Army Sgt. Timothy M. Smith, 25, South Lake Tahoe

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Timothy M. Smith had always been a daredevil, flying off homemade jumps in a wagon attached to his friend’s bike or attacking the half-pipe on his snowboard.

The native of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., brought the same intensity to the Army, leading his platoon in detecting and safely detonating improvised explosive devices in Iraq, his family said.

“He gave 110%,” said Damon Houle, 25, who was one of Smith’s best friends and also served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “He cared about what he was doing and he put himself out first.”

Smith, a 25-year-old sergeant, was killed April 7 when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Baghdad. The combat engineer was clearing roads of improvised explosive devices when the explosion occurred.

He was assigned to the 4th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) at Ft. Polk, La.

Smith had wanted to join the Army since he was a rambunctious youngster watching war movies, said his mother, Patricia Smith, 53, of South Lake Tahoe.

“He just always wanted to help people,” she said. “He was always a protector.”

She sensed that her eldest son was looking for direction after he graduated from South Lake Tahoe High School in 2001. Although he had worked as a valet at the Embassy Suites hotel in town and as a host at the Hard Rock Cafe just across the border in Stateline, Nev., he wanted to do more with his life, his mother said.

He enlisted in the Army in April 2004 and left for Afghanistan in March 2006. Smith didn’t say much to his family about the work he was doing there, but e-mailed regularly to say, “Yes mother Im [sic] just fine,” or to ask for Old Spice deodorant and logs of chew tobacco. His mother sent him the chew on the agreement that he would quit when he came home.

Smith finished his tour in Afghanistan eight months later and came back to South Lake Tahoe on leave that December. It was during this break that his longtime friendship with Shayna Richards turned romantic.

Within the first few weeks of their courtship, he was already talking about marriage. Though Smith was based in Louisiana, he hustled back to South Lake Tahoe on every break. He doted on her son, Riley, then just an infant.

He told Richards that if something happened to him, he wanted to know that she and Riley would be taken care of. Richards didn’t like thinking that way, but she saw that the Army had changed the boy she had grown up with. “Before, he was very much a party animal,” she said. “The Army gave him a lot of responsibility and a lot of honor. He felt like he was doing something right.”

They were married July 4, and she and her son moved to Ft. Polk a month later. Smith started the formal process of adopting Riley, and his face would light up when others said how much Riley looked like him. Smith wouldn’t even take his boots off when he got home from a day’s work because he was so excited to play with Riley, his wife said. He would often get on all fours, growl like an animal and gently head-butt Riley in the stomach, she said.

Smith was deployed to Iraq in November. He communicated with his wife by e-mail or phone practically every day. They talked about their life together after he finished his service: becoming a police officer, moving to Los Angeles, trying to have a baby together.

Smith, using the joking nickname “Im So Hood,” left messages for Riley on the boy’s Dr. Seuss-themed MySpace .com page. Richards-Smith would read them aloud to her son.

She said she chatted with her husband by instant messenger the night before he died. She wishes she had saved that conversation but remembered his words.

“Baby, I drive the most up-armored vehicle the military makes,” he wrote. “I’ve found my soul mate. Nothing is taking me away from you.”

Eight hours later, he went out on his last mission.

In addition to his mother, wife and Riley, he is survived by his father, Michael Smith, 50, of Reno; and a brother, Tommy Smith, 23, and sister, Jackie Smith, 21, both of South Lake Tahoe.