Paul Smith: Soldier’s Stand Against the Enemy With a .50-Caliber

Continuing with our Medal of Honor series, which honors our Medal of Honor recipients, our next biography is about Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith.

Smith was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on April 4, 2005 for his courageous actions in Iraq on April 4, 2003. He was the first recipient for the award for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith

Smith was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on April 4, 2005 for his courageous actions in Iraq on April 4, 2003.

Early Life

Smith was born Sept. 24, 1969 in El Paso, Texas to Ivan Smith and Janice Pvirre. He and his family moved to South Tampa, Fla. Smith liked sports, cats, skateboarding, and playing pranks with his friends. He especially enjoyed playing football.

Paul was a very curious kid growing up. He gained an interest in old cars and enjoyed taking things apart to see how that functioned. One project he and a friend undertook was the restoration of a dune buggy. In high school, Paul gained an interest in carpentry and was employed part-time as a carpenter’s assistant.

When asked what he wanted to do with his life Paul said, “I want to be a soldier, get married and have kids.”

Military Service

Paul enlisted in the Army in October 1989 and completed Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo. His first assignment was with the 82nd Engineer Battalion in Bamberg, Germany. It was in Germany where he met his wife, Birgit. He deployed to the Persian Gulf for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In 1996, he deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina for Operation Joint Endeavor with the 9th Engineer Battalion. Later, he deployed to Kosovo with the 11th Engineer Battalion. In 2002, Paul was promoted to sergeant first class. Finally, Paul deployed to Iraq in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Lisa, Paul’s sister, gave anecdotes about him in a speech that demonstrated his noble character:

“Paul Ray had an incredible love for the troops under his command. One Christmas, the wife of a Soldier in Paul Ray’s platoon had just had surgery and the Soldier and his wife were unable to provide a Christmas for their family. So, Paul Ray collected food from the company Christmas party, and he and Birgit bought presents for the children, and they took them to the Soldier’s home.”

“Another…..very descriptive event that showed Paul Ray’s concern for his men involves another Soldier whose baby daughter was unexpectedly admitted to the hospital with a serious illness. Paul Ray would drive an hour out of town every night to give his support to this Soldier and his wife.”

It was this type of character Paul demonstrated that would lead him to give his life in heroic sacrifice in Iraq. In a letter to his parents before going to Iraq, he wrote:

“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.”

Medal of Honor Action

Sgt. 1st Class Smith's view in the courtyard.

Sgt. 1st Class Smith’s view in the courtyard. Enemy soldiers were positioned in the guard tower.

On April 4, 2003, the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division attacked to seize the Baghdad International Airport. Task Force 2-7 Infantry was asked to establish a blocking position against a brigade-sized counterattack on the main entrance to the airfield. The main entrance was a four-lane highway with a median to separate incoming and outgoing traffic. Large masonry walls with towers about 100 meters apart lined the highway.

Sgt. 1st Class Smith’s platoon — 2nd Platoon, B Company, 11th Engineer Battalion —  was behind the forward most blocking position. They were tasked with the construction of an Enemy Prisoner of War holding area. Smith determined that the best location for the holding area was the other side of the wall that lined the road. After an M9 armored combat earthmover punched a hole in the wall, Smith and a few platoon members checked the courtyard on the other side for enemy soldiers. They found none. On the far side of the courtyard was a gate.

As an engineer squad prepared the courtyard, about 15 enemy combatants were spotted on the other side of the gate moving towards the courtyard. They were the lead element of an company-sized force about to attack. When Sgt. 1st Class Smith arrived to the courtyard, about 50 more enemy soldiers had moved to fighting positions. Smith had to organize a defense.

Smith ordered a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to the courtyard for support. He also organized members of his platoon to form a skirmish line and had three M113A3 armored personnel carriers (APC) direct their .50-caliber machine guns towards the opening in the wall.

The Iraqi troops began their attack with small arms fire, RPGs and mortar rounds. As the attack progressed, Smith called an APC forward to into the courtyard for additional support. Shortly thereafter, the APC took a direct hit from a mortar and the three soldiers inside were injured. At this point the enemy attack was at its peak and Smith’s company was at risk.

After the wounded were evacuated, Smith had the APC move back towards the opening in the wall. The Bradley ran out of ammunition, so it was unable to continue the fight and withdrew. At this moment Sgt. 1st Class Smith could have retreated his platoon, but he chose to remain because the nearby aid station would have been threatened.

Smith climbed aboard the APC and manned the machine gun. He ordered Private Michael Seaman to get inside the APC and feed him ammunition whenever Smith ran out. Smith was face-to-face with the company of Iraqi soldiers on the other side of the court yard with his body from the waist on up exposed. He systematically fired the .50-cal at the enemy, panning from left to right and back again to keep them at bay. Smith expended the machine gun’s ammo three times, and each time the gun was reloaded, Smith was exposed to the enemy’s small arms fire.

The platoon defeated the enemy attack and about three dozen enemy soldiers were killed. But they noticed that Sgt. 1st Class Smith’s body was hunched over the machine gun. When they retrieved his body they found that his armor was cracked by about 15 bullets. It was the direct hit to his neck and ricochet into his brain, however, that was the fatal wound.

Sgt. 1st Class Smith’s heroic action prevented a far superior force from penetrating the highway and the Task Force 2-7 sector. He protected the aid station and allowed for the evacuation of wounded soldiers.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Army