Sergeant First Class Paul Smith will become the first recipient of our military’s highest award next Monday when President Bush presents the Medal of Honor to SFC Smith’s family.
The first Medal of Honor awarded for service in Iraq will be presented next Monday in a ceremony at the White House, White House spokesman Scott McClellan announced Tuesday.
For the family of Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, the honor, the nation’s highest military award, brings conflicting feelings: pride that he’ll be remembered among America’s bravest soldiers, grief that he died two years ago in Iraq.
“At least my mind is at rest because with the Medal of Honor, Paul’s name will go on in history,” his wife, Birgit Smith, said Tuesday from her home in Holiday, Fla. “His name will never die. This is very important to me.”
President Bush will present the medal to Smith’s 11-year-old son, David, during the White House ceremony, Birgit Smith said.
There’ll be a second ceremony next Tuesday morning at the Pentagon. Then in the afternoon, the family will attend another ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where Smith’s headstone will be unveiled.
Smith was nominated for the Medal of Honor by commanders of the 3rd Infantry Division after his death on April 4, 2003.
Smith, 33, died behind the trigger of a .50-caliber machine gun as he fought off an Iraqi attack near Baghdad’s international airport. He’s credited with saving more than 100 American lives and killing at least 50 Iraqis.
What Paul Smith did on April 4, 2003, was climb aboard an armored vehicle and, manning a heavy machine gun, take it upon himself to cover the withdrawal of his men from a suddenly vulnerable position. Smith was fatally wounded by Iraqi fire, the only American to die in the engagement.
“I’m in bittersweet tears,” said Smith’s mother, Janice Pvirre. “The medal isn’t going to bring him back. … It makes me sad that all these other soldiers have died. They are all heroes.”
With the medal, Smith joins a most hallowed society.
Since the Civil War, just 3,439 men (and one woman) have received the Medal of Honor. It recognizes only the most extreme examples of bravery – those “above and beyond the call of duty.”
That oft-heard phrase has a specific meaning: The medal cannot be given to those who act under orders, no matter how heroic their actions. Indeed, according to Library of Congress defense expert David F. Burrelli, it must be “the type of deed which, if he had not done it, would not subject him to any justified criticism.”
From World War II on, most of the men who received the medal died in the action that led to their nomination. There are but 129 living recipients.
Smith is the first soldier from the Iraq war to receive the medal, which had not previously been awarded since 1993. In that year, two Army Special Forces sergeants were killed in Somalia in an action described in the bestselling book Black Hawk Down.
The officer who called Birgit Smith on Tuesday nominated her husband for the medal.
Lt. Col. Thomas Smith (no relation) sent in his recommendation in May 2003, beginning a process that involved reviews at 12 levels of the military chain of command before reaching the White House. On Tuesday, Lt. Col. Smith expressed satisfaction that the wait was over, and great admiration for his former subordinate.
In the Army, he said, you hear about men who won the Medal of Honor. “You think they are myths when you read about them. It’s almost movielike. You just don’t think you’d ever meet someone like that.”
Lt. Col. Smith commanded the 11th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, during the American attack on Iraq, which began March 20, 2003. On the morning of April 4, the engineers found themselves manning a roadblock not far from Baghdad International Airport.
A call went out for a place to put some Iraqi prisoners.
Sgt. Smith volunteered to create a holding pen inside a walled courtyard. Soon, Iraqi soldiers, numbering perhaps 100, opened fire on Smith’s position. Smith was accompanied by 16 men.
Smith called for a Bradley, a tank-like vehicle with a rapid fire cannon. It arrived and opened up on the Iraqis. The enemy could not advance so long as the Bradley was in position. But then, in a move that baffled and angered Smith’s men, the Bradley left.
Smith’s men, some of whom were wounded, were suddenly vulnerable.
Smith could have justifiably ordered his men to withdraw. Lt. Col. Smith believes Sgt. Smith rejected that option, thinking that abandoning the courtyard would jeopardize about 100 GIs outside – including medics at an aid station.
Sgt. Smith manned a 50-caliber machine gun atop an abandoned armored personnel carrier and fought off the Iraqis, going through several boxes of ammunition fed to him by 21-year-old Pvt. Michael Seaman. As the battle wound down, Smith was hit in the head. He died before he could be evacuated from the scene. He was 33.
Thank you, Sergeant First Class Paul Smith.