TROY, Ill. — Chloe Smith, a little girl with blond hair and a bright smile, stood before 600 runners, bravely singing the national anthem at an annual 5K run that honors her father — Senior Airman Bradley R. Smith, who was killed in Afghanistan in January 2010.
Chloe was an infant when her father died a hero’s death that no one has forgotten in this town of 10,000, about 20 miles east of St. Louis. She will be 10 in October.
When she stumbled over a few words, everyone began singing with her. And Chloe finished strong.
Her mother, Tiffany Smith, said she cherishes the annual outpouring of support from runners and volunteers who help organize the 5K. It was held this year on Sept. 7 — the 10th year for the event.
“I don't think they realize the impact that they have on our family,’’ she said. “To say, ‘I'm stopping a Saturday to come out and run for your loved one.’ It means the world to us.’’
'We all come together'
Nearly 2,300 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan since the war started 18 years ago. President George W. Bush sent troops there in 2001 to hunt for Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Smith was one of 496 U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan in 2010, the deadliest year of the war.
As politicians in Washington talk about ending what is now the nation’s longest war, people in Troy say they will never forget Smith’s sacrifice.
They’ve been running for Brad for a decade now. Family and friends organized the first Bradley R. Smith Memorial Run at Tri-Township Park just eight months after the 24-year-old airman was killed in action. It was held on his birthday, Sept. 11, 2010.
The recent run was a patriotic and festive affair, with miles of flags and a red, white and blue cake marking what would have been Smith’s 34th birthday.
At 7:30 a.m., while most participants were still arriving, airmen from Air Force support squadrons in Kansas, Kentucky and Colorado were already running the route in tight formation. They come every year to honor one of their fallen.
As a medical transport helicopter buzzed overhead, Paula Smith, Brad’s mother, addressed the crowd. She thanked everyone for coming and announced that the memorial run has raised $300,000 through the years to fund college scholarships for high school students.
“I just want to tell everyone, it looks like we’re going to go over 600 runners today,’’ she said to applause.
Jenna Zellin ran in full firefighting gear, along with a group of volunteer firefighters with the Troy Fire Protection District. Zellin graduated with Smith from Triad High School in 2004. She remembers that he was nice to everyone and was on the Triad Knights football team.
“If you can make it out here, do it. You'll get chills every time,’’ Zellin said. “I mean, it's just a great show of support for a great guy.”
Michelle Stilwell came with her daughter and members of the high school dance team, who cheered runners at the finish line. Stilwell said she’ll never forget watching Smith’s funeral procession drive through town in January 2010.
“My husband and I were standing in front of the VFW, and you could have heard a pin drop,’’ Stilwell said. “We’re a tight-knit community when it comes to supporting each other. Anything tragic happens in this town, we all come together.”
'Our town is very patriotic'
It’s hard to believe that 10 years have passed since Brad’s Smith’s death, said his father, Gary Smith.
He is thankful that local residents and businesses continue to support the memorial run. Although the 5K is named for his son, Smith said it is a celebration of all who serve.
“Our town is very patriotic,’’ he said. “They support our troops. We just live in a great area. It's not a big fancy town, it's just a good place to raise a family.’’
After Smith’s death, the city named a street for him near the park where the race is held. Smith’s family has made a small memorial at the south end of the road that includes a statue of a soldier, military banners, U.S. flags and holiday decorations that change with the seasons. Runners passed the memorial during the 5K.
When Brad Smith joined the Air Force in 2006, he chose a career path that he knew could lead him into danger, his father said. Smith was a tactical air-control party specialist. His job was to accompany Army platoons on patrol and coordinate air strikes during combat.
He deployed to Afghanistan just two months after his daughter was born. On January 3, 2010, Smith’s patrol came under attack near Kandahar, and Smith went to the aid of the wounded. He died retrieving the body of a fallen soldier. The Air Force awarded him the Silver Star posthumously in 2012.
Brad Smith died the way he lived his life — helping people, his father said.
“He was just a boy that loved life,’’ Gary Smith said. “He always thought of others.”
The last time Smith saw his son was at Bethel Baptist Church. Brad and Tiffany had been to Sunday services during a visit home before his deployment.
“So my last memory of seeing Brad was waving to them in a parking lot at church on a Sunday morning,’’ Gary Smith said. “That's a good memory.’’
Smith said he relates to parents who have lost a child, no matter the circumstances.
“This is just the hand that we were dealt,’’ he said. “Whether it's war. They take their lives. Medical issues. Car accidents. Anybody that's lost a child never wants their child to be forgotten.”
After nearly 20 years of war, Smith said it’s only natural for people to question whether it was worth it for the U.S. to be involved in Afghanistan for so long.
“I think after 9/11, we had to do something,’’ he said. “You just can't let people do what they did to our country and sit back and do nothing.”
The Afghan people have more rights and freedoms today, thanks to the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban government, Smith said. But he believes it might take generations to see the results.
'Chloe gets to know her dad through all of you'
Before the race, Tiffany Smith told the crowd that she was a California girl who knew little about the Midwest before she married Brad.
“The part that matters the most to me as a mother is that Chloe gets to know her dad through all of you,’’ she said.
They live in Idaho now, but Chloe looks forward to visiting her grandparents and attending the memorial run.
“She told me just this morning that she likes to see places where her dad used to go and where he used to run around as a kid,’’ Tiffany Smith said. “She feels a connection to Troy.”
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard
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