When the average person thinks of Medal of Honor recipients, the idea usually conjures up images of men storming the beaches of Normandy or holding off an onslaught of enemy troops in Korea or Vietnam. Heck, some people only think of films such as Rambo. That’s just the world we live in.
However, it often slips the national consciousness that the US has been embroiled in nonstop conflict for fifteen years, with several US service members earning the Medal of Honor in Iraq and Afghanistan to date- eighteen to be exact.
One of those recipients was the first of four men to receive the MOH in the Iraq War, receiving it posthumously (as did all recipients in that particular conflict) after repelling an onslaught of Iraqi Republican Guard troops, killing over fifty of them before falling in battle.
A Florida native, 34-year-old Army Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith had 13 years and countless deployments as a combat engineer under his belt by the time his fateful last stand would take place. A member of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 11th Engineer Battalion, Smith was a platoon sergeant during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq and was supervising the building of a detainee center at the Baghdad International Airport (to assist with the Coalition’s push into Baghdad) when his unit was attacked by over 100 Iraqi Republican Guard troops.
Reacting quickly and with a cool head (as an NCO should), Smith organized two platoons of soldiers, a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle and three APCs into a defensive position. Despite his best efforts to rally the men, one platoon came under fire from a watchtower and was dangerously close to being overrun by the attacking force.
Running out of time to save his men, Smith threw grenades and fired anti-tank weapons to slow the enemy’s advance. When an American vehicle was hit and the crew wounded, Smith evacuated the injured troops under fire.
Returning to the damaged APC, Smith manned a .50 caliber machine gun mounted atop the vehicle (keep in mind, this was back before up-armored gun turrets), exposing himself to enemy fire. Laying a hellish stream of fire upon the enemy, Smith suppressed the Iraqis with at least 300 rounds of .50 caliber fire, killing fifty Republican Guard troops before they began to slip away from the battle space.
Unfortunately for Smith, his finest hour would be his last- during the engagement, he was shot in the head and killed. His actions would initially fade into the buzz surrounding the fall of Baghdad, which happened five days later.
Smith would eventually be awarded the Medal of Honor, making him the first service member to receive it in the Iraq War. His bereaved widow and two children would accept it -as well as a Bronze Star, Army Commendation medal and Purple Heart- on his behalf.
“We count ourselves blessed to have soldiers like Sergeant Smith, who put their lives on the line to advance the cause of freedom and protect the American people,” then-President George W. Bush would say at Smith’s ceremony.
For the next eight years, the Iraq war would drag on, costing many more lives and becoming the stage for countless acts of heroism. While each instance is as noteworthy is on its own, one thing is for certain- there was only -and will only ever be- one SFC Paul R. Smith, who held off the Republican Guard against overwhelming odds to save the lives of his men.
This article was originally published January 31, 2017
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