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May 27, 2022

A Memorial Day Profile of Valor

This weekend, we honor Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith and every other fallen American warrior.

“I talk with Sergeant Timothy Campbell quite a bit,” said Bill Smith in the book Heroes Among Us, “and he told me that when they removed Paul from the Armored Personnel Carrier, he had 13 holes in his armor vest where the rounds had hit him. He was aware that he was being hit, but he chose to stay on that gun.”

Smith was recalling the day — April 3, 2003 — that he lost son in combat. Operation Iraqi Freedom had only recently begun, and Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith and his Task Force 2-7 had been assigned to convert a courtyard at Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport into a holding area for Iraqi prisoners. While doing so, they came under ferocious attack with small arms, 60 mm mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades from a Republican Guard force which had already moved into advantageous fighting positions.

Smith’s bold and decisive actions that day in leading his troops and repelling the attack earned him our nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor. His citation reads as follows:

Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy near Baghdad International Airport, Baghdad, Iraq on 4 April 2003. On that day, Sergeant First Class Smith was engaged in the construction of a prisoner of war holding area when his Task Force was violently attacked by a company-sized enemy force. Realizing the vulnerability of over 100 soldiers, Sergeant First Class Smith quickly organized a hasty defense consisting of two platoons of soldiers, one Bradley Fighting Vehicle and three armored personnel carriers. As the fight developed, Sergeant First Class Smith braved hostile enemy fire to personally engage the enemy with hand grenades and anti-tank weapons, and organized the evacuation of three wounded soldiers from an armored personnel carrier struck by a rocket propelled grenade and a 60 mm mortar round. Fearing the enemy would overrun their defenses, Sergeant First Class Smith moved under withering enemy fire to man a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a damaged armored personnel carrier. In total disregard for his own life, he maintained his exposed position in order to engage the attacking enemy force. During this action, he was mortally wounded. His courageous actions helped defeat the enemy attack, and resulted in as many as 50 enemy soldiers killed, while allowing the safe withdrawal of numerous wounded soldiers. Sergeant First Class Smith’s extraordinary heroism and uncommon valor are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the Third Infantry Division ‘Rock of the Marne,’ and the United States Army.

As his dad recalled, “His men described Paul as a ‘hard guy’ or a ‘hard ass.’ When that is said about a career noncommissioned officer, it’s a compliment. It means he’s a by-the-book, hard-core leader of men. That’s what Paul became.”

Indeed, before deploying to Iraq, Smith had written to his parents, “There are two ways to come home, stepping off the plane and being carried off the plane. 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.” That’s the sort of leader he was.

Sergeant Smith’s men found his body slumped over the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, his body armor riddled by bullet holes. As his dad said, he chose to stay on that gun.

On April 4, 2005, exactly two years after his heroic actions that day at Baghdad Airport, Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor — the first such award of the Iraq War — in a White House ceremony in which his 11-year-old son, David, received the Medal from President George W. Bush.

This Memorial Day weekend, we remember the actions of Sergeant First Class Smith and all other American warriors who gave “the last full measure of devotion” to their country.

May they rest in peace and honored glory.

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