains quiet around his mother. "He's afraid I'm going to cry. I think he's taking it very literally to watch over me."
But Birgit Smith hears him talking about Smith with his friends. They don't talk about heroics, but ordinary things they did together, like horsing around in the pool.
"Of course it's going to take a long, long time," Birgit Smith said, "but he's definitely improved."
Even at school, David cannot escape the memories of his dad. A practice essay for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test asked: What does freedom mean to you?
David struggled to find the words to answer.
"I said, "This is going to take a while.' It's like a bad dream where the whole thing re-creates itself."
Finding his place
Four feet five and 60 pounds, David Smith looks like a smaller version of his father. His angular face is set off with the same bright eyes and wry smile. "It's kind of cool," David said, "because he did something good, and I look just like him."
Birgit Smith finds the similarities painful. Sometimes David crawls into her bed. He rests one hand on his chest as he sleeps, just like his dad.
One recent day, David played on the street with his best friend, Robby. A brown-haired girl rode over on her bike, and David, seeing her, attempted a flip with his skateboard.
"He's so much like his dad, always showing off," Birgit Smith said, watching. "Sometimes it's scary how alike they are."
She used to worry David would follow Smith into the military. It's the life he was born into, and trappings of that life surround him. In David's bedroom are models of tanks and Humvees, like the one his dad used in Iraq. His grandmother painted the American flag on his wall. Birgit Smith has saved his father's uniforms.
Sons of past Medal of Honor winners say David may feel pressure to pursue a career in the service. And in one way, it would be easy: Children of recipients may attend any of the service academies (like West Point), assuming they meet minimum academic standards.
"I'm always trying to let him know that he is David Anthony Smith. He doesn't have to live up to or try to exceed what his father did," said Janice Pvirre, Smith's mother. "I want him to be himself."
For now, David is doing just that.
"I don't want to be a soldier," he says, "too risky. Cop? Too dangerous. NASA? Too dangerous. What if I run out of gas in space? Are they going to let me float there?"
David grins, to show he's not entirely serious.
"I want to be a scientist, with chemicals. That's risky, but I can make, like, health potions for everyone, stop diseases."
Next year, David will enter middle school. He is asserting more independence, and girls are beginning to show an interest, though he gets mad when Birgit Smith calls a neighbor his girlfriend. He has started wearing cologne and makes sure his hair is neatly combed before leaving for school. "Mom," he asks, "is my hair sticking up?"
For some things, he still needs her. For others, she is not enough.
Try as he might, David has not been able to assemble the tank his dad promised they would finish together.