Image: Fallen soldier Sgt. Paul Smith’s wife and mother
Chris O'Meara  /  AP
Birgit Smith, left, wife of Sgt. Paul Ray Smith, and Paul's mother Janice Pvirre look at his Congressional Medal of Honor. Sgt. Smith was killed April 4, 2003, in Iraq.
updated 5/28/2006 12:56:30 AM ET 2006-05-28T04:56:30

Rita Richardson smiles at the memory: Her young son Dan, prowling the woods dressed in camouflage and green face paint or jumping off the shed like a paratrooper. But she wanted her little commando to know that war was more than a game.

So each Memorial Day, she would take him to Arlington National Cemetery, near their Virginia home, to walk with her through that “garden of stone,” to appreciate the sacrifices honored there. This Memorial Day, she will be there in spirit as her soldier son trains for another overseas deployment.

Janice Pvirre will be at Arlington in person. She will join the other “Gold Star Mothers,” those who have lost children in combat, to lay a wreath and to say a prayer at a white marker engraved with the emblem of this nation’s highest military honor.

Her son, Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, died in a dusty courtyard outside Baghdad, fatally wounded in a furious firefight while showing “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity ... above and beyond the call of duty” — a sacrifice that made him the only service member awarded the Medal of Honor in the Iraq war.

Among those Sgt. Smith’s actions saved: Dan Richardson, who has recently married and himself been promoted to sergeant.

That knowledge is both a blessing and a burden, for one mother to know that any milestone she will celebrate with her son — a birthday, a holiday, the birth of a child — was made possible by another mother’s loss.

“We have been drawn together for some reason, and we’re both intrigued about that reason,” Richardson says. “There is a destiny behind all of this. And it’s not over. It’s not played out yet. We don’t know where it’s going from here.”

Born to serve
Janice Pvirre believes her son’s fate was determined when he was 5.

One day, someone at school asked Paul what he wanted to do when he grew up. “I’m going to go in the Army,” the green-eyed boy declared, looking up through long lashes. “And I’m gonna have babies and I’m gonna get married.”

“I said, ‘Well Paul. Let’s rearrange that,”’ his mother laughingly recalled recently by the pool at her daughter-in-law’s home in Holiday, north of Tampa. “‘Go in the military, get married and THEN have your babies.’ And he laughed and said, ‘Yeah.”’

He did join the Army, in 1989, but at first he wasn’t much of a soldier. Stationed in Germany, Smith drank too much and, on a couple of occasions, slept right through formation.

The first Gulf War changed him, his mother says.

The man who once partied late into the night had become obsessed with training and discipline. He drilled his soldiers well into the night and was even known to swab the muzzles of their rifles, looking for dirt. The men took to calling him the “morale Nazi.”

Smith, who had married shortly after that war in 1992 and had become a stepfather, then a father, told his wife that he feared he hadn’t seen the last of Iraq. Making sure his men were ready became a priority, Birgit Smith says.

“He said, ‘We are not done. We’re going back. We didn’t finish,”’ the young widow says. “It was just a matter of time.”

That time came in March 2003. And Smith was ready.

“There are two ways to come home, stepping off the plane and being carried off the plane,” he wrote in a letter to his parents. “It doesn’t matter how I come home because I am prepared to give all that I am to ensure that all my boys make it home.”

One of those “boys” was Dan Richardson.

‘Thrill seeker from day one’
Growing up around Washington, D.C., Dan Richardson was surrounded by the military.

Jerry and Rita Richardson were both federal employees. Jerry Richardson had served four years as a Navy parachute rigger, and the couple always stressed service to country.

When Dan was about 12, his mother took him to a gathering of World War II veterans, where, as a National Archives official, she’d been asked to give a speech on that war’s most decorated hero — Audie Murphy.

She had regaled her son with tales of the young soldier who climbed onto a burning tank and, firing its .50-caliber machine gun until he ran out of ammunition, killed or wounded more than 50 attacking Germans. His deeds earned Murphy the Medal of Honor in 1945 and inspired the movie “To Hell and Back,” in which he starred as himself.

Young Dan helped gather signatures on a petition for a postage stamp honoring Murphy.

Like Smith, Dan was an indifferent student. He liked fast cars and skydiving — “a thrill seeker from day one,” his mother says.

When he was 17½, Dan asked his parents for permission to join the Army. They happily signed his papers.

Dan wanted Airborne, but ended up at Fort Stewart, Ga., with B Co. of the 11th Engineer Battalion, part of the 3rd Infantry Division.

Audie Murphy’s division.

And now, Paul Smith’s division.

‘Bullets were flying everywhere’
On April 4, 2003, early in the war, Smith and his combat engineers were part of a 100-member force tasked with constructing a roadblock on the highway to Baghdad and to protect the eastern flank of the Saddam International Airport. PFC Richardson, all of 18, carried his platoon’s SAW — squad automatic weapon.

Smith’s troops were erecting a pen to hold some Iraqi prisoners when someone spotted an enemy force of about 100 — armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and 60mm mortars.

Smith organized a hasty defense of two platoons, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and three armored personnel carriers, according to official reports.

While shouting orders, Smith went to work himself. He lobbed grenades and fired on the Iraqis with his rifle and a bazooka to cover the evacuation of three wounded soldiers from a crippled troop carrier.

The Iraqis controlled a tower overlooking the compound. Smith knew he had to silence it.

“Under withering fire,” Smith raced across the courtyard and climbed onto one of the disabled carriers, which was armed with a .50-caliber machine gun. Smith tried to back the vehicle into the courtyard, but the attached trailer kept jackknifing.

Richardson and another soldier rushed out to unhitch it.

“Bullets were flying everywhere, pinging off the ground and walls,” he wrote to his parents after the battle.

Meanwhile, Smith climbed into the gun turret. With his upper body exposed, Smith blasted the tower with .50-caliber machine gun fire.

‘Sgt. Smith is hit!’
Smith had emptied three 100-round cans of ammunition when the gun suddenly went silent. Richardson and the others were just unhitching the trailer when he heard someone yell, “Sgt. Smith is hit!”

A bullet had pierced Smith’s skull. The ceramic breast plate in his flak jacket was shattered. Littering the ground were the bodies of more than four dozen Iraqis. One soldier later said the sight of Smith atop that troop carrier reminded him of “To Hell and Back.”

Paul Smith was the only U.S. casualty in the courtyard. He was 33 years old.

In the four-page letter from Dan afterward, Rita Richardson learned the harrowing tale of gunfire and confusion, and of the sergeant who held them all together.

“It is because of him that I’m not dead ...” her son wrote. “He gave his life defending us.”

United by grief, gratitude
Dan Richardson’s mother has a decal on the trunk of her car: a red rectangle with a blue star in the center, signifying she has a soldier on active duty.

Paul Smith’s mother also has a peeling star, on her rear windshield. It is gold, the mark of someone who has given what Abraham Lincoln, creator of the Medal of Honor, called “the last full measure of devotion.”

Grief and gratitude will always link the families, Mrs. Richardson feels.

“Obviously, we will never forget what happened,” she said recently at her home in Sebastian on Florida’s east coast, where she and her husband retired in 2004. “Something put him in that place at that time in those circumstances.”

Letters and e-mails from the families of others who served with Smith still come to his mother and widow, thanking them for his sacrifice.

Some display his picture in a place of honor among their own family photos. Somewhere, there is a baby boy named Paul, in his memory.

Medic Michelle Chavez held Smith’s hand as he died under the hot Iraqi sun. In her pocket, she carries a .50-caliber machine gun bullet from the battle.

Because of Smith, she is alive to pursue her dream of becoming a physician’s assistant, says her mother, Pam Shorb.

“I really don’t know how to put it into words,” says Shorb. “I’ll always be grateful to him for what he did and what he sacrificed. Without our daughter, we don’t know what we’d be.”

Janice Pvirre says it hurts to know that because of those same actions, Paul was not there last October to give stepdaughter Jessica away in marriage. When 12-year-old David enters seventh grade this fall, it will be in a middle school building named for a father who is no longer there.

If anyone owes her anything, she says, it is to live as good a life as possible, so that Paul’s death was not in vain.

“I don’t feel that they need to thank me,” she says. “I mean, I had 33 wonderful years with this boy. I have been thanked enough. I’m blessed.”

Rita Richardson thinks her son is mindful of that duty.

In March, Dan got married. He is at Fort Benning, Ga., doing airborne training for a deployment to Italy.

His mother worries that he will be deployed again. She knows he will try to emulate Smith — and that there is no use telling him not to be a hero.

The Warriors Walk
On the parade ground at Fort Stewart, there is a path known as the Warriors Walk. Each time a soldier from the 3rd Infantry dies, a redbud tree is planted as a memorial.

When Dan’s unit returned from its first deployment, Mrs. Richardson says, there were just a few trees. Now, they line the grounds’ perimeter, two rows deep.

On the third anniversary of Paul’s death, his mother was on that same parade ground, sitting on the cold concrete bleachers as a brisk wind whipped the redbuds, whose purplish blossoms had given way to tiny green shoots. Members of the 3rd ID were coming home from another deployment, and she just wanted to be there.

Nearby, a little boy, no more than 5 or 6, sat squirming. “I can’t see my daddy,” he shouted. Suddenly, the boy spotted his father and burst onto the field.

“Nobody could catch him,” Pvirre says, grinning at the memory.

The boy threw himself at his father. The crowd laughed as the soldier marched along, the little boy clinging to his leg.

“It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” Pvirre says, her eyes brimming with tears. “It did me a world of good to go out and see that.”

Though she had every right to be envious, she says she had a different feeling.

“I know that some of those kids came home because of my son,” she says, “and I’m very proud.”

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