Marine's birthday inspires fundraiser

Matt Daniels

R.J. Smith won’t spend his 21st birthday near his loved ones.

Instead of having cake with his family, the Springfield native will spend his birthday Aug. 26 somewhere in Iraq’s Al Anbar province.

With no immediate family around, R.J. will fall asleep with his rifle and another type of family nearby — his fellow soldiers in the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Because of his current situation, and where he’ll spend his 21st birthday, family members have decided to act.

Smith’s aunt, Anne Armitage of Springfield, and Smith’s mother, Barb, have come up with a fundraiser in collaboration with Sunday’s Abe’s Amble 10K race, which begins at 7:30 a.m. at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

Armitage said about 90 “Birthdays in Baghdad” T-shirts were sold before the race, raising nearly $1,500 for the Springfield Marine Support Group.

On the front the shirts say says “Birthdays in Baghdad”, while on the back are the words “6.2 miles closer to home.” The 6.2 miles represents the 10 kilometers of Abe’s Amble.

Armitage said the goal is for everyone who bought one to wear it during the race.

“When we realized he was going to be over there for his 21st birthday, I just started thinking, we have got to do something,” Armitage said. “So I just said ‘Why don’t we do something for R.J. and do it with the Abe’s Amble,’ because he had run that (race) before he left. I said maybe we could do something like ‘Running for R.J.’”

But R.J.’s aunt and mother didn’t like the sound of that name. Armitage said it sounded too much like a benefit, so Barb had the idea of “Birthdays in Baghdad.”

Family support is one thing R.J. isn’t lacking.

“Actually, when he was in boot camp, he got so many letters and packages, they would bet how many Smith would get,” Armitage said. “One day he got 42.”

Bob Smith, R.J.’s father, has said he’s talked to his son about what mail does for the soldiers.

“(R.J.) said ‘There’s guys that don’t get any mail. Some haven’t smiled since they got here,’” Bob said. “We have no idea what these little things mean.”

Sandy Smith, chairman of the Springfield Marine Support Group (and no relation to R.J.), said the group started four years ago with about 10 Marine moms who “just needed a shoulder to cry on,” Smith says.

Now, the group has nearly 175 members, relatives of people in all the different military branches.

“I haven’t parked in my garage for a month,” Sandy Smith joked about the number of items the group receives. “We send all hygiene products, snack stuff and a lot of stuff that’s easy to put in pockets to take with them. A big thing guys always ask for is socks, washcloths. Something to just wipe their face off.”

Joining the Marines is something R.J. had always talked about.

Bob Smith wanted two things out of his son before he enlisted in the Marines: graduation from high school and a semester at college.

R.J. graduated from Springfield High in 2005 and spent a semester at Lincoln Land Community College. Then he called his father.

“He said, ‘OK, I did it, and I’m going to join the Marines,’” Bob said.

He shipped out to Iraq April 10, almost three months sooner than the family expected.

“We knew he was going to go, but it was a surprise how quickly he went,” Barb said. “They thought (he’d go) maybe in July. But they went ahead and they needed to go sooner.”

From what he has told her, R.J. takes part in moving heavy equipment to different locations in Iraq.

R.J. is expected to arrive back in the United States sometime in November. His unit is scheduled to arrive at Pearl Harbor and sail from there to San Diego.

If everything goes according to plan, Bob Smith will meet him in Hawaii and sail back with his son.

Barb said she isn’t sure if R.J. will have to re-deploy to Iraq once his unit arrives home. But she is more concerned that R.J. returns home the first time.

“I was thrilled to see him after he got done with boot camp, because we couldn’t even talk to him” during training, she said.

“I know that most of his family will be out there again to welcome him. You just feel so helpless here, when they’re there. Just to put your hands on him, I just can’t wait.”

Matt Daniels can be reached at (217) 788-1550.