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Paul Ray Smith

U.S. Army / Medal of Honor

Leading by example, he entered the line of fire and held off a strong assault by Iraqi soldiers

Before leaving for the Middle East in early 2003, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith penned a letter to his family.

“There are two ways to come home: stepping off the plane, and being carried off the plane,” he wrote. “It doesn’t matter how I come home, because I am prepared to give all that I am, to insure that all my boys make it home.”

Three months later, just after dawn on April 4, 2003, Smith and the men of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 11th Engineer Battalion, were guarding the main road into Baghdad International Airport. Iraqi soldiers, who had awakened to find U.S. forces in their midst, fired at them sporadically and soon organized a large assault.

The engineers had been constructing a holding area for several prisoners captured in an earlier firefight when they saw dozens more Iraqi soldiers maneuvering toward their position. When they attacked, Smith lobbed hand grenades and launched a shoulder-fired rocket at the advancing soldiers.

A mortar round and rocket-propelled grenade slammed into an armored personnel carrier, wounding three American soldiers. Smith helped pull out the three casualties, who were taken to a nearby aid station, already crowded with battle injuries.

He then climbed atop the damaged vehicle and raked the Iraqi soldiers with fire from the .50-caliber machine gun, the top half of his body exposed in the turret.

“If he hadn’t pushed the fight right then, that aid station would have taken a walloping,” says Capt. Brian Borkowski, Smith’s platoon leader at the time. “It would have been ugly.”

Smith told Pvt. Michael Seaman to feed him ammunition from the shelter of the personnel carrier, firing 400 rounds and beating back the attack before he was killed by a shot to the head.

“He didn’t send other people to do it. He took it upon himself,” Borkowski says. “That’s the valorous part.”

He had seen such action before from Smith.

A few days earlier, one of the platoon’s personnel carriers drove into a minefield. Smith, on hands and knees in the sand, cleared the mines, then guided the vehicle to safety.

“He was always leading from the front,” Borkowski says. “He wasn’t pushing anybody else out into the danger. And if they were there, he was willing to go out and get them back.”

Read about the other Medal of Honor recipients

Brian Mockenhaupt is a Detroit-based writer who is an Alicia Patterson fellow reporting on the physical and psychological effects of war. He served as a noncommissioned officer with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division from 2002 to 2005, spending 18 months in Iraq.

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The heroic action that eventually resulted in Paul Ray Smith's death was not the first time he had put his life in jeopardy in Iraq. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army)

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Paul Ray Smith

U.S. Army / Medal of Honor

Died April 4, 2003

Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, 33, was born Sept. 24, 1969, in El Paso, Texas. He grew up in Tampa, Fla., and enlisted in the Army in October 1989. He deployed to Kuwait in early 2003 and entered Iraq in March 2003, with 2nd Platoon, B Company, 11th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division. Married with two children, he was killed April 4, 2003, near Baghdad International Airport. He previously had deployed to the first Persian Gulf War, to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

Helped rescue three injured U.S. soldiers, then exposed himself to Iraqi artillery when he entered the turret of a damaged personnel carrier and peppered the enemy with machine-gun fire, keeping other U.S. troops safe.

Iraq / Baghdad

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