Laurel Lawyer, Reservist Dies; Rescued Dog From Iraq

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 9, 2006

After two drama-filled years in which he almost lost his life in a shootout in Iraq and returned home with a chest full of medals, a wrecked knee and a broken nose, Laurel lawyer John E. Smathers, a captain in the Army Reserve, seemed to have his life lined up nicely.

He had endured a year-long tour in Iraq and returned home in March 2004 to begin the arduous task of physical rehabilitation. Ultimately, he would undergo seven surgeries.

One of his high points as a soldier was the day Smathers met Scout, a dog that he and his unit adopted in Baghdad but had to leave behind when they left Iraq. Last summer, after a 17-month campaign that involved secret Iraqi contacts and a foiled border-crossing into Jordan, Smathers succeeded in getting Scout, a Canaan dog, flown from Kuwait to Dulles International Airport. Smathers greeted Scout dressed in his camouflage uniform, so the dog would recognize him; Scout scampered to Smathers's feet.

When Smathers had lunch last Thursday with his two law partners, Michael McGowan and Robb Cecil, he was optimistic.

"We were talking about our caseload, what we could handle. John was ready to take on the world; he was feeling really good," McGowan said.

The promise of the future was cut short Saturday evening, when Smathers collapsed in his Howard County neighborhood as he was walking Scout and Judy, a Canaan dog puppy he had recently acquired to keep Scout company.

Smathers and the dogs were at Glenelg High School, where the lawyer often took them for exercise, when he collapsed around 6 p.m., according to family members and Howard County fire officials. A neighbor or passerby called for help, and paramedics arrived but were unable to resuscitate Smathers.

Smathers was taken to Howard County General Hospital. He was pronounced dead without regaining consciousness. He was 47.

An autopsy was conducted by the state medical examiner, but the results were not available at press time.

Smathers's death stunned family members, friends and colleagues.

"Everything was going well, we thought. He seemed to have gotten past his physical injuries," said Luanne Tano, one of Smathers's six sisters. "He was looking great; he was happier than ever."

The day before he died, Smathers had briefed a group of fellow Army Reservists who were preparing to be deployed to Iraq for the first time, Cecil said. Smathers was a member of the Riverdale-based 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion in Prince George's County, which is attached to the 3rd Infantry Division. Smathers was fulfilling his monthly Army Reserve training duty last weekend.

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