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The story of Sgt. Smith's last hours

President Bush has awarded the first Medal of Honor to a soldier in the Iraq war.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 5, 2005


The last time Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith had slept for any length of time was two days before, and for the men of his platoon, the hours in between had passed only with teeth-grinding tension.

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Just the previous night, there had been the long, slow haul to Baghdad through hours so dark that even night-vision goggles were useless. Nose-to-tail, their convoy had crept across the Iraqi marshes amid fizzing bullets and the pop of indiscriminate gunfire, hemmed in their one-lane road by the landscape, the enemy, and the unyielding blackness.

Yet when morning broke and B Company of the 11th Engineers arrived unscathed at Saddam Airport - some even snapping photos along the way - Sergeant Smith was still uneasy. Things were too quiet, and the airport's high walls obscured the battlefield around him.

Like almost every choice he made, Smith's next decision was straight from the military textbook - punching through a wall with a bulldozer to look around. Yet it set in motion events that would eventually claim his life as he stood in the turret of a crippled vehicle, holding at bay almost single-handedly an advancing force of as many as 100 Iraqis.

When President Bush presented Smith's family with the Medal of Honor at the White House Monday, exactly two years after Smith's death, he honored the 33-year-old sergeant for what he and others in the military have deemed one of the most valorous acts ever performed by an American soldier.

Less than 3,500 of the 42 million soldiers who have served the United States have won the Medal of Honor - the highest medal the military bestows for bravery and sacrifice. Before now, none have received it for action in Afghanistan or Iraq, and only two have received it for action since Vietnam.

A sergeant and his men

For those who knew Smith, it is the perfect testament to a man who devoted his life to his colleagues and country. And in a time when the military is increasingly reliant on smart bombs and satellites, it is a reminder that the substance of America's military might - sacrifice - has remained essentially unchanged since the days of boots and bayonets on the beaches of Normandy.

"That's just Sergeant Smith," says Col. Will Grimsley, who knew Smith and reviewed witness accounts of the battle for the medal nomination. "Clearly, he was one of those guys who led by example."

In truth, he was one of those guys who generally drove his troops to their wit's end. During rifle inspections - of which there were many - Smith took to inspecting the cleanliness of his soldiers' weapons with a Q-tip. If one soldier failed, everyone in the platoon paid the penalty.

"If one guy in the platoon wasn't up to standards, we'd be out in formation at 9 p.m.," says Sgt. Daniel Medrano, who was a specialist in 2003.

The lesson of teamwork and attention to detail, though, was obvious - and learned from experience. Smith hadn't always been the overbearing sergeant. As a child, he had a great love of blowing things up with cherry bombs and was prone to taking things apart just so he could put them back together again. Even during his first years in the Army, his love of motorcycles and fast living seemed to trump any inclinations toward more sedate soldering.

Then came the first Gulf War, which left Smith a changed man. Twelve years later, as he sat in his tent on cool Kuwait nights with Lt. Brian Borkowski, waiting to reprise the same invasion with a new Army, he spoke of the friends he lost in the first war - and how no training could prepare the lieutenant for what would come next.

"A lot of people do things just for face," says Lieutenant Borkowski. "He was more genuinely motivated. He was in the first war, and what motivated him was to make sure things were done right."

April 4, 2003: Saddam Airport

When Smith and his troops arrived at Saddam Airport on April 4, 2003 - their final objective - he turned to Borkowski with his concern. Their patch of the airport was a four-lane highway divided by a median and bordered on both sides by high walls. With the walls, they were blind, and the ease with which the company had arrived at its destination was almost unsettling.

"It was very, very quiet. Every two minutes or so, there was gunfire, but it was so sporadic that it made it kind of eerie," says Borkowski. "We started to realize that we had surprised the heck out of [the Iraqis], and they were just waking up to find Americans all around them."

As Borkowski hurried off to a nearby reconnaissance mission, Smith called for a bulldozer to plow through one wall. On the other side, he found a courtyard, and, not long after, he received a call: build a makeshift prisoner-of-war camp for a group of newly captured Iraqis. The courtyard would do nicely.