President Bush yesterday awarded Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith the Medal of Honor, exactly two years after the soldier single-handedly killed as many as 50 Iraqi insurgents as he saved the lives of more than 100 Americans.
It was the 615th time in history that the medal was awarded posthumously.
Sgt. Smith's 11-year-old son accepted the medal in a White House ceremony. It was the first time the nation's highest award for valor has been bestowed on a soldier from the Iraq war, and only the third time it has been awarded since the Vietnam War.
"On this day two years ago, Sergeant Smith gave his all for his men," the president said. "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. ...
"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," Mr. Bush said in the East Room ceremony.
In the last 30 years, only two U.S. soldiers, both killed during the Somalia intervention in 1993, have received the Medal of Honor, which has been bestowed upon 3,441 men and women since the Civil War. Sgt. Smith's widow, Birgit, decided that the couple's 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.
The event was attended by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and dozens of military men and women from all branches of the armed services.
The story of Sgt. Smith's actions on April 4, 2003, is the stuff of Hollywood, although it started off as a routine, even mundane, mission.
The 33-year-old sergeant, who was born in El Paso, Texas, but moved to Tampa, Fla., as a boy, was the senior noncommissioned officer in a platoon of engineers during the 3rd Infantry Division's northward push toward Baghdad.
U.S. and coalition forces had sprinted to Baghdad and had already captured the international airport, one of the key objectives to securing the city, according to an Army narrative. As troops encircled Baghdad, Iraqi militiamen and special Republican Guard forces were trapped, prompting fierce firefights.
Near the eastern edge of the airport, Sgt. Smith, a veteran of the first Gulf war, had been put in charge of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 11th Engineer Battalion, while his lieutenant and other soldiers went on a scouting mission.
The sergeant's task that day was to turn a courtyard into a holding cell for Iraqi prisoners of war. The courtyard, just north of the main road between Baghdad and the airport, was near an Iraqi military compound.
But just as they began their work, armed Iraqis were spotted approaching from beyond the gated walls of the courtyard. Another group of Iraqis occupied a nearby tower. Altogether, there were more than 100 Iraqis, outnumbering the Army troops 4 to 1.
Almost immediately, Sgt. Smith took charge of a Bradley fighting vehicle and positioned it to block the enemy. An M-113 armored personnel carrier joined the fray.
The Iraqis attacked with rifle fire, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Sgt. Smith threw a grenade over a wall to drive back some of the Iraqis, then fired a rocket.
Incoming grenades battered the Bradley, which retreated. Then a mortar slammed into the M-113, wounding the three soldiers inside and leaving its heavy machine gun unmanned. After directing another soldier to pull the wounded crewmen to safety, Sgt. Smith climbed into the machine gun position and began firing at the tower.
"With complete disregard for his own life and under constant enemy fire, Sergeant Smith rallied his men and led a counterattack," Mr. Bush said yesterday.
"From a completely exposed position, he killed as many as 50 enemy soldiers as he protected his men," he said.
With American medics, scouts, a mortar unit and a command post -- all lightly armed and vulnerable -- to protect, Sgt. Smith manned the gun for 15 minutes or longer, firing more than 300 rounds as Pvt. Michael Seaman, protected inside the M-113, passed him ammunition.
Then Sgt. Smith was struck in the head and mortally wounded. At almost the same time, 1st Sgt. Timothy Campbell ended the threat from the tower with a grenade, and the surviving Iraqis withdrew. Medics tried to save Sgt. Smith, but he died about 30 minutes later.
The following day, April 5, Task Force 1-64 of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team made the now-famous "Thunder Run" into the city and out to the airport. Two days later, the brigade went back to stay and the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein was assured.
"Scripture tells us," the president 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.'"
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