Reservist returns laden with honors

Soldier: A Laurel lawyer who spent a year in Iraq was decorated seven times for his service.

May 20, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Capt. John E. Smathers wasn't supposed to see much combat in Iraq.

The Army reservist from Howard County had expected to work in the relative safety of an operations tent just behind advancing American troops. The only thing he was going to fire off was legal advice, such as when mosques could be considered targets.

That was the plan.

When the war started, all that changed for the 46-year-old personal injury lawyer with a quaint office on Main Street in Laurel. Reassigned to a civil affairs "quick reaction team," he quickly found himself in the thick of things.

The 10-man team was ambushed more than once while trying to restore electricity in Baghdad. It stopped a major bank robbery, arrested two Iraqis (No. 23 and No. 36) on the U.S. military's most-wanted list, rescued looted art and more.

Smathers received two Purple Hearts in his yearlong stint and an Army Commendation Medal for helping to revise Iraq's traffic laws - a tall order given the chaos on Baghdad's streets.

What makes him proudest are his four Bronze Stars, one for valor. Although the medal is not the highest honor given American soldiers, the Army says few have received so many.

"It's highly, highly unusual for someone to end up with four Bronze Stars," said Army spokesman Dov Schwartz. "I've heard of this guy. We've verified all those things."

In a time of much bad news about Army reservists, Smathers stands out as a bright spot.

Reservists have been killed in Iraq. Families have criticized tour extensions. Now, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by a Maryland-based military police unit dominates the headlines.

Smathers has an altogether different story. He performed admirably as a soldier, likes to talk about his experience in Iraq and continues to believe in a war that nearly killed him.

"I still think we're going to succeed and make a democracy out of Iraq," he said. "There are always going to be groups of people who think Americans are the devil."

Sitting in his office at McGowan, Cecil & Smathers, he looked every bit the Army man. His 5-foot-10 frame was lean, his hair in a buzz-cut. He wore a crisp white shirt and a shiny red tie.

Less visible were the marks on his left arm, which was badly broken in an ambush and was operated on again last week. Impossible to see was the partial hearing loss in one ear stemming from an earlier attack.

On one corner of his desk sat the football he took to war and used as a diary of his wartime stops: Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad. Nearby was a wood case holding his medals and decorations.

Patriotic tendencies

Going to war was, in a sense, the fulfillment of a patriotic bent Smathers honed as a child in Prince George's County. His sister recalls a boy who knew the dates of wars along with baseball statistics. On July 4, he'd ride his bicycle around the neighborhood waving an American flag.

His mother, Carmella Smathers, worked for the federal government during World War II as an artist and sketched some of the military posters advertising "Uncle Sam Wants You!"

His late father, Spurgeon "Red" Smathers, was a scientist who helped design night-vision gear at Fort Belvoir, Va. In the evening, he would let his children play with prototypes.

But the father who instilled such love for country did not want his son to be a soldier. A World War II medic at the Battle of the Bulge, he said he went to war so his children - a son and six daughters - would not have to.

"Dad wanted me to be a lawyer or doctor," Smathers said. "I told him I wanted to be a jet fighter pilot."

Dad won. Smathers went to Catholic University in Washington for undergraduate and law degrees. Then came the Persian Gulf war in 1991. At 33, he joined the Army Reserve. He went in not as a lawyer and an officer but as a corporal by choice and later trained with Special Forces at Fort Meade.

Summoned to war

By last year, he had become a part-time Army lawyer with the rank of captain. But when war began in March last year, he was made assistant leader of a quick reaction team. He had qualified for civil affairs duty, which aims to ease the effects of war by restarting basic services such as electricity and water while trying to keep civilians out of harm's way.

He summed up the mission: "We're not just here to blow up your country, we're here to help you." Three times he received a Bronze Star for "exceptionally meritorious service."

There was the bank robbery he helped foil; seven suspects were caught and $6.3 million recovered. There was the arrest of Mizban Khadar Hadi, No. 23 on the most-wanted list and a member of the Baath Party Revolutionary Command Council.

There was the day in July when he entered the Baghdad home of a suspected art thief and found 60 paintings and art pieces pilfered from a museum.

He also put his legal skills to work on a range of issues, from disciplinary matters to overhauling Iraq's traffic laws.

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