Common Name, Uncommon Valor
The story of Paul Smith, the Iraq War's only Medal of Honor recipient so far.
BY RALPH KINNEY BENNETT
Wednesday, March 29, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST
Since his days growing up in Tampa, Fla., the lanky kid with the slightly mischievous smile had wanted to be a soldier. By this bright morning, April 4, 2003, Sgt. First Class Paul Ray Smith had more than fulfilled his dream. He had served 15 of his 33 years in the U.S. Army, including three tours of duty in harm's way--in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Now all his training, all his experience, all the instincts that had made him a model soldier, were about to be put to the test. With 16 men from his First Platoon, B Company, 11th Engineer Battalion, Sgt. Smith was under attack by about 100 troops of the Iraqi Republican Guard.
"We're in a world of hurt," he muttered.
That "world" was a dusty, triangular walled compound about half the size of a football field, near the Saddam Hussein International Airport, 11 miles from Baghdad. Sgt. Smith's engineers, or "sappers," had broken through the 10-foot-high concrete-block southern wall with a military bulldozer and begun turning the compound into a temporary "pen" for Iraqi prisoners as U.S. forces pressed their attack on the airport.
While they were working, guards posted at a small aluminum gate in the north corner of the triangle had spotted the large Iraqi force approaching the compound from the north and west. Sgt. Smith had just run up to join the guards when all hell broke loose. They came under furious fire from machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
The lightly armed work detail needed fire support. Sgt. Smith called for a Bradley fighting vehicle. Within minutes the tank-like Bradley roared through the breached wall and broke through the aluminum gate, taking a position just beyond it and opening up on the attackers with its rapid-fire 25mm Bushmaster cannon.
Sgt. Smith's men took positions around the Bradley. He could see Iraqi soldiers north, east and west of him, streaming out along his flanks. He called for a nearby M-133 armored personnel carrier, to give additional fire support with its M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun.
As the APC passed through the breached wall, its commander, Sgt. Louis Berwald, realized that flanking Iraqi troops had occupied a roofed guard tower to his left, just outside the southwest corner of the compound, and were firing from it. He raked the tower with his M2, then moved on through the compound to a point just outside the north gate behind the Bradley.
By now the Iraqis were concentrating their fire against Sgt. Smith's small force by the gate. An RPG round hit the Bradley, and at almost the same moment a mortar round hit the APC, wounding its three occupants.
Several additional RPG rounds hit the Bradley, which by now had run low on ammunition. The Bradley retreated through the compound, exiting south through the breached wall. With one armored vehicle gone and the other out of action, Sgt. Smith's men had lost any firepower advantage they might have had.
Sgt. Smith could have withdrawn as well, back south through the compound. But beyond it was a lightly defended aid station crowded with 100 combat casualties and medical personnel. To protect it from being overrun, Sgt. Smith chose to fight no matter what the odds.
Under intense fire, Sgt. Smith's men heroically extracted all three wounded crewmen from the APC. Sgt. Smith then entered the vehicle, ordering Spc. Michael Seaman to join him as driver and "keep me loaded" with ammo belts. Sgt. Smith popped up out of the turret hatch and grabbed the grips of the .50-caliber machine gun mounted on top.
The Iraqis were practically on top of him. Coolly grasping the situation, Sgt. Smith ordered Spc. Seaman to back the APC south into the compound to a position half way down the eastern wall. There he could arc the big machine gun back and forth, from the gate entrance to the north, all along the western wall of the triangle, to the Iraqi occupied tower in the southwest corner to his left.
To fire the machine gun, Sgt. Smith had to stand in the APC's main hatch, his body exposed from the waist up to a withering fire coming at him from three directions. On the ground through the blur of combat, Sgt. Matthew Keller saw Sgt. Smith grimly firing measured bursts from atop the APC even as a hail of bullets hit around him.
Sgt. Keller yelled at him to get out. Sgt. Smith looked back at him and with a slight shake of his head, made a cutting motion across his throat with his right hand. Sgt. Keller would always remember the look in his eyes. "There was no fear in him whatsoever."
As Spc. Seaman, crouching in the adjoining hatch, fed him ammunition belts, Sgt. Smith directed an expert and murderous fire with the long-barreled M2, hitting Iraqis who tried to enter the compound through the gate or over the wall. He tried also to suppress renewed fire coming from the Iraqis in the guard tower to his left.
Finally, one of his fellow sappers, First Sgt. Timothy Campbell, led a small fire team which stole up to the tower and killed all Iraqis inside. But by this time, Sgt. Smith's machine gun had fallen silent. The attack had been broken. Nearly 50 Iraqi dead lay all over the area. Others were in retreat. But Sgt. Smith was now slumped in the turret hatch, blood soaking the front of his uniform.
Spc. Seaman jumped out of the vehicle in tears. "I told him we should just leave," he said. Pvt. Gary Evans drove the APC out of the compound at high speed to the nearby aid station.
But it was too late. When Medic Michelle Chavez tried to remove Sgt. Smith's helmet, she realized that it was holding his head together. A bullet--one of the last fired from the tower--had entered through Sgt. Smith's neck and traveled up into his brain, shattering his skull from the inside. There were 13 bullet holes peppered over his armored vest--the impact from any one of them enough to knock a man down. The vest's ceramic armor inserts, back and front, had been cracked in numerous places.
"Sapper Seven," the wiry, hollow-cheeked guy who had been so hard on his men in training, so exacting, so insistent on "doing it right"; the guy who had led them into battle on the first day of the war with a rock-'n'-roll tape blaring from his Humvee; the guy who had personally got down on his knees in front of their convoy to patiently, carefully extract the deadly mines when they ran into a minefield near the Karbala Gap, was dead.
A chaplain and a sergeant in dress uniforms came to Birgit Smith's home near Fort Stewart, Ga., late on the night of April 4 to break the terrible news. Mrs. Smith, the German girl Paul had met and married during his tour of duty in Western Europe in 1992, listened numbly to her visitors. She fought the growing dread and pain by grasping at a desperate hope:
"Our name is so common," she said, tears welling up in her eyes. "Maybe it's a mistake."
There was no mistake. Paul Ray Smith had given his life protecting his men and his position. He had almost single-handedly blunted an overwhelming attack which might well have overrun the nearby aid station.
"There are two ways to come home, stepping off the plane and being carried off the plane," Sgt. Smith had written in an unsent email to his parents. "It doesn't matter how I come home, because I am prepared to give all that I am to insure that all my boys make it home." He had been the only American killed in the courtyard fight.
On April 4, 2005, exactly two years after his selfless action, his wife and their children David and Jessica stood in the White House as President Bush presented them the nation's highest decoration for bravery, the Medal of Honor.
It was the first awarded in the Iraq War. Paul Ray Smith had indelibly marked his "common name" on history's small bright roll of those forever remembered for their uncommon valor.