AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORE11 theater productions to see in Southern California this week, Dec. 27-Jan. 2Among 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. Fated to fight 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.” 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 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. “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. 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. 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. “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. 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 17 , 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. Heroic tale Like Audie Murphy 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. 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.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!