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'Grateful for his sacrifice'

Paul Smith's son accepts the nation's highest military honor in his late father's place.

By ALEX LEARY
Published April 5, 2005


Times interactive feature:
The last full measure of devotion


WASHINGTON - Seated in the third row, behind the military dignitaries and politicians, Spc. Michael Seaman smiled broadly when President Bush used him as an example of how hard Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith worked his men.

"Sgt. Smith's seriousness wasn't always appreciated by the greener troops under his direction," Bush said Monday at the White House. "Those greener troops oftentimes found themselves doing tasks over and over until they got it right."

But Seaman's expression turned somber as the president continued.

"Spc. Seaman," Bush said, "will also tell you that he and others are alive today because of Sgt. Smith's discipline."

Exactly two years ago Monday, Seaman, 23, was in a dusty courtyard outside Baghdad, inside an armored personnel carrier. Smith, a 33-year-old who grew up in Tampa, stood in a hatch, firing a .50-caliber machine gun to hold off a large force of Iraqi soldiers.

"Keep me loaded," Smith told Seaman.

While his men made it to safety, Smith kept up the fight. Then, suddenly, he slumped in the personnel carrier, mortally wounded by an Iraqi bullet. For his bravery that day, Smith on Monday was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

"I'm grateful for his sacrifice," said Sgt. Matthew Keller, who was also in the fight. "If he hadn't done what he did, the outcome could have been a whole lot worse. It was a sad feeling knowing his family was standing in his place, but I was happy that what he had done is being recognized."

Since the Civil War, just 3,439 men - and one woman - have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for bravery in combat. Smith is only the third recipient since Vietnam and the first from the Iraq war.

"We are here to pay tribute to a soldier whose service illustrates the highest ideals of leadership and love of our country," Bush said in the White House's East Room.

It was an emotional day with high-ranking officials on hand, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Five Medal of Honor recipients also attended.

For the reading of the official citation, Bush called Smith's family to stand next to him, patting 11-year-old David on the back. Smith's wife, Birgit, smiled but then began to cry. She clutched David's hand and the hand of her daughter, Jessica, 18.

"Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty," the citation reads.

Bush handed the Medal of Honor, framed in wood and glass, to David and kissed Birgit on the cheek. The room erupted in applause.

"We want to reflect on this day as a celebration of his life," Mrs. Smith, 38, said afterward, expressing her husband's love for the military. She moved her family to Pasco County after Smith's death.

Smith will be honored again at a Pentagon ceremony today, and a headstone will be unveiled at Arlington National Cemetery.

* * *

Paul R. Smith grew up in Tampa's Palma Ceia neighborhood, raised along with three siblings by a single mother who worked two jobs. He graduated in 1989 from Tampa Bay Vocational-Technical High School and enlisted in the Army, motivated not by patriotism but by the prospect of a regular paycheck.

By all accounts, Smith was not much of a soldier at first; his wife called him a "military goofball." That changed after he came back from the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He had learned firsthand the relationship between peacetime training and performance in combat.

Smith became a model soldier. He pushed his men hard; too hard, some said. They called him the "Morale Nazi."

Smith's men said they did not fully appreciate his methods until the morning of April 4, 2003.

Smith was part of unit of combat engineers with the Third Infantry Division. They were setting up a roadblock on the highway connecting Baghdad to Saddam International Airport. Smith volunteered to take about 16 Iraqi prisoners to set up a temporary holding area in a nearby courtyard.

Before this task was completed, about 100 Iraqi Republican Guards attacked Smith's position. A Bradley armored vehicle used its rapid-fire cannon to blast the Iraqis.

The Bradley suddenly backed up and left.

Smith reasonably could have pulled back his men and left the courtyard to the Iraqis. It had no military value. But Smith, the Army surmises, knew that course would have jeopardized about 100 soldiers at a medical aid station and a command post nearby.

He manned a .50-caliber machine gun atop an armored personnel carrier, the upper half of his body unprotected by armor. He kept the Iraqis from advancing, going through more than 300 rounds. As the battle wound down, Smith was shot in the head.

But he had made good his vow "to give all that I am to ensure that all my boys make it home."

[Last modified April 5, 2005, 01:32:04]


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