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Hero's Wife is now Citizen
Two months after her husband received the Medal of Honor posthumously,
she becomes an American.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA - Birgit Smith came to the United States 13 years ago from Germany but says she didn't know what it meant to be an American until her husband, a soldier, died in Iraq in an extraordinary act of bravery that earned him the Medal of Honor.
So on Wednesday, with her heart bursting with both pride and sorrow, Smith took the oath of citizenship and then led 290 of her new fellow Americans in the Pledge of Allegiance.
"I know Paul's extremely proud," Smith, 38, said after a ceremony at the Tampa Convention Center. "I feel whole now. I don't feel like something is missing inside of me."
It was a poignant and celebratory moment for the mother of two who said she was so moved by Americans' reaction to the death of her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, she wanted to join them in citizenship.
"It is a great nation and I wanted to become a bigger part of it," Birgit Smith said following the ceremony. "I am extremely proud and I know my husband would be proud of me now. I know he was with me today."
The citizenship ceremony came just six weeks after President Bush awarded Paul Smith the Medal of Honor, the highest award for bravery the president can bestow, on what was the second anniversary of the battle near Baghdad International Airport. Paul Smith, who died at 33, is the first soldier from the Iraq war to receive the honor.
"It's unbelievable how people come up to me - strangers - they come up to me and hug me and cry," Birgit Smith said as her new citizenship certificate and small American flag balanced on her lap. "I wanted to be a part of this great nation."
Smith met her husband when he, then a private fresh from Tampa, was assigned to an Army combat engineer unit near her Bavarian hometown of Bayreuth and she came to the United States in 1992 as a newlywed. Over the years, she said, they talked about her becoming a citizen. "But we just never knew where we would be. We didn't want to start something and not finish it."
Only after her husband was killed in battle outside Baghdad on April 4,
2003, did she take up the cause in earnest.
"When tragedy hits you, you really see how Americans care for each other," Smith said, referring to the hundreds of people who sent her messages and posted notes online. "That just blew me away."
The couple had two children, Jessica, 18, and David, 11.
Paul Smith, who also served in the first Gulf War, was killed on April 4, 2003, in battle with more than 100 Iraqis. In the battle, Smith climbed onto an armored personnel carrier and fired more than 300 rounds from a machine gun to protect other American soldiers. Smith was shot in the head.
"My husband believed in freedom," Birgit Smith said.
Smith said she felt her husband's presence in the cavernous hall at the Tampa Convention Center where scores gathered for the ceremony. She was joined by about 300 other people representing 64 nations, some of them veterans and others currently serving in the U.S. military, as they watched patriotic videos and took the Oath of Allegiance, in which ties to other countries are renounced.
Smith said that part was made easier by her feelings toward Germany since the war began in Iraq. "I had a pretty good grudge against them for not supporting us."
Many in the crowd alternately dabbed their eyes and waved their American flags as the lyrics "I'm proud to be an American" from the song "God Bless the USA" played - as it is at all citizenship ceremonies. It also happened to be Paul Smith's favorite song, his family said.
"We can see him singing that song," said Janice Pvirre, Paul Smith's mother, who joined her daughter-in-law at the ceremony. "It's very touching."
Pvirre wore a metal emblem in the shape of a dog tag bearing her son's image and tightly embraced her daughter-in-law as Birgit Smith finished to the oath which made her American citizenship official.
"Birgit becoming a citizen has freed her," Pvirre said. "It gave her a sense of freedom, a sense of total belonging."
At the end, Smith led the group in the Pledge of Allegiance and then headed back to Pasco County with her mother-in-law.
They stopped for lunch along the way. For her first meal as a citizen, Smith kept it simple: a Greek salad and decaf coffee. "I should have had a Big Mac," she said. "That's really American."
Alex Leary, writer for St. Petersburg Times, contributed to this report.
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