The last full measure of devotion
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published January 25, 2004
[Photo: Matthew Hartley]
|Smith talks on two radios at once in his Humvee in Iraq. The picture was taken near the Euphrates, a few days before his death.
10 News: Medal of Honor Nomination
The GIs were dirty, mosquito-bitten, fatigued, homesick. They had been on the road almost constantly for two weeks. Many had not slept in days.
At dawn on April 4, they arrived at Saddam International Airport to the sound of sporadic gunfire and the acrid smell of distant explosions. Breakfast was a mushy, prepackaged concoction the Army optimistically calls "pasta with vegetables."
Still, the mood was upbeat.
Reaching the airport meant the war was almost over. Some of the men broke out cheap cigars to celebrate.
Afterward, Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith and his combat engineers set about their mission that day, putting up a roadblock on the divided highway that connects the airport and Baghdad. Then, just before 10 a.m., a sentry spotted Iraqi troops nearby. Maybe 15 or 20. By the time Smith had a chance to look for himself, the number was closer to 100.
Smith could oppose them with just 16 men.
He ordered his soldiers to take up fighting positions and called for a Bradley, a powerful armored vehicle. It arrived quickly and opened fire. The Americans thought they were in control until, inexplicably, the Bradley backed up and left.
"Everybody was like, "What the hell?"' said Cpl. Daniel Medrano. "We felt like we got left out there alone."
The outnumbered GIs faced intense Iraqi fire. Whether they would survive the next few minutes hinged largely on Smith. He was 33 years old, a 1989 graduate of Tampa Bay Vocational-Technical High School, a husband and father of two.
To his men, Smith was like a character in the old war movies they had watched as kids, an infuriating, by-the-book taskmaster they called the "Morale Nazi."
But Smith had spent much of his adult life preparing for precisely this moment. Indeed, in a letter to his parents composed just before the war, he seems to have anticipated it:
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.
What explains Smith's commitment to his men?
Few clues are to be found in the story of his early years, growing up in Tampa's Palma Ceia neighborhood. He and three siblings were raised by a single mother who worked two jobs to support the family. Smith was a so-so student, not much of an athlete, not particularly popular. His childhood was altogether unremarkable.
He studied woodworking in high school and did trim work for a contractor. After graduating in June 1989, Smith joined the Army. He was motivated not by patriotism but a desire to find a job offering more stability than the paycheck-to-paycheck life of a carpenter. As a new recruit, Smith left an impression of someone more interested in partying than, say, marksmanship.
But by the time he got to Saddam International Airport, Smith was a different man, a master of the soldier's art. On April 4, in the words of his commanding officer, Smith displayed "extraordinary heroism and uncommon valor without regard for his own life in order to save others . . . in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service. . ."
What Smith offered his men, Abraham Lincoln, in an earlier age, called "the last full measure of devotion."
A quarter-million Americans have served in the Iraq war. Paul Ray Smith is the only one thus far nominated for the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for bravery.
Since the start of World War II, just 842 men have received the Medal of Honor. Almost two-thirds were killed in the action for which they were nominated.
"If the Medal of Honor today has an intangible and solemn halo around it," wrote author Allen Mikaelian, "it is partly due to those men who did not survive to wear it."
Gen. George Patton said he would give his soul for one. Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman said they would rather have the medal than be president.
By law, the Medal of Honor is awarded by the president only to those in the armed services who distinguish themselves "conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of (their lives) above and beyond the call of duty."
"Above and beyond the call of duty" has a specific meaning. The medal is not awarded to those who act under orders, no matter how heroic their actions. In fact, 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."
Given the extraordinarily high standard, it is far from certain Smith will be awarded the Medal of Honor. But his story is as much about professionalism as it is heroism. He had thought about what it means to lead men in combat. He knew that men will more willingly follow a superior who exposes himself to danger, shares their hardships, shows concern for their welfare.
On April 4, Smith did all of those things.