HOLIDAY, Fla. — 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 him to know that war was more than a game.
Each Memorial Day, she would take him to Arlington National Cemetery, near their Virginia home, so he would 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, Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, died in a courtyard outside Baghdad, fatally wounded in a 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,” Mrs. 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.”
Mrs. Pvirre thinks 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.
He did join the Army, in 1989, but at first he wasn’t much of a soldier. Stationed in Germany, Sgt. Smith drank too much and, on a couple of occasions, slept right through formation.
The first Persian Gulf War changed him, his mother says.
The man who once partied late into the night had become obsessed with training and discipline.
Sgt. 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 Sgt. Smith was ready.