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Vice President Joe Biden wipes his eyes as he talks with the family of US Marine Corps David James Smith, from left, step father John Jones, father Dr. Leonard Smith, mother Mary Jane McWilliams, and step mother Olga Smith, at the grave of their son US Marine Corps Sgt. David James Smith, Frederick, Md., in Section 60, on Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

ECU student killed in Afghanistan honored, remembered

Vice President Joe Biden cried as the father of U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. David J. Smith explained how his son, an East Carolina University student, was killed from injuries suffered in Afghanistan.

“He said, ‘A parent should not have a child proceed them in death,’” Dr. Leonard Smith recalled Friday.

Smith and other family members were at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day to honor David James Smith, who died Jan. 26, three days after he was injured by an improvised explosion device in Taghaz, Helmand province. He was 25.

Biden’s visit “sort of made the day a little easier for all of us,” Leonard Smith said. “We certainly all appreciated him being there.”

He said Biden spent five to 10 minutes with him; David’s mother, Mary Jane McWilliams; stepfather, John Jones; and stepmother, Olga Smith. Biden visited several families and gravesites in Arlington’s Section 60, where many servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.

“He was hugging my wife and Mary Jane, and shaking my hand over and over again,” Smith said. “It means a lot to the families of those fallen warriors that the government recognizes [their sacrifices].”

Before he left, Biden placed on Smith’s headstone a coin bearing the vice presidential seal. The family gave Biden a rubber bracelet bearing his name, which the vice president immediately put around his wrist.

Smith was an ECU senior from Frederick, Md., majoring in distribution and logistics, before he was deployed to Afghanistan in October 2009. He had already served a tour in Iraq from 2006 to 2007.

On the morning of Jan. 23, his father said, Smith was preparing security perimeters in Taghaz, a town of about 7,000. He’d found a stash of detonators and was talking about them with his platoon commander when a fellow Marine saw someone go between buildings who wasn’t supposed to be there. A Marine approached the person, and the person detonated an IED. Smith and two other Marines suffered fatal injuries.

“He was a great kid,” his father said.

Those who knew Smith at ECU said he loved to be the center of attention and had a great sense of humor.

“David had an infectious laugh and smile,” said Dr. Leslie Pagliari, associate dean of the College of Technology and Computer Science. “We will miss him in person, but his bravery will never be forgotten. He will forever be a pirate.”

On Nov. 5, Smith’s family was presented with a coin from the college at ECU’s annual Military Appreciation Dinner. The coin has three stars representing his leadership, service and integrity.

The next day, Smith’s family tossed the coin to begin the ECU vs. Navy football game for Military Appreciation Day.

A leadership award has been created in Smith’s name that will be awarded annually to an outstanding student in the college. It will represent the college’s highest honor for a student.

“Our valiant men and women in uniform are the heroes of this country,” said Dr. David White, dean of the college. “And we as a college we pleased to give Sgt. David Smith this great tribute, as a student, a man and one of our courageous soldiers.”

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ECU-Sgt David J Smith  
Sgt. David J. Smith
 ECU-Biden, coin
A coin from Vice President Joe Biden sits on top of the tomb of US Marine Sgt. David James Smith, after he visited Section 60, on Veterans Day, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

This story appeared originally in the Dec. 10, 2010 issue of Pieces of Eight. An archived version of that issue is available at