Ambushed, outnumbered and under fire, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith took matters into his own hands. Jumping on top of an armored vehicle in place of its injured crew, he aimed a .50-caliber machine gun at the advancing Iraqi Republican Guard and opened fire.
By the time he had gone through three ammunition belts, the enemy attack had been repulsed and his unit saved. According to the Army's official account, Smith single-handedly killed 20 to 50 enemy soldiers and saved 100 of his own. The only American to die in the skirmish that night outside Baghdad was Smith, struck down by a bullet to the head.
President Bush presents the medal to David Smith, the son of Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, as Smith's wife, Birgit, and stepdaughter, Jessica, watch at the White House.
(Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
Now, two years to the day after the firefight that cost him his life, the United States has certified its first official hero from the Iraq war. In an emotional ceremony in the East Room of the White House yesterday, President Bush posthumously awarded Smith the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest recognition for bravery in combat and a medal issued so rarely that no U.S. soldier has received it since an ill-fated mission in Somalia a dozen years ago.
"Sergeant Smith gave his all for his men," the president said. "Five days later, Baghdad fell and the Iraqi people were liberated. . . . We count ourselves blessed to have soldiers like Sergeant Smith, who put their lives on the line to advance the cause of freedom and protect the American people."
Bush presented the five-point star to Smith's 11-year-old son, David, while teary-eyed relatives and grim-faced soldiers watched. As the citation was read, David looked down and Bush gently patted the boy's back. Smith's stepdaughter, Jessica, 18, wiped her eyes, as his widow, Birgit, struggled to contain the emotion that creased her face. When the citation reading ended, Bush reached over and kissed Birgit Smith on the cheek as the assembled service members rose to their feet and applauded.
In Paul Ray Smith, the military has singled out an inspirational role model for a war that has not gone as well as its architects once expected. After so many deaths to mourn and fewer recent clear-cut battlefield victories to celebrate, the commemoration of Smith's actions seemed to serve as a morale boost for the armed forces in the 25th month of a war whose end is not yet in sight.
"It's an important testimony first off that a soldier's being awarded this while the conflict's still going on," Col. William F. Grimsley, who commanded the brigade to which Smith was attached in Iraq, said in an interview last week. "And frankly it serves as a huge motivation for all of us."
The military is making the most of it. Besides the ceremony and a subsequent reception at the White House, two more events will be held today, one at the Pentagon adding Smith to the Hall of Heroes and another at Arlington National Cemetery to unveil a new headstone for the slain sergeant.
The Army has set up an elaborate Internet site devoted to Smith, complete with a copy of his citation, a history of the medal, video footage from a memorial service at Fort Stewart, and video testimonials from his widow, parents, brother and compatriots. Visitors to the Web site, www.army.mil/medalofhonor, can download a movie-style poster featuring Smith and the medal or watch an interactive "battlescape" re-creation of the shootout in which he died.
The medal put Smith in a pantheon that includes Theodore Roosevelt, Sgt. Alvin York, Audie Murphy, Jimmy Doolittle and Douglas MacArthur. Created by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, the Medal of Honor is awarded only for the most extraordinary action on the battlefield, or "conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty." Gen. George S. Patton once said he would "sell my immortal soul" for one and President Harry S. Truman said he would rather have "the Medal of Honor around my neck than be president."
Only 3,400 of the medals have been awarded over the past 144 years, and virtually none in the modern era. Just two soldiers have received the medal for action since Vietnam, both for valor during the disastrous 1993 battle in Mogadishu later memorialized in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down." No medals were awarded for operations in Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo or Afghanistan, and no others so far for the current war in Iraq. Bush called Smith's award "the first Medal of Honor in the war on terror."
Bush rarely spends much time in public with the relatives of those slain in Iraq, and he did not dwell on the larger meaning of the war in his remarks. But at another event earlier in the day he offered a defense of his decision to attack Iraq.
"The fundamental question is: Is it worth it?" Bush said at a news conference with the president of Ukraine, who is pulling troops out of Iraq. "And the answer is: Absolutely, it's worth it for a free Iraq to emerge. We're talking about a part of the world in which, you know, our foreign policy was 'Let's just hope for the best and tolerate the fact there's no free societies.' "
At 33, Paul Ray Smith had already been a soldier for 15 years by the time Bush was sending troops to the Arabian desert in early 2003, having enlisted after high school in Tampa and later serving in the Persian Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo. As he sat in Kuwait before the invasion, Smith wrote a letter to his wife to reassure her, a letter never sent but found later on his laptop, complete with the misspellings of a hastily drafted note. "Me and the boys are ready," he wrote. "And will do just fine. I wont lie, we are going to be with the guys that will be the first in if we go. But we have been training a lot and are ready to mix it up."
To his parents, though, he was more fatalistic. "There are two ways to come home, stepping off the plain and being carried off the plain," he wrote them in another unsent letter found on the laptop. "It doesn't matter how I come home because I am prepared to give all that I am to ensure that all my boys make it home."
Early on the morning of April 4, 2003, as the Army's Third Infantry Division drove toward Baghdad, Smith's engineering unit was ordered to set up a holding pen for enemy prisoners near the airport outside the city. Suddenly, Iraqi soldiers appeared in the distance and launched an assault.
When a mortar hit one of the M-113 armored personnel carriers, injuring three crew members, witnesses said, Smith jumped on top and took over the .50-caliber machine gun, driving off the enemy and saving not only his own soldiers but also a nearby aid station.
"If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have been there anymore," recalled Spec. Michelle Chavez, a medic who treated Smith in vain. "We would have gotten run over. . . . I know he saved my life that day. I know he saved many lives that day."
Smith's story was featured on the front pages of The Washington Post and the New York Times, but it would take two years to wind its way through the bureaucracy of the medal process. After a recommendation reaches the Pentagon, it has 12 steps to pass through before even getting to the White House.
Lt. Col. Thomas P. Smith, who led Smith's unit, first put him in for the medal. "After a couple weeks as we pieced together the story we realized there was something here that might be just a little more special," he said. "There was a while I couldn't tell it and get to the end without choking up."