WASHINGTON – Paul Ray Smith’s 11-year-old son, standing only chest-high to President Bush, accepted the nation’s highest award for valor on Monday for his late father, who exposed himself to enemy fire in Iraq and saved at least 100 of his fellow U.S. soldiers.
Outnumbered and exposed, Army Sgt. 1st Class Smith stayed at his gun, holding back an advancing Iraqi force until a bullet in his head claimed his life. Bush presented the Medal of Honor on the second anniversary of the day Smith died in battle on April 4, 2003, near Baghdad International Airport.
“The Medal of Honor is the highest award for bravery a president can bestow,” Bush said in an East Room ceremony that began and ended in prayer. “It is given for gallantry above and beyond the call of duty in the face of enemy attack.”
The ceremony wasn’t entirely somber. Bush talked about how Smith, who joined the Army in 1989 after high school, loved sports, fast cars and staying out late with his friends – “pursuits that occasionally earned him what the Army calls extra duty, scrubbing floors.”
Smith was born in El Paso, Texas, and moved to Tampa, Fla., when he was 9. When he was stationed in Germany, he fell in love with his wife, Birgit. “Turns out that Paul had a romantic streak in him,” Bush said, telling how on the night they met, Smith stood outside her window singing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”
The couple had two children, Jessica, 18, and David. Smith’s widow clutched the hands of her children as the president gave David three soft pats on the back and handed him the award.
Birgit Smith said it was not hard to get the shy boy to accept his father’s medal.
“He is now the man in our household,” she told reporters outside the White House.
On the day of the battle, the 33-year-old Smith, a veteran of the first Gulf War, was put in charge of his unit – 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 11th Engineer Battalion – while his lieutenant went on a scouting mission.
Smith summoned a Bradley Fighting Vehicle after as many as 100 Iraqis, who had been attacked with rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, launched counterattacks. Incoming RPGs battered the Bradley, which retreated. Then a mortar struck an M113 armored personnel carrier that had joined the fray. Three soldiers inside were wounded, 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 enemy soldiers. During a stretch of 15 minutes or longer, with his upper torso and head exposed, Smith fired more than 300 rounds.
“With complete disregard for his own life, and under constant enemy fire, Sergeant Smith rallied his men and led a counterattack,” Bush said. “From a completely exposed position, he killed as many as 50 enemy soldiers as he protected his men. … Sergeant Smith continued to fire until he took a fatal round to the head.”
In a heavy Germany accent, Birgit Smith described her husband as a “very tough and passionate soldier” with a kind heart.
“Paul’s action two years ago speaks louder than any words ever could,” she said. “For that was simply the man Paul truly was – always putting others before himself.”
She said her husband represents the best in all U.S. troops, especially those who have died.
“I know the pain their families suffer so I want to reach out to them and let them know their loved ones are not forgotten,” she said. “Every one of our soldiers deserve the title of a hero for they too have answered a noble calling – the call to duty.”
More than 3,400 Medals of Honor have been awarded since the decoration was created in 1861. More than 600 of them have been given posthumously. Smith’s is only the third Medal of Honor given for actions since the Vietnam War, and the first from the Iraq war.