Punxsutawney soldier dies defusing bomb in Iraq

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Army Sgt. 1st Class Scott R. Smith had been in Iraq for almost four months, doing what he liked to do best: defusing improvised bombs.

On Monday, he was called to a bomb site in Al Iskandariyah, 25 miles south of Baghdad. And as he attempted to defuse one explosive device, he stepped on a pressure sensor that triggered a different one, an underground bomb.

Sgt. Smith, 34, of Punxsutawney, Jefferson County, died because of the final blast he ever saw.

But he'd spent his life chasing blasts, every variety he could find.

He sought thrills, by habit, and told others that his job provided an unequaled rush.

"The ultimate puzzle," he described it to his father.

Sgt. Smith served with the 737th Explosive Ordnance Detachment, 52nd Ordnance Group, of Fort Belvoir, Va. That meant, foremost, that Sgt. Smith had one of the riskiest jobs in the military. He developed and tested the robots often used to prevent bombs from killing soldiers, but he also dealt hands-on with improvised explosives for which there is no guidebook.

"Say somebody had a bomb threat," Sgt. Smith's father, Robert, said. "They would call Scott. He would go and defuse the bomb."

Family members trusted Sgt. Smith, largely because Sgt. Smith trusted himself. For leisure, he bungee jumped and rappelled from mountains. He wore Superman T-shirts and drove a 365-horsepower Subaru sports car, at least when he wasn't flying around on his rocket-shaped motorcycle.

At first, he'd wanted to become an auto mechanic. He decided that in the ninth grade, and left Punxsutawney Area High School for a nearby vocational school, Jefferson Technical.

His parents hoped instead he'd receive a mainstream education and head for college, but Sgt. Smith assured them that anybody, no matter the field, could make a lot of money by being the best. So for four hours every day, three years straight, he learned about collision repair and body panel refinishing.

Then, in January 1991, he joined the Army. He'd changed gears.

Now he talked about becoming a state trooper, and he told his family that five years as a military police officer would set him up perfectly.

But the more bomb threat sites he arrived at, the more he learned about the group of EODs, people trained to defuse bombs. They were daredevils, like him.

Even becoming one required a risk.

"I'll reclassify myself as long as I can be an EOD," he told his mother, Shirl.

Problem was, he'd need months of rigorous training, the kind that eliminates some three-quarters of all comers before they ever defuse a real bomb. If Sgt. Smith failed, he'd automatically return to the police ranks, having already committed himself to more time with the Army.

"In his mind," Shirl Smith said, "he always knew he'd pass."

Sgt. Smith passed, and later traveled across the world -- to Kuwait, to Afghanistan, to Iraq.

At the beginning of April, he departed again for Iraq, leaving behind his wife of six years, Gari-Lynn.

He clipped out magazine articles that described the ever-changing technology of bomb-defusing. He became familiar with the TALON robot, a 100-pound machine, operated by a joystick and equipped with a camera for reconnaissance missions.

The Army, in a news release issued yesterday, said that Sgt. Smith was also instrumental in the development of the Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection Systems program -- commonly called the SWORDS robot, capable of firing a small machine gun.

Sgt. Smith previously had been stationed in Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.; Fort McClellan and Redstone Arsenal, both in Alabama; Fort Richardson, in Alaska; and Fort Lewis, in Washington state.

In addition to his wife and parents, Sgt. Smith is survived by his brother, Shawn Smith, by his paternal grandparents, Richard and Betty Smith, and his maternal grandmother, Louise Vasbinder. Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.


Sgt. 1st Class Scott R. Smith

Chico Harlan can be reached at aharlan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1227.


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