Hudson, Wisc. — Just a week before specialist Ben Smith died in combat, the number of American casualties in Iraq hit the 2000 mark. For Connie Piekarski, a retired school teacher in Hudson, those casualties have a new meaning.
Ben Smith was her former student and neighbor. Now he’s the 49th Wisconsin member of the military killed in the Iraq conflict.
“This just brings it too close to home,” she says. “It’s too sad to think about some days.”
Piekarski has been fielding inquiries from the press on behalf of Smith’s parents, who live next door. She says they’re too overwhelmed to keep talking about their son’s death. Smith’s parents did not respond to MPR’s attempts to contact them for this report.
So Piekarski’s been offering her own fond recollections of Smith. She remembers him best as a little boy; a fourth grader in her class at E.P. Rock Elementary School.
“He just was so kind and so gentle and just an adventurous boy. (He)loved to try different things — very adventurous. And he was a good student. I enjoyed Ben. He was a fun little kid,” Piekarski says.
Ben Smith eventually went on to Hudson High School. He apprenticed at a welding and construction equipment company called Empire Bucket while in high school and worked at the company full time after graduating in 2002.
“He was a quiet person,” Manager Sue Olson notes. “He really kept to himself. He kept very busy. He never argued with anybody; he was out there to learn.”
Olson says it was clear Smith would only work at the company for so long because he wanted to join the military.
“He thought about that even in his junior year when he came here. When someone fills out an application and says he wants to be in the air force some day, he wants a trade, but he’s looking to be in the armed forces,” she says.
And one of the stops along Ben Smith’s path to the military was the cadet program in the Minnesota Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force.
At a recent meeting, Lt. Col. Roger Krogren, a Civil Air Patrol chaplain, remembered Ben Smith in an introductory prayer, as members of the group bowed their heads solemnly.
“We thank you for the gift of Ben Smith, our former cadet. We pray, Lord, that as his family deals with this loss, you will surround them with your love,” he prayed.
Al Pabon, the public affairs director for the organization says as a cadet, Smith had a strong drive to excel.
“And he so much loved being in the uniform, and being part of the activities, and that rubbed off and he later joined the service. I understood that was something he really wanted to do was join the Army, and give something back for his country. And I was glad — and proud — that he was able to do that.”
Smith earned a Civil Air Patrol achievement award. He went on to enlist in the Army in 2003, serving two tours in Iraq. His second deployment began just a few weeks before his death.
One of his friends, Amy Her, knew Smith in the Civil Air Patrol. She says after Smith returned from his first mission to Iraq, he told her he wanted to go back.
“Just because he felt that he made such a difference there,” she explains. “He enjoyed being there because he was doing something that was honorable, and he knew that.”
Amy Her says in addition to being a very driven person, Ben Smith was also a lot of fun. She says most of all, she’ll miss hanging out and laughing with him.