Every Memorial Day, I am reminded of the wonderful moments I’ve experienced as a writer. While it’s fun to write about food and fun, honestly, the greatest privileges I’ve experienced are the times I’ve been able to meet military heroes and their families. It’s been an honor to be able to hear and to share their stories.
I can’t help but smile as I remember the day, when in the wee hours of the morning, I surprised my friend Armand Volpini at DFW airport. Armand served as a B-17 bombardier during World War II. As a member of the media, I got to be there to capture the moment as he headed off on his Hero Flight to Washington, D.C. He was to be honored with great fanfare. That was a great day. Armand passed away March 23, 2013.
One of my most fascinating experiences was spending an entire day with Ridgell McKinney. I sat for hours at this World War II areal engineer’s kitchen table. As I flipped through a thick photo album filled with family photos, I came across a faded, yellowing photo of young flyboys, members of the Army Air Corp 15th Air Force posed in front of a B-24 bomber. I listened transported as Mr. McKinney shared stories of harrowing missions flown in the European Theater. Of bombing, of being bombed, of losing colleagues and of surviving circumstances one shouldn’t have survived. As he spoke, I could see his mind’s eye turned inward. He was back there too, with his crew-mates, reliving experiences my limited scope could only imagine. He stopped to point out and call by name the boys in the photo. He showed me who made it home, and who did not. Mr. McKinney, a descendent of our city’s namesake, was with us for 99 years. He passed away October 9, 2013.
The day I interviewed “Miss Jackie”, a gold-star mom facing her first mother’s day without her son, 2nd Lt. Pete Burks, is perhaps one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had as a writer. That was the time I realized while in the process of trying to write her story, there isn’t a word in our language, or any language for that matter, to describe or sum up a mother’s grief. It’s just too big.
The assignment would have been difficult for anybody. Even in light of the fact Miss Jackie’s great faith, and ability to turn her loss into an opportunity to serve, inspired many. But it was a particularly difficult assignment for me at the time. As a fellow army mom with my own son’s deployment to Iraq heavy on my mind, I was hard pressed to find a word to describe a mother’s greatest fear too. Pete was killed November 14, 2007 just outside the Green Zone in Bagdad when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.
But perhaps the story that fills my heart the most is that of McKinney’s 2nd Lt. Brian Smith. When I think about how he served our community, even as a kid, and of how he served our country later, I am left with a deep sense of loss and a deep sense of gratitude in equal measure. Last year, I had the great honor of meeting his mom, Linda Smith. She and I laughed and even cried a little over lunch as she shared wonderful stories of her son’s life. I wish I had known him, and am glad I met her.
It is the story born out of that meeting I would like to share in its entirety today. It first appeared May 22, 2013 in TownSquareBuzz.com. In gratitude for our military heroes and their families, Michele
A McKinney Soldier’s Legacy: Living Fully And Well – Remembering Brian Smith
As every military family knows, before deployment there are things to be done. Important papers need to be signed. Family decisions need to be discussed and made. Tasks on the home-front big and small need to be completed. Which is why on a particular winter day prior to his January 2004 deployment to Iraq, U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Brian Smith could be found visiting with his family in his childhood home in McKinney. The task at hand – returning a box-full of favorite childhood action figures, Transformers, back into their original shapes. Upon completion of this task, the toys were carefully bagged and returned to a large storage tote, where they would live until some post-deployment day when they would once again be brought out to play.
On July 2, 2004, while leading a combat patrol near the City of Habbaniyah near Fallujah, 30 year-old Smith’s life was cut short when he was shot by a sniper, leaving a young wife, parents, a sister, scores of family and friends, and a community to remember this great lover of life. Through his example and his memory, he still has something to say about the importance of living each day fully and well.
Born on Nov. 3, 1973 in Atlanta, Ga., to Dr. and Mrs. William M. Smith, Smith spent his early years in Frankfurt, W. Germany as his father served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. In 1979, the family made McKinney home. Growing up, Smith could be found pursuing his many interests. He loved action figures. Transformers were his fave. He collected rocks; boxes and boxes of rocks. He loved to build model tanks, and listen to stories about his grandfather’s service in the Army during World War II. Boy Scouts was a favorite activity. He loved to play soccer, making the varsity team his senior year. He loved music and was a member of the band, playing trumpet and French horn. He sang in the choir, participated in One Act Play, and enjoyed playing the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons with his friends. And he whistled, a skill he perfected the summer the family trekked to see the bears at Yellowstone National Park.
A lover of all things history, as a young Eagle Scout, Smith decided to make his Eagle Scout project the mapping and listing of all veteran gravesites at the historic Pecan Grove Cemetery. The idea initially received push-back, based on the perceived complexity of the project, and Smith’s young age.
“I don’t think they realized just how dedicated he was,” says Smith’s mother, Linda with a smile.
To this day, Smith’s Eagle Scout project lives on as members of Smith’s former Boy Scout Troop 303 honor his original intention each Memorial Day, when they, like Smith before them, remember the Pecan Grove veterans by placing a flag on each one’s final resting place.
Following Smith’s 1990 graduation from McKinney High School, he left for Austin to attend the University of Texas. Originally a geology major, an ordinary trip to the Student Union ultimately changed his major, while creating the path that lead him to a community and past-time that he adored. This path would also eventually lead him to the love of his life.
While waiting in line to sign up to play Dungeons and Dragons, Smith came across a bulletin-board sign advertising the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). According to its website, “the SCA is an international organization dedicated to researching and recreating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe. Members dress in clothing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, attend events featuring tournaments, royal courts, feasts, dancing, and more.”
“He even learned how to do the minuet,” says his mom chuckling, “It was funny, because, growing up he didn’t care what he wore. I could only get him to shop with me long enough to buy blue jeans and t-shirts. Then, when he got involved with SCA, Mr. Picky came out. He had to have natural fabrics that were historically correct. I was sewing in silks and cotton and linens. He was so into it, hook, line and sinker.”
Now, in addition to attending class, Smith and his other history loving friends spent weekends and breaks attending gatherings and festivals from local Austin gatherings to large multi-day festivals held annually in Pennsylvania. It was during this time Smith met Kathleen Carroll (KC) who on September 21, 2001, became his wife. Together, they continued to enjoy SCA activities and travel.
Smith received his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Texas in 1994. After a short stint working for Dell, he continued his studies, graduating from Baylor Law School in 2000.
As an attorney, Smith returned briefly to McKinney working for a local law firm, before returning to Austin to practice law.
“Brian was kind. He had a real sense of compassion, of honor and of what was fair,” says his mother. Which is what she believes, coupled with his desire to fulfill a childhood dream, lead him to make his next career move, joining the U.S. Army.
In January 2003, Smith attended basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas. He was trained as a tank commander, serving as a platoon leader with A Company, 1st Battalion, 34th Armor, 1st Infantry Division.
Pre-deployment, a military family needs to sign important papers, and discuss and make important decisions. The must take care of tasks both big and small. Which is why on a particular pre-Iraq day, Smith and his young wife made arrangements for a sperm donation to be kept on hand for them in the name of their future family.
“When something like this happens, they make the young widow wait at least six months before trying to get pregnant,” said Mrs. Smith, “And, six months to the day, KC began the process of trying to have a baby.”
It didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen easy, but on July 14, 2006, two years after his father’s death, Benton Drew Smith made his entrance into the world.
Today, Benton and his mother KC, now a nursing student live in Austin, as does Linda Smith’s daughter and son-in-law and their two daughters. Upon retirement from teaching high school history, Linda’s husband gifted her with a car, knowing full well with all those grand-babies in Austin, she would be burning up the road between here and there.
At this writing, Benton is wrapping up the final days of first grade. He is the spitting image of his father, both in countenance, and in spirit. Like his father, he is a lover of life and has an insatiable curiosity. He is a delight to his family, and is always, always on the go. Just ask his teacher at school.
But if Benton can just keep it together for a little while longer, his grandmother in McKinney has a wonderful reward that will make this whole first grade adventure worthwhile: a tote box filled with Transformer action figures, ready and waiting to be brought out for play.