Ill. National Guard Soldier Remembered

Illinois Army National Guard Soldier Paul Smith, 43, was killed by a roadside bomb last week in Kandahar, Afghanistan. As a guardsman, this was Smith's third deployment in six years. Friends and family in his hometown remember his kindness and love of aquatic life.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Sergeant Paul Smith of the Illinois Army National Guard dreamed of returning to his hometown of East Peoria. He wanted to open an aquarium store. Last Friday, Sergeant Smith was killed by a roadside bomb in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He was 43. He spent the last 16 years of his life in the military.

From member station WCBU in Peoria, Tanya Koonce has this remembrance.

TANYA KOONCE: Sergeant Paul Smith loved aquatic life and the more unique the better. It's evidenced by the 250-gallon aquariums in the living and dining rooms of his Cape Cod home in East Peoria. Until recently, one aquarium housed an exotic black eel, and the pond Smith built in his backyard when home on leave last month wasn't complete until he filled it with fish of all sizes.

Ms. KIM SMITH: He loved it and this is his pond fish. We dug down, like, three to four feet on this side and then it's more shallow on that side. We got frogs and we had a turtle, but we think someone stole our turtle. So, we don't know where the turtle went.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KOONCE: That's Kim Smith, Paul's wife of 21 years. She says while he was in the Army they lived in Texas, Germany and Kansas. She's glad he brought the family back to live in his childhood home just a few miles from his three brothers and parents. She says that's been good for their 23-year-old daughter Sarah(ph) and 20-year-old son Ben. It was Ben who helped his dad build the backyard water garden, and he says when his dad was home it was where he took refuge.

Mr. BEN SMITH: Like after his work, and he likes to sit out here and listen to the waterfall and basically this is his relaxing place. He just liked to make sure that he had some memories back here.

KOONCE: Some of Ben's memories with his dad include bike rides together, golf outings and the two of them just hanging out with his uncles. Making memories with his family was likely important to Sergeant Paul Smith, because when he left for Afghanistan last fall, it was the fifth deployment of his military career. His wife Kim says it was his third mission in just six years, though he volunteered for it.

Ms. SMITH: And I told him to keep his hand down, but he chose not to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: He wanted to go, 'cause he had never been to Afghanistan. He had been to Iraq and Kuwait, so it was a new adventure for him.

KOONCE: Kim Smith says she last spoke to her husband in an Internet video exchange the day before he died. She says he asked about his pond and its inhabitants, and says the same day they learned of her husband's death, they found his favorite creature, the black eel, dead in the aquarium.

By the time Paul Smith came home on leave last month, he knew the adventure he had volunteered for in Afghanistan was markedly more dangerous than any other he had experienced. His older brother William says he talked about those concerns in ways he hadn't in any of his previous deployments. But Williams says that didn't interfere with his brother's love of a good competition.

Mr. WILLIAM SMITH: Games was his favorite thing to do. You know, whatever game it was, wouldn't make no difference: golf, baseball, football, basketball. He might not have been the best at it, but he was - always wanted to do it. He liked to play. It doesn't matter if it was word games, strategy, cards, baseball, physical, he was into the game. (unintelligible) three-year-old, two-year-old is what I always told him.

KOONCE: William says it's that fun-loving nature that Paul Smith's family and friends will remember most.

For NPR News, I'm Tanya Koonce in Peoria, Illinois.

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