It may not be new news, but this is why I was proud to be in the 3rd Infantry Division when I was in Georgia. At times, I wish I was with them in Iraq right now, the lower enlisted soldiers that were in my battalion, for the most part, were some of the best people I've known in my life.
Saving lives — and giving his own
First Medal of Honor to be awarded in 12 years
By Matthew Cox and Gina Cavallaro
Times staff writers
The morning had just begun, but chaos would quickly fill the grassy courtyard of the Republican Guard complex near Baghdad.
It was April 4, 2003, the first day the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, occupied Saddam International Airport.
Soldiers with the 11th Engineer Battalion had moved into the adjacent complex to set up a temporary holding area for enemy prisoners. The Army engineers, medics and mortar operators numbered between 14 and 20 and had bashed their way into the courtyard with an armored bulldozer, believing the site to be safe. They did not know that at least 100 Iraqi soldiers were taking position inside.
Soon, they came under a hailstorm of fire. The battle would rage for more than 90 minutes, and the U.S. troops would prevail at a heavy cost.
During the fight, one soldier would distinguish himself with bravery that would save lives and cost his. For his actions, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith of Tampa, Fla., will posthumously be awarded the Medal of Honor, the first issued since the 1993 battle in Somalia that was the basis for the book “Black Hawk Down.”
The actions of a hero
Iraqi soldiers perched in trees launched rocket-propelled gre-nades at the troops of the 11th after they entered the courtyard. Snipers perched atop buildings opened fire with small arms as waves of their comrades began charging head-on through the main gate.
The outnumbered engineers from B Company fought back, but American casualties were mounting. Soldiers were suffering.
“We were pinned down,” 1st Sgt. Tim Campbell told Providence (R.I.) Journal Bulletin reporter Michael Corkery, who was on assignment with the 2-7. “They had this planned,” Campbell said. “They found the lightest defended area and attacked.”
The engineers took casualties almost immediately. A mortar round exploded, spraying shrapnel everywhere.
According to Corkery’s account, Smith jumped out of his M113 armored track vehicle and tended to the wounded. He identified the most serious casualties and called for help.
At one point, Smith ran to a Humvee manned by a team of scouts, grabbed a grenade and threw it over a wall, where the Iraqi soldiers were staging the attack. Then he returned to help the wounded. Smith then climbed back into the M113, which was damaged by RPG fire but still operable.
He ordered the driver, a private, to move the vehicle and put it in position to cover both the guard tower and the gate. Smith began slinging lead from the mounted .50-caliber gun, reloading and spraying hundreds of rounds.
The incessant fire coming from Smith’s machine gun gave Campbell time to figure out how to take out the guard tower, Corkery reported. ;Campbell grabbed Pfc. Kevin Garad, 18, and another soldier and advanced on the tower.
When they reached the tower, the three soldiers emptied their weapons. “There was blood everywhere,” Campbell recalled.
The shooting from the tower stopped. The Iraqi soldiers stopped running through the gate. Campbell figures that the soldiers in the tower were commanders controlling the battle. Once they were killed, the fighting stopped.
Shortly before hitting the tower, Campbell noticed that the sound of Smith’s .50-caliber had also stopped. Campbell figured Smith must be reloading again. Instead, he found Smith lying inside the vehicle. The 33-year-old father of two had been shot once in the head. The medics worked for 30 minutes but could not revive him.
His fellow soldiers credit Smith with thwarting the advance of well-trained, well-equipped soldiers from the Republican Guard, which was headed straight for the 2-7 Task Force’s Tactical Operations Center, less than 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,” Campbell told Corkery. Capt. Michael Bliss, 29, said Smith killed between 30 and 50 enemy soldiers, though it was difficult to determine because the Iraqis were removing the dead and injured as soon as Smith hit them.
The posthumous Medal of Honor ceremony for Smith will be held about the same time as the battle’s second anniversary.
The B Company platoon sergeant and veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War will be the first Medal of Honor recipient since Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart received the nation’s highest award for valor, also posthumously, for their actions the battle of Mogadishu, Somalia, on Oct. 3, 1993.
Gordon and Shughart were two special operations snipers who were killed while trying to save a downed helicopter’s crew. Both volunteered to be inserted to protect the four critically wounded crew members, knowing that hundreds of the enemy were closing in on the site. Their actions saved the pilot’s life.
Army officials continue to keep secret the announcement of Smith’s Medal of Honor at the request of the White House. But Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody told soldiers of the coming Medal of Honor presentation March 9 at the Army’s World Wide Public Affairs conference.
While the ceremony date is still being kept close-hold, President Bush will present the prestigious award to Smith’s family in early April, said a Pentagon source, who did not want to be named.
Soldiers of 2-7 are also trying to honor Smith in their own way while serving in Iraq. Lt. Col. Todd Wood, 2-7’s current commander, has requested an official name change for Forward Operating Base Omaha — FOB Paul Ray Smith.
The compound is on the outskirts of Tikrit and houses more than 600 soldiers of the 2-7, including some of those who helped him fight that day almost two years ago.
“He honored this tab right here,” said combat engineer Staff Sgt. Tacorrie Johnson, 26, of Raeford, N.C., pointing to the Sapper tab above his 3rd ID patch on his left arm.
Smith, he said, never got to wear the new Sapper tab because he died before it was approved for use by engineers.
“He went above and beyond just being an engineer,” Johnson said.
Staff writer Gina Cavallaro reported from Iraq.