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Soldier fathers child two years after dying in Iraq

Story Highlights

• Child conceived with sperm left behind when the father went to Iraq
• An agreement said his wife could do what she wants with the sperm
• Two years after the father died, his son, Benton Smith, was born
By Keith Oppenheim
CNN
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news and analyze the stories behind events.

AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Sometimes, when I sit down for an interview, there's a certain formality. I'm in one chair. The person I'm speaking to is in another. Not on this story.

In a living room in Austin, Texas, I was on the floor. The subject of our story was grabbing my face, fascinated with my teeth and whatever else caught his attention. Yet it seemed appropriate. Benton Smith is an adorable, 8-month-old boy on the verge of walking. For one so young, he seemed typical when it came to exploring something new -- like my mouth.

"Maybe he wants to be a dentist," I said.

But what isn't typical about Benton is how he came to be. Benton's mom is Kathleen Smith, better known to friends as "K.C."

"He was born July 14, 2006," she said.

"Two years after his dad passed away?" I asked.

"Pretty much almost exactly two years," she said. (Watch Kathleen and her 'miracle' baby Video)

If the math strikes you as odd, it should. Benton's father was dead more than a year before his son was conceived. The story of Brian Smith's life, and his legacy, is a mix of modern science and the trauma of the Iraq war.

"He was my best friend in the world, and the love of my life," said K.C.

How they met

K.C. said she and Brian met in Austin in 1992. She was 27. He was 19. They shared a love for historical societies and re-enactments. Lots of her photographs show them in Elizabethan costume. They lived together for 10 years, but when they decided to start a family, they married.

About a year later, Brian decided to change careers. He was an attorney, but at age 29, he was getting restless. In 2002, he joined the Army, partly out of a sense of duty, partly because of a family history with the military.

In January 2004, Brian shipped out to Iraq to serve as a tank commander. On July 2, 2004, 2nd Lt. Brian Smith got out of his tank at a checkpoint. A sniper fired a shot that hit him in the small side opening of his protective vest. The bullet hit his liver and he bled to death.

"When he died, it was really devastating," said K.C. "I thought my world had ended when he died."

Her world was about to change. Before Brian left for Iraq, the couple hadn't succeeded at having a baby. Brian donated his sperm so K.C. could keep trying while he was away. They never really considered he might not come home. Brian signed a document that stated in the event of his death K.C. could decide whether to use his sperm. Based on that, she made the decision to have Brian's baby.

"Did he ever say, if he died it would be OK for you to get pregnant with his sperm?" I asked.

"We had never discussed it," said K.C. "But there was never a doubt in my mind, because ... we wanted children. This is one of the potential children we would have had. So what's wrong with having a baby I would have had, even though he's not here?"

Family reaction

At first, Brian's mother, Linda Smith, was upset. She worried about K.C. raising a child on her own. And K.C. says her mother-in-law questioned whether the decision could be made without Brian being there to approve.

"What did you say to your mother-in-law when she objected?"

"I said, 'Linda, this is my life, and I really want to have Brian's child.' "

K.C. convinced her in-laws this was the right thing to do. On the third try with in-vitro fertilization, she got pregnant. Nine months later, Benton was born, two years after his father passed away.

During our reporting, we learned that Benton is not alone. A spokesman from the Veterans Administration said in an e-mail that there are two other known cases in the last three years where the sperm of deceased soldiers was used to create life after death. The e-mail said the decision to grant health benefits to these children is made case by case. K.C. isn't sure if Benton will be covered.

Later in the day of our interview, K.C. and I strolled toward a playground. She pushed a baby jogger, while Benton sat inside, his baby blue eyes gazing at the scenery.

I asked what it's like to be a new mother and a widow: "Do you feel the loss of Brian when you feel the warmth of Benton?"

"Yes," said K.C. "That his dad won't see the miracle he helped produce. I mean, this is the baby we would have had, and he will never see him."

Days later, I reflected on this story and felt encouraged. I realized K.C. and Benton will always have to cope with Brian's death. But I also saw that this boy who K.C calls a "miracle" is, in the end, a happy kid with a dedicated mom. And for Benton, it seemed, even though his dad died two years before he was born, his father was, in a sense, present in his life.

"I will tell Benton his dad was a hero," said K.C., adding that every day she tells Benton stories about his daddy, the man who gave him life, only after he lost his own.


Benton

Benton Smith was born two years after his father, Army 2nd Lt. Brian Smith, was killed in Iraq.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
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