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A hero's name shines brightly

Even at Arlington National Cemetery, Medal of Honor recipients stand out. The names on their headstones are embossed in gold.

Published April 6, 2005

[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Birgit Smith weeps as she touches the headstone for her husband, Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, after its unveiling Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

WASHINGTON - For 30 seconds, only the two of them were on the hill, sunlight streaking through the barren branches of the aged oaks at Arlington National Cemetery.

Birgit Smith sat in the grass, head bowed, and blacked out everything else: the soldiers, family, reporters and the Army band.

She slowly got up and ran her hand a final time across the gold inlay letters on the headstone that read In Memory of Paul Ray Smith.

"I had Paul in my mind," she recounted, "and I told him, "Mission accomplished."'

On Tuesday afternoon, a day after President Bush posthumously awarded Smith the nation's highest award for bravery - the Medal of Honor - his headstone was unveiled at Arlington.

It sits amid distinguished company.

Three hundred yards to the north is Jimmy Doolittle, not far from Gregory "Pappy" Boyington. John Kennedy is there, and his brother, Bobby; the explorer Robert Peary and the civil rights leader Medgar Evers; Dashiell Hammett and Glenn Miller.

More than 200,000 headstones dot Arlington's 624 acres; but the names of just 378 are in gold. Even among America's greatest, Medal of Honor recipients stand out.

"As long as our flag stands, (this) sacred ground will cradle our heroes and the memory of Paul Smith," said Ken Preston, sergeant major of the Army, during Tuesday's ceremony. "He will always be with us, to quietly inspire all of those who bear witness to this special place."

Preston, the Army's top enlisted man, escorted Birgit Smith and her children, 11-year-old David and 18-year-old Jessica, to the headstone. The children stood on opposite sides of the stone and lifted off the light blue cloth to reveal the inscription.

Silence washed over the scene as the family looked over the stone. Then Mrs. Smith began to weep. David, dressed in the double-breasted suit he wore for Monday's ceremony at the White House, put his hand on his mother's to console her. The 38-year-old widow then bent down and kissed the stone.

"It almost killed me," Mrs. Smith said in an interview later. "I knew it was going to be perfect and pretty. But it's a headstone. Headstones are for dead people."

Mrs. Smith laid a wreath at the side of the stone and rejoined her family. The spot they reflected on is only a memorial. Shortly after his death, Smith was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the gulf of Mexico, homage to his love for fishing. But the stone in Arlington, his family said, puts him at home among the military he served.

Standing before the crowd, which included soldiers Smith helped save from the Iraqi attack, a man broke into song: And as we bend our knees to pray may we find a way to say thanks to a hero for today.

A soldier in dress blues walked over and handed tissues to Mrs. Smith and Jessica, while David, stone-faced, held their hands, the sunlight reflecting off the 3rd Infantry Division pin on his right lapel.

A soldier standing on the hill, amid the white headstones, played taps. Then the rest of Smith's family, including his mother, Janice Pvirre, older brother, Tony Smith, and sister Lisa DeVane, approached the stone and shared a hug. DeVane's 3-year-old daughter, Olivia Rae, carried a miniature American Flag.

Then they dispersed, and only Birgit Smith remained. She lingered, talking to her husband.

"It was a long time for us to wait for the Medal of Honor and it finally happened," she said afterward. "I know he's going into history and that was my main goal."

The ceremonies over, Mrs. Smith plans to travel to New York for additional press interviews - she's done more than 30 since last week - and then return to her home in Holiday.

"I just need some time to - ahhhhh - let it go and relax," she said. She is bracing for the return to everyday life, when the reporters stop calling and the attention from the military is not as bright.

"I'm sure when I get home I'm going to cry. Then I have to go on with life. He's in history now, his name will never die. That makes it easier for me to go on."

[Last modified April 6, 2005, 19:00:56]

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