WASHINGTON — Outnumbered and exposed, Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith stayed at his gun, beating back an advancing Iraqi force until a bullet took his life.
Smith is credited with protecting the lives of scores of lightly armed American soldiers who were beyond his position in the battle, on April 4, 2003, near the gates of Baghdad International Airport.
On Monday, exactly two years after Smith’s death, President Bush awarded him the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor for valor.
“We are here to pay tribute to a soldier whose service illustrates the highest ideals of leadership and love of our country,” Bush said in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. Bush said Smith “gave his life for these ideals in a deadly battle outside Baghdad. It is my great privilege to recognize his great sacrifice by awarding Sgt. Smith the Medal of Honor.”
Smith’s widow, Birgit, decided that the couple’s 11-year-old son, David, would accept the medal on his father’s behalf.
“It was a very easy decision for me because, after all, he’s the man of the house now,” she said Monday. She said she often hears from the men her husband saved, as well as their families. “They’re so grateful for what Paul did that day,” she said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
It is only the third Medal of Honor given for actions since the Vietnam War, and the first from the Iraq war.
Smith, 33, was the senior sergeant in a platoon of engineers during the 3rd Infantry Division’s northward sprint toward Baghdad.
By the morning of April 4, elements of the division had reached Baghdad and captured Baghdad International Airport, a key objective. Encircled Iraqi militiamen and Special Republican Guard forces inside launched counterattacks.
Near the eastern edge of the airport, Smith, a veteran of the first Gulf War, had been put in charge of his unit — 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 11th Engineer Battalion — while his lieutenant went on a scouting mission.
Smith’s mission was mundane enough — turn a courtyard into a holding pen for Iraqi prisoners of war. The courtyard, just north of the main road between Baghdad and the airport, was near an Iraqi military compound.
Soon after Smith and some of his platoon began work, records show, one trooper spotted dozens of armed Iraqis approaching from beyond the gated walls of the courtyard. Another group of Iraqis occupied a nearby tower.
Smith summoned a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and he and his troops gathered near the courtyard gate to fight the counterattack. An M113 armored personnel carrier joined the fray.
The Iraqis, perhaps as many as 100, attacked with rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs. Smith threw a grenade over a wall to drive back some of the Iraqis, then fired a rocket.
Incoming RPGs battered the Bradley, which retreated. Then a mortar struck the M113, wounding the three soldiers inside and leaving its heavy machine gun unmanned. After directing another soldier to pull the wounded M113 crewmen to safety, Smith climbed into the machine gun position and began firing at the tower and at the Iraqis trying to rush the compound.
The other two post-Vietnam Medals of Honor went to Army Master Sgt. Gary I. Gordon and Army Sgt. 1st Class Randall D. Shughart, two Delta Force troopers who died defending the crew of a helicopter that was shot down in Mogadishu, Somalia, in events depicted in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”
More than 3,400 Medals of Honor have been awarded since the decoration was created in 1861, of which more than 600 have been given posthumously.
WHITE HOUSE TRANSCRIPT
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon and welcome to the White House. Today is a special occasion: We are here to pay tribute to a soldier whose service illustrates the highest ideals of leadership and love of our country.
Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith, of Florida, gave his life for these ideals in a deadly battle outside Baghdad. It is my great privilege to recognize his extraordinary sacrifice by awarding Sergeant Smith the Medal of Honor.
I appreciate Secretary Don Rumsfeld joining us today; Secretary Jim Nicholson, of the Department of Veterans Affairs; Senator Carl Levin, Senator Bill Nelson, Senator Mel Martinez, Senator Johnny Isakson and Congressman Ike Skelton. Thank you all for joining us.
I appreciate Secretary Francis Harvey, Secretary of the Army; General Dick Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General Pete Pace, Vice Chairman; General Pete Schoomaker, Chief of the Army.
I want to thank the Medal of Honor recipients who have joined us today: John Baker, Barney Barnum, Bernie Fisher, Al Rascon and Brian Thacker. Honored you all are here.
I appreciate the family members who have joined us today. Thank you all for coming: Birgit Smith, his wife; Jessica Smith; David Smith; Janice Pvirre, the mom; Donald Pvirre, stepfather, and all the other family members who have joined us. Welcome.
I appreciate Chaplain David Hicks, for his invocation. I want to thank Lieutenant Colonel Tom Smith, for joining us, who was Paul Smith’s commander. I particularly want to welcome soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division, Paul’s unit in Iraq.
The Medal of Honor is the highest award for bravery a President can bestow. It is given for gallantry above and beyond the call of duty in the face of enemy attack. Since World War II, more than half of those have been awarded this medal gave their lives in the action that earned it. Sergeant Paul Smith belongs to this select group.
The story of Paul Smith is a story of a boy transformed into a man and a leader. His friends and family will tell you that he joined the Army in 1989, after finishing high school. When he joined the Army, he was a typical young American. He liked sports, he liked fast cars, and he liked to stay out late with his friends — pursuits that occasionally earned him what the Army calls “extra duty.” (Laughter.) Scrubbing floors.
Two things would change Paul’s life and lead him to the selfless heroism we honor today. The first would come when he was stationed in Germany and fell for a woman named Birgit Bacher. It turns out that Paul had a romantic streak in him: On the first night he met her, Paul appeared outside Birgit’s window singing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” (Laughter.) In 1992, the two married, and soon, a young soldier became a devoted family man who played T-ball with his son and taught his daughter how to change the oil in his Jeep Cherokee.
Second great change in Paul’s life would come when he shipped off to Saudi Arabia to fight in the first Gulf War. There the young combat engineer learned that his training had a purpose and could save lives on the battlefield. Paul returned from that war determined that other soldiers would benefit from the lessons he had learned.
Paul earned his sergeant’s stripes and became known as a stickler for detail. Sergeant Smith’s seriousness wasn’t always appreciated by the greener troops under his direction. Those greener troops oftentimes found themselves to do tasks over and over again, until they got it right. Specialist Michael Seaman, who is with us today, says, “He was hard in training because he knew we had to be hard in battle.” Specialist Seaman will also tell you that he and others are alive today because of Sergeant Smith’s discipline.
That discipline would be put to the task in a small courtyard less than a mile from the Baghdad airport. Sergeant Smith was leading about three dozen men who were using a courtyard next to a watchtower to build a temporary jail for captured enemy prisoners. As they were cleaning the courtyard, they were surprised by about a hundred of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard.
With complete disregard for his own life and under constant enemy fire, Sergeant Smith rallied his men and led a counterattack. Seeing that his wounded men were in danger of being overrun, and that enemy fire from the watchtower had pinned them down, Sergeant Smith manned a 50-caliber machine gun atop a damaged armor vehicle. From a completely exposed position, he killed as many as 50 enemy soldiers as he protected his men.
Sergeant Smith’s leadership saved the men in the courtyard, and he prevented an enemy attack on the aid station just up the road. Sergeant Smith continued to fire and took a — until he took a fatal round to the head. His actions in that courtyard saved the lives of more than 100 American soldiers.
Scripture tells us, as the General said, that a man has no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. And that is exactly the responsibility Paul Smith believed the Sergeant stripes on his sleeve had given him. In a letter he wrote to his parents but never mailed, he said that he was prepared to “give all that I am to ensure that all my boys make it home.”
On this day two years ago, Sergeant Smith gave his all for his men. Five days later, Baghdad fell, and the Iraqi people were liberated. And today, we bestow upon Sergeant Smith the first Medal of Honor in the war on terror. He’s also the first to be awarded this new Medal of Honor flag, authorized by the United States Congress. 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.
Like every one of the men and women in uniform who have served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Sergeant Paul Smith was a volunteer. We thank his family for the father, husband and son and brother who can never be replaced. We recall with appreciation the fellow soldiers whose lives he saved, and the many more he inspired. And we express our gratitude for a new generation of Americans, every bit as selfless and dedicated to liberty as any that has gone on before — a dedication exemplified by the sacrifice and valor of Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith.
And now if his family would join me, please. Lieutenant Commander, please read the citation.
(The citation is read and the medal is presented.) (Applause.)