BAGHDAD -- The battle erupted suddenly and without warning. One minute, Bravo Company of the 11th Engineer Battalion was trying to build a holding pen for war prisoners. The next, the unit was under fire from as many as 200 Special Republican Guard soldiers defending Saddam International Airport.
After helping evacuate wounded U.S. soldiers, Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith jumped into an M-113 armored personnel carrier, maneuvered it into the center of a walled courtyard and climbed into the commander's hatch to man its .50-caliber machine gun. Under fire from automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, his flak jacket shredded by incoming rounds, Smith held off a counterattack until he was killed by a bullet to the throat.
Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith helped clear a building near the southern city of Najaf during the Army's race to Baghdad.
(Courtesy Of Harry Delauter -- U.s. Army)
Smith, 33, of Tampa, was credited with saving dozens of his fellow soldiers' lives in that April 4 battle. Among the most vulnerable were medics at a forward aid station and the staff of a command, both lightly armed units that were accompanying Smith's company of 3rd Infantry Division engineers. The division's 1st Brigade, to which the engineer battalion belongs, now seeks to honor Smith by putting him forward posthumously for the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor.
"His actions clearly warrant it," said Col. William F. Grimsley, the 1st Brigade commander.
For the past couple of weeks, U.S. commanders have been putting together recommendations for valor awards, compiling witness accounts and sorting out the often painful details of battlefield actions and casualties. More than 400 soldiers from the division's 1st and 2nd brigades are under consideration for such awards. But Smith is believed to be the only one being nominated for the Medal of Honor.
Whether he receives it will be determined in Washington after a lengthy process. But here in Baghdad, three weeks after the government of Saddam Hussein fell to U.S. troops, soldiers of the 1st Brigade are still talking about Smith's exploits.
"If it had not been for him staying on that weapon, there's no doubt in anybody's mind our casualties would have been much, much higher," said Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Coker, the engineer battalion's senior noncommissioned officer. "And yet, he was the type of guy you'd expect . . . to have done that. I don't think there was a single person in our unit who was surprised that, of all people to do that, it was Sergeant Smith."
Officers and enlisted men remember Smith, a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as a perfectionist and disciplinarian.
"He was one of hardest platoon sergeants in the battalion," Coker said. Yet he also acquired a reputation for protecting his soldiers and looking out for their interests.
In a notoriously unsafe occupation -- engineers are the ones who breach obstacles such as minefields and specialize in blowing things up -- "he would err on the safe side for his soldiers every time," said Capt. Michael Bliss, his company commander.
Smith left behind a wife, Birgit, whom he met while stationed in Germany, and two children. Besides fighting in the Gulf War 12 years ago, also as a combat engineer, he was deployed to Kosovo for six months in 2001.
As the brigade attacked the airport on April 4, Smith's Bravo Company was ordered to create a holding area for prisoners taken by a task force of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment. On the northern side of an intersection just east of the airport, Smith used an armored bulldozer to knock a hole in the wall of a compound, overseen by a guard tower, that he intended to use to hold the prisoners.
An M-113 armored personnel carrier moved into the compound and knocked down a gate at the far side, only to come under heavy fire from Special Republican Guard forces. A mortar round landed on top of the M-113, wounding three of the four crew members. Seconds later, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the vehicle in the side. At the same time, Iraqis climbed into the guard tower and began firing down at the U.S. soldiers with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons.
"They had occupied the tower that we planned to use to guard the EPW [enemy prisoner of war] cage," said 1st Sgt. Timothy Campbell, 35, of Bethel, Ohio, the senior noncommissioned officer of Bravo Company. "So now they had us in the cage, basically. The only place out was the hole we put in the wall and the gate where they were firing from."