Cpl. Raleigh Smith
(reprinted from BillingsGazette.com, December 28, 2004)
Mother remembers Troy Marine
By MICHAEL JAMISON
TROY – On Dec. 21, Gail Smith opened her mailbox to find a letter from her youngest boy, Raleigh, a Marine writing from Iraq.
The letter, she said, arrived exactly two weeks after his 21st birthday. And, it would turn out, precisely two days before his death.
Marine Cpl. Raleigh Smith was killed Thursday while patrolling the city of Fallujah, a place Smith said in his letter looked like a “ghost town” in the weeks following a major U.S. assault there.
“He had real mixed feelings about Iraq,” his mother said. “He knew he had a duty, but when he came home the first time, he said he never wanted to go back there again.”
When Smith came home to Troy the first time, back in May, he dropped in on Terry Herman, his teacher in fourth and fifth grades.
“Raleigh was a really interesting young man,” Herman said. “He was quite brilliant, a really smart young man. I always thought the world of Raleigh.”
And so she invited him to speak to sixth-graders at Morrison Elementary, to bring home stories from the Iraqi front. He told the class about his role in the initial invasion, she said, and that it was a very tense time.
The biggest stress, Smith told the children, was that he did not know what was happening to his older brother, Ramsey, who also was part of the invasion.
“He was kind-hearted,” Herman said. “He certainly didn’t come from what you would call a wealthy home, but he always cared about other people. He was kind-hearted and sensitive. That’s just who he was.”
Smith, his mother said, was a child “full of life,” who grew into a boy who loved to be outside, loved to fish and hunt and camp and pan for gold.
And, she said, he loved to run. In her tiny living room, four cross-country medals hang, one for each corner of his framed letter of acceptance into the U.S. Marine Corps.
But most folks in Troy knew Raleigh Smith as that zany kid in the cape. Together with friend Jake Boswell, Smith would strap on his roller blades, tie a cape across his back, grab a garbage-can lid for a shield and wield a wooden sword, taking to the tiny town in what Herman called “creative, hilarious antics.”
They would dress up like Japanese animated heroes, making movies with a home video camera. But, she said, Smith was not an attention-seeker. Rather, he was simply entertaining himself.
“You know,” Herman said, “he had to pull himself up by the bootstraps and find his own way in the world. He was just a really smart and likeable young man who worked very hard to find his place in society, to find his own identity.”
A straight-A student, Raleigh was no bookworm, his mother said. Learning just came naturally.
“He wanted to go to college when he got home,” she said. “He wanted to come back and teach history in Troy. In high school, I think he took every history course offered.”
In fact, Herman said Raleigh Smith easily could have earned a scholarship, but he chose instead to follow his uncles and older brother into the military, banking on the GI Bill to pay for school later.
“He was an optimist,” said childhood friend Adam Montgomery. “You never saw him down.”
Another friend, Hawk Powell, said, “Raleigh was always the guy who had a smile on his face. He was a really good kid. He was the comic relief.”
That natural-born optimism might explain why Smith was more worried about others while in battle, why he never considered that he might not get the chance to cash in on the GI Bill.
And it might explain why he and Jake were “inseparable,” the word most often used, and enlisted under the “buddy system,” a program that keeps friends together through their service.
The pair enlisted on May 28, 2002, and before he died Smith received the Sea Service Deployment ribbon, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary medal and the National Defense Service medal.
The family hoped Jake would be able to accompany his friend on his last journey home, but the military has told them it will not be possible.
In Iraq, Herman said, “Raleigh saw some things he wished he hadn’t seen.”
When a sixth-grader asked whether he thought women should fight in Iraq, Smith paused a long pause before answering, Herman said.
His answer was no, but not because he thought they couldn’t do the job. Instead, Smith simply did not think they should have to see the things he had seen.
On Tuesday, he returned to the United States for the last time, the plane carrying his body landing in Washington, D.C. Late Thursday, his mother said, she expects he’ll arrive home in Troy.
The memorial service is set for 1 p.m. on Tuesday, at the Troy High School gym.
“After he talked to the kids,” Herman said, “he told me in private that he was having nightmares.”
He told her about apartment buildings being blown up, she said, about “women and children being torn apart. He had a hard time with that.”
Now with Raleigh gone, she has requested that her older boy, Ramsey, not return to Iraq in March as planned.
“I told the Marines I didn’t want to lose my other son to this war,” she said. “He’s my only child left.”
But she remains uncertain what Raleigh would think of that decision. After all, when it came time to go back for his second hitch, Raleigh Smith did not hesitate, despite his troubled dreams.