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Iraq

Selfless final act saved his troops

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 17, 2003


photo
The family of 33-year-old Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith will gather in New Port Richey this morning for a private memorial service.
On April 4, a 100-man unit of the Iraqi Special Republican Guard launched a surprise attack on U.S. forces attempting to secure Baghdad International Airport.

All that stood between the well-equipped Iraqi force and a U.S. command post nearby was a small contingent of Army engineers, medics and mortar crew, fewer than two dozen in all.

Among them was Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith of Tampa.

As soldiers fell wounded around him, Smith mounted an armored vehicle and sprayed the Iraqi soldiers with fire from a .50-caliber machine gun. Over the next 90 minutes, he went through four boxes of ammunition.

He killed 30 to 50 Iraqi soldiers, stopping them from reaching the command post, a half-mile away.

"If Sgt. Smith had not done what he had done, if he had not killed those people, they would have enveloped the entire task force," said 1st Sgt. Tim Campbell.

Smith, 33, saved the day, but not himself. He died of a single gunshot wound to the head. For his conduct under fire, his commanding officer plans to nominate him for the nation's highest award for bravery, the Medal of Honor.

Smith's family, including his parents who live in Holiday, will gather in New Port Richey this morning for a private memorial service.

On Wednesday, Smith's sister found it hard to talk about the medal.

"It's bittersweet. We're so incredibly proud, but at the same time, obviously, we would rather have him back," said Lisa DeVane.

"Paul was just so unselfish, such an incredible soldier. When he went into the desert, he said he was going to do whatever it took to bring his soldiers home safely. That's exactly what he did. He gave the ultimate sacrifice."

Even so, it is by no means certain Smith will be awarded the prestigious decoration.

"If the Bronze Star is a priest, and the Distinguished Service Cross is the pope, then the Medal of Honor is god," said David F. Burrelli, a national defense expert for the Library of Congress. "What these people have done to earn it is so unnaturally heroic."'

Since its creation in 1861, only 3,427 individuals have been awarded the medal, many of them posthumously. There were 124 recipients in World War I, 440 in World War II, 131 from the Korean War and 239 from Vietnam. None was given for actions during the first Gulf War. Two soldiers received the Medal of Honor posthumously for deeds in Somalia in 1993.

The nominating process can take months and the action must be "so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes gallantry beyond the call of duty from lesser forms of bravery," the rules state.

Under the heat and emotion of the war in Iraq, many acts might seem to meet that high standard. But only a few, if any, will warrant serious attention from military officials, Army spokesman Ryan Yantis said. "They try with all diligence to make sure it's correct and worthy."

To prevent legend from taking over, the award must be given within two or three years. At least two eyewitnesses must provide sworn statements describing the action. "Often in the heat of battle that's not easy to do," Burrelli said.

Smith had witnesses within his unit, Bravo Company of the 11th Engineer Battalion, attached to the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment.

Journalist Michael Corkery of the Providence Journal was there to capture the vivid details of the April 4 ambush at Baghdad International Airport.

The Americans were there not to fight but to build a jail for Iraqi prisoners of war. As Corkery described, a Republican Guard complex next to the airport was ideal because of its high stone walls surrounding a grassy courtyard and observation tower.

It was the engineers' job to prepare the prison and, under Smith's direction, they began knocking down walls and gates using an armored bulldozer and tracked vehicle, with plans to box in a corner of the courtyard with concertina wire.

Then the ambush began.

"It was like we had opened a hole in a hornet's nest," Capt. Matt Paul, the mortar commander, told Corkery.

The attackers were not the forlorn Iraqi soldiers seen on television, dressed in ratty uniforms, eager to surrender. The Special Republican Guard unit was highly trained and heavily armed.

Snipers fired from the roof. Soldiers in trees fired rocket propelled grenades. A hundred or more soldiers rushed past a gate and into the courtyard.

The Americans were pinned down, nearly helpless.

Amid the confusion, Smith emerged. He jumped from his tracked vehicle and went for the wounded, identifying the most serious casualties and calling for help, according to Corkery. Smith ran to a Humvee, retrieved a grenade and threw it over a wall at the invading Iraqis.

While others ran for cover, Smith went back to his vehicle, which had been damaged by a grenade but still worked. He commanded the driver to head toward a wall opposite from the gate, a position that would allow him to cover the guard tower and gate without endangering his own men with ricocheting bullets.

That's when Smith began to spray the field with machine-gun fire. The barrage allowed 1st Sgt. Campbell and two other solders to creep toward the guard tower. They fired until they were out of ammunition -- and the Iraqis stopped firing back, stopped advancing.

"There was blood everywhere," Campbell recalled.

When Campbell returned to the track vehicle, he found Smith lying inside, shot once in the head. Medics tried to revive Smith for 30 minutes but failed. He was the only man from his unit to die that day.

"It's hard to say how many casualties there would have been" without Smith's heroics, Campbell said.

Smith, on the other hand, killed between 30 and 50 Special Republican Guard troops, said Capt. Michael Bliss of Smith's 11th Engineer Battalion.

Lt. Col. Scott Rutter of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment said he will nominate Smith for the Medal of Honor after the war is over.

It then will be up to the military that Smith served for 12 years to decide whether his actions merit the medal, which would be awarded by the president.

Smith, stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., left a wife, Birgit, whom he met while in Germany, and two children: Jessica, 16, and David, 9.

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