The diminutive Marine veteran with the battle burns on his body from Vietnam will wake up at 4 a.m., as he always does, and take his early morning walk through his Gulfport neighborhood, like usual.
But for Rene “Ray” Smith, Tuesday will be different.
While most of the rest of the nation frets over possible military intervention in Syria, and pays homage, even for a moment, to the victims of the jihadist attacks on U.S. soil 12 years ago, Smith says he will be overwhelmed by a different memory.
A year ago Tuesday, his estranged son, Sean Smith, an information management officer for the State Department, was killed in the U.S. consular facilities in Benghazi, Libya, along with Ambassador Chris Stevens and ex-Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
“I thought about that,” says Smith, 65, of all that is going on in the country right now. “Even with the poor people at the World Trade Center and everything, to me the anniversary of Benghazi will just overpower that, I know they are hurting too, but mine is a lot fresher.”
Sean Smith, 34, spent the last moments of his life under attack, holed up in what was supposed to be a safe area as smoke billowed and Stevens made frantic calls for help from a borrowed cellphone, according to a report released to Congress last year. About seven hours later, around 5 a.m. Benghazi time, an emergency response team arrived at another facility, called the Annex. Less than 15 minutes later, they came under fire. Five mortar rounds hit the roof, killing security officers and the former SEALs.
Two other Americans were injured. By 6:30 a.m., about 24 hours after the photos of the compound were taken, all U.S. government personnel were evacuated with support from a quasi-governmental Libyan militia.
The incident created a political firestorm, with Republicans blaming President Barack Obama and his administration for how it was handled. Just yesterday, the Center for Security Policy sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner calling for him to create a select committee to investigate what happened.
The issue even came up during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on whether to give the White House permission to attack Syria. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was asked what the administration was doing about tracking down those who killed the Americans in Benghazi.
“This administration continues to follow through with the commitment the President of the United States made to find those responsible for what happened a year ago,” said Hagel. “The (Department of Defense) is working with the FBI, CIA and other agencies and General (Martin) Dempsey (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and I talked with Adm. (William) McRaven,” head of U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base.
Smith says he wants answers.
“I have so much anger toward Obama and (then Secretary of State) Hillary (Clinton),” says Smith, who had been working to reestablish relations with his son, whom he had not seen in 15 years. “It seems with this Syrian thing going on, people are forgetting.”
Smith says he wants those responsible for killing his son brought to justice.
“They need to be punished,” says Smith, who was a “tunnel rat,” in Vietnam as a Marine corporal, often going down deep into Viet Cong underground facilities in search of the enemy. In 1970, during a firefight, Smith was burned over 60 percent of his body after the brush he was in caught fire.
Eventually, he married his first wife, Pat, and they raised Sean in San Diego until they divorced when their son was about 10.
Hours after taking his morning walk, Smith says he will visit the Bay Pines Veterans Administration Hospital, and go to the room on the fourth floor he said that Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young had dedicated to his son.
Inside the room, there is a plaque honoring his son.
Smith credits Young and his wife Beverly for saving his life after all he had been through.
“If not for them, I wouldn’t be here today,” he says.
With ceremonies across the Tampa Bay area to honor those lost on 9/11, Smith says he will have a quiet memorial of his own.
“I will go and pay my respects,” says Smith. “Then I will go to the beach and bring some flowers and put them in the water. I will never forget.”