Smith family still not convinced war was justified

Shocking news still vivid

MARTIN, S.C. --- When the people in Army uniforms came to tell her, Iratean Smith screamed before they could say anything.

She was at work at the Dayco Products automotive parts plant when a man and woman showed up at her house. Her daughter called and said she'd better get home.

It took her 25 minutes to get there, telling herself on the way that her son must be missing or dead. When she pulled up and saw the Army car, she lost it in the front yard.

"I went in the house screaming," she said. "I just screamed so hard. I just figured if I didn't hear them, it wouldn't be true."

After the truth sank in that her only son, Sgt. Orenthial "OJ" Smith, had been killed by enemy fire, Smith became viciously opposed to the campaign in Iraq, seething at President Bush and bashing the "senseless war" to any reporter who would listen. She had been against the invasion from the start because it meant people would die, but with her son among them, she was furious.

"The question is, do they want our help?" she told The Augusta Chronicle in 2005. "If you come to my home to help me, and I don't want you here, eventually you're going to have to leave."

She also told reporters that while her son loved the Army, he was against the war. She has since come to realize that his feelings were more complicated than that, and it's begun a healing process that has her good days finally outnumbering the bad.

"Not that I support the war, but I think different about it," Smith said. "It was something he wanted to do. He was happy doing what he did."

She spent years leaning on her faith, and finally, about two years ago, an epiphany came in a dream. She saw her son and her late father, John Smith, sitting on the couch in her den.

"If you had to do it over again, would you do it?" she asked her son.

He smiled at her. "Yeah, Mom," he said, then he and his grandfather faded away.

Something else occurred to her, something about fate and God calling his children home.

"Whether he was in Germany or in Martin, it was his time to go," she said. "Something would have happened. It was his time."

Life moves on, she said. Her son's former girlfriend got married a few years ago, and she went to the wedding. She got a call from her this past Mother's Day, too. Both occasions left her happy, she said, not sad.

But she still has hard days -- when she's depressed, crying incessantly and wanting only to be alone. Much of her house remains a shrine to her son.

There's an enlarged 24-by-36-inch portrait of him over the television, wearing his Army forest fatigues uniform, and a scattering of framed pictures from his childhood and high school years. There's a framed pencil sketch of him near the dining room table.

By the front door, dominating the den, is a display case packed with relics and mementos, including his Army Bible, his uniform insignias, his Purple Heart, a glass eagle with outstretched wings, a folded flag given to her by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham that had flown over the Capitol, and a watch that came back with her son's personal effects, still packed with sand that's slipping out and accumulating on a glass shelf.

Also on the wall are photos of her 5-year-old grandson, DaShawn Orenthial, named for the uncle he'll never meet.

The child's mother, Talisha Sherrod, 28, of Columbia, said she's still seeing a therapist about her brother's death. What makes it harder, she said, is that she considers the war an unjust waste of lives.

"I don't think you ever get over it. I haven't gotten over it, and it's been seven years," Sherrod said. "A big part of my life is missing. I'm still upset, angry, mad. I never understood why he had to go over there. I never understood why any of them had to go over there."

She said she gets tired of hearing people say it was fought for our freedom. Americans weren't in jeopardy of losing freedom over anything in Iraq, she said.

"I feel like my brother and a lot of people died for nothing," she said. "I'll be happy when all this stops."

Even though he expressed nervousness about going over, if her brother had been pressed on the issue, Sherrod admits, he would have looked at the war as his duty. She recalls him saying that when you take the oath of enlistment, you never know where you might be sent.

He went even further in his final letter to his mother, dated June 7, 2003, chastising those who don't appreciate troops "with their lives on the line for our country."

He wrote of fending off machine gun attacks on the road to Baghdad, of running out of food and ice, of sandstorms blowing down their tents and of the Iraqi civilians' squalid living conditions.

"Mom, read this letter to many people as you can, especially to my loving sister, Talisha," he wrote. "Let them know to appreciate of where there at, and that we're still here fighting to help Iraq and also defending our great country.

"Even though you're not on the battlefield fighting the battle and going through the amount of stress we're facing, you're still a part of this war," the letter said. "Again, thank you for what you do and I ask that you continue to support us in every way you can. From all of us on the front lines, thank you, we love you America, and we will return home."

Smith chose Army, but worried about Iraq duty