Smith chose Army, but worried about Iraq duty

Soldier told of being uneasy, not scared

MARTIN, S.C. --- Orenthial Smith had a bad feeling about Iraq.


He didn't let on to his mother, but he confessed it to his friend and mentor, McKinley Neal, in an e-mail from Dexheim, Germany, where he was stationed. He told Neal he'd just gotten orders to deploy.

"He said, 'I'm not scared, but I just don't feel good about it. Pray for me,' " Neal said.

Smith grew up without a father, but he found a father figure in Neal, a deacon and youth leader at his church who had since become a pastor. His mother, Iratean Smith, used to call on Neal to say the things to him that she thought a father should, such as to get his grades up, stop acting out at school or stop talking back to his mother.

This time, though, there was little advice Neal could give, and little he could do for Smith but pray. Smith was a man now, a soldier in the Army because he'd decided there was nothing else he wanted to be.

The following summer, Neal got a call from Smith's mother.

"I want you to do something for me," she told him. "I want you to bury OJ."

The petroleum supply specialist had gone to the Mideast in May 2003, about two months after the invasion and a week after President Bush's "mission accomplished" speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln. Forty-three days into his deployment, Smith was dead at age 21, shot through the head by an insurgent.

Neal officiated at his funeral July 2 at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Barnwell, S.C., where about 400 people packed the church and spilled out its doors.

"It seems like it's so unreal, sometimes," he said, "for a kid to die so young."

HIS NAME WAS Orenthial Javon, but nobody called him that. A cousin had come up with that name, his mother said, partially after yet-to-be-disgraced NFL star Orenthal James "O.J." Simpson.

But Smith, unlike his semi-namesake, would be known for impeccable character -- a bespectacled, straight-laced teen with a mischievous side; a rigidly disciplined soldier, yet quick to lend boot polish or starch to the ones who were less so, according to relatives and tributes posted on the Web.

He accumulated nicknames. To his mother and grandmother, he was "Barney." To his grandfather, sister, cousins and friends at school, he was "O.J." In his Army unit, he was "Smitty."

He had a quirk. Meet him once, friends and family said, and he'd say hardly anything, seeming painfully shy at best, standoffish at worst. Get to know him, though, and he'd talk nonstop, joking and joshing like a class clown.

"The longer he'd be around you, the quicker he'd warm up to you," said his younger sister, Talisha Sherrod.

"He was a shy guy," his mother said, "but he was a very smart guy, too. He had to get to know you. Once he got to know you, then he would talk."

Raised in the rural Allendale County, S.C., town of Martin by a single mother who earned a living making fan belts at the Dayco Products plant in Williston, Smith and his sister grew up having little contact with their biological father, who walked out when they were small, Sherrod said. They had their mother's last name, and they called her boyfriend, Roosevelt Myers, their dad.

Smith also took guidance from Neal, his third cousin and a deacon at St. Mary Missionary Baptist in Martin, where the Smiths attended. Neal and his family would come to the Smiths' house for weekend cookouts. And when Smith and other young boys played during church, it was Neal who had to straighten them out.

His mother would call for Neal's help when her son reached high school. Intelligent and articulate since early childhood, he had been an honor roll student in middle school and a member of the National Honor Society and Beta Club.

The combination of wearing glasses and being shy, skinny and tall -- 6 feet, 1 inch -- got him picked on at Allendale-Fairfax High. Other students labeled him a nerd, and Smith didn't like it, his mother said.

His way of shaking the reputation: Make terrible grades.

In 10th grade, he flunked English, and his mother had to pay for summer school. He would later pay her back by working at Sonic Drive-In.

With his elders coming down hard on him, Smith tripped into a solution. He went out for the Tigers football team, playing kicker and wide receiver, but to stay on he would have to get his marks up.

It was a much cooler way to make good grades, his sister said.

He got back on track for college, and he could have gone, with a student loan. He wanted nothing of it, Neal said.

"I'm not college material," Smith said, according to Neal. "I'm going into the service."

IT COULD HAVE been the example of his grandfather, John Smith, a World War II veteran, or his first cousin, a Marine, Neal said. Or it might have been his own example. Neal was drafted in 1966, but he got out of going to Vietnam because he had two brothers there, so he went to Germany instead.

One of his brothers got shot up badly in that war, and Neal said he didn't like the idea of Smith's joining the Army.

Sherrod said her brother's reasons were simple. He wanted to help her and his mother out with finances, and he didn't want to pay tuition or go into debt. She said she's not sure who approached whom, but he was talking to a recruiter in Barnwell.

"He didn't want to wait to make money," Sherrod said, "so I'm thinking he thought the military would be the easiest way to go, and find something he liked."

Neal said Smith probably would have enlisted even if his mother could have paid for college outright.

"He said, 'That's what I want to do. That's what I want to be'," Neal said. "He was adamant about it."

He enlisted in June 1999, 13 days after graduating.

Boot camp at Fort Benning, Ga., wasn't what he imagined. His sister said he sent a letter home saying he wanted to go AWOL, that he couldn't take the early hours or the intensive training.

His mother told him he had to stick it out, Sherrod said. When boot camp was over, his attitude changed. He wrote his mother another letter, telling her how much he appreciated all she'd done for him.

"He was thanking my mom for making him stay," Sherrod said. "He loved it, because he wanted to retire from the Army."

He spent time at Fort Lee, Va., and Fort Stewart, Ga., before being stationed in Germany. He was having fun, and he had cash on hand. He planned to take college courses and switch his specialty from petroleum to computers. He took classes to make sergeant, and told his family he graduated from the leadership course ninth out of 127.

Iratean Smith said he came home one Mother's Day weekend, gave her $300 and told her to buy something nice. To his chagrin, she socked it away instead.

Sherrod, still in high school and having to rely on friends to get to school and basketball practice, said her brother gave her a 1995 Chevrolet Corsica that he bought at Fort Stewart. When he moved to Germany, he bought himself a BMW.

Sherrod said the Army matured him. He grew up, finally understanding the sacrifices his mother had made.

AFTER NEAL GOT the e-mail from Germany, he saw Smith one last time, when the soldier came back to Martin to see his family before shipping out. He swung by Neal's house in Barnwell and found him in the backyard, getting ready to roast a pig.

They talked about church, God, fishing, life and Smith's mother and sister. They reminisced about old times. They swapped stories about living in Germany. Neal told Smith he admired the man he'd become.

Iraq came up briefly. Smith mentioned he would be getting a promotion, but he didn't elaborate on what he'd said in the e-mail.

"He seemed as though he didn't really want to talk about it," Neal said. "He wasn't thrilled about going, and he didn't want his mother to know.

"One thing he said, though: 'I'm not afraid, because the Lord will be with me.' I've often wondered if he felt like he wasn't coming back alive."

They prayed together about the war. Smith left in a good mood, and Neal said one more thing to him before he went.

"I love you, Son," he told him.

"You know I'll always love you," Smith replied. They hugged, then Smith walked to his car.

In the short time Smith was in the Middle East, he wrote two letters home. Iratean Smith received the last one from him the day before he died, dated June 7, 2003.

He told her that when he was in Kuwait he couldn't say much during their conversations over the phone because intelligence personnel were monitoring them, cutting off soldiers if they talked about operations.

Despite what the president said on the aircraft carrier, he told his mother, the war wasn't over. There were firefights along the route to Baghdad, he said, and in one skirmish his truck partner was shot in the shoulder, shattering his collarbone. Smith fired his machine gun for protective cover while other soldiers tended to his wounds.

"And for my truck, it's a total disaster," he wrote. "The truck caught on fire, wheels blown out because of bullets, and bullet holes all over the truck."

"After we fighted them off," the letter said, "I looked towards heaven and said Thank you God for still keeping us alive because for a minute, I thought I was going to lose my life."

Sherrod said she last spoke to him on the phone around the time that letter was written. He told her to stay in college and get good grades. He said not to worry about him, but he asked her to pray. He said that when he got home, he'd pay for her, their mother and him to go to Disney World, as they did when they were little.

"He never sounded terrified over the phone, but we knew how it was over there," Sherrod said.

THE END CAME in Khan Azad, south of Baghdad, the same day Smith got his promotion to sergeant.

He was in a truck moving in a convoy. Insurgents ambushed them with grenades and machine guns, and another firefight ensued. Smith got hit in the head and died in a hospital trauma unit, his mother said.

The Pentagon released only a terse explanation. Iratean Smith said a fellow member of her son's unit sent her a letter with a detailed account of what happened, but she couldn't bring herself to read all of it. She has since misplaced it.

"Some things, I'd just rather not know," she said. "They was shooting. He just got the bullet. He lived less than an hour."

Neal, the pastor of Shrub Branch Baptist Church in Blackville for the past 11 years, said he has done a lot of funerals, but never one as tough as Smith's. The pain stays with him.

Years later, his goddaughter in the Army was getting ready to deploy, and she told him she didn't feel good about it. It sounded too much like what Smith said in that e-mail.

"I said, 'Don't say that! Don't say you don't feel good about it!' " he said.

Smith family still not convinced war was justified
Sgt. Orenthial Javon Smith

Age: 21

Killed: June 22, 2003, south of Baghdad when his convoy was ambushed in a small-arms attack. He died of a gunshot wound to the head.

Unit: Company A, 123rd Maintenance Support Battalion, Dexheim, Germany

Enlisted: June 24, 1999

Family: Mother, Iratean Smith; sister, Talisha Sherrod; nephew, DaShawn Sherrod; niece, Breonna Sherrod; grandmother, Franciner Smith

Medals: Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Combat Action Badge, National Defense Service Medal, Non-Commissioned Officer Professional Development Ribbon, Army Service Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal

Other honors: On Memorial Day, the city of Allendale, S.C., renamed a small park in the center of town Smith-Youmans Park, after Smith and Marine Lance Cpl. Rodricka Youmans, the other Allendale County man killed in Iraq.

At the Veterans Memorial Park in Barnwell, S.C., Smith has a brick in the walkway with his name inscribed in it, and a dog tag with his name hanging from a white wooden cross. Both are courtesy of the Blackville-based Vietnam Veterans of America, Salkehatchie Chapter 828.

The South Carolina House of Representatives passed a motion of sympathy after his death.