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.
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.
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."
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.
There was simply the matter of inspecting it and figuring out what was behind a gate on the far side. When one of the company's personnel carriers crashed through, it found what Smith had feared: a nest of several dozen Republican Guards.
At first, the firefight seemed nothing out of the ordinary. Borkowski listened to reports coming over the radio with no great alarm. After all, the forces at Saddam Airport that day were the vanguard of the American Army, and as the morning progressed, skirmishes were breaking out everywhere.
Gradually, though, the reports turned worse. The personnel carrier that had barged through the gate had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and the three soldiers inside had been wounded. What's more, a Bradley fighting vehicle brought in at the beginning of the firefight was now out of ammunition.
What had begun as a minor flashpoint was becoming the site of a significant Iraqi strike. Not only were the Guards occupying Smith and his men outside the broken gate, but they had also taken a tower that overlooked the courtyard and the road, pinning down the remainder of the troops from the high ground.
"It was a mounted counterattack against what was perceived to be a weak flank," says Colonel Grimsley.
The consequences were dire. If Smith's troops broke, the Iraqi troops would be able to move potentially unimpeded from the courtyard gate all the way to a nearby command center, flanking a mortar unit, and overrunning a station that held both the wounded and several embedded journalists.
Specialist Medrano was among the soldiers trying to get the wounded soldiers out of the damaged personnel carrier and down the road to the aid station. During his three years in the Army, he had spent all but a few months under Smith, subject to his meticulous weapons checks but also a witness to another side of the hardened soldier - a side that sometimes cracked jokes, a side that stayed up nights in Kosovo talking with Medrano about family, a side of a sergeant that embraced a lowly specialist.
"All the training I did, and all the things I learned were from him," he says. "He was always trying to take care of you."
At that moment, as Medrano was lifting one of the wounded to safety, he glanced up at Smith, who was now manning the gun atop the personnel carrier. "We made eye contact, and he just waved me off," says Medrano. "He was telling me to take care of these people."
With the help of several other soldiers, Smith backed the vehicle into the courtyard so that he could cover both the tower and the gate. For perhaps 10 minutes, he fired more than 300 rounds to prevent the Iraqi forces from spilling through the bulldozer-made hole in the wall and on to the command center.
"Not all soldiers would jump on top of a vehicle that has already gotten hit while bloody people are being taken out of it," says Medrano. "He did it because he knew if he didn't, we would get slaughtered."
Led by another sergeant, Medrano and two other soldiers used Smith's covering fire to move cautiously to the base of the tower, where they took out the Iraqi soldiers. But by that time, Smith's gun, too, had fallen silent. He had been shot in the head, the only US fatality in the firefight.
President Bush presented the Medal of Honor to Smith's son, David. To Colonel Grimsley, it is a medal that speaks not only of the heroics of one man, but of a whole army: "I would tell you that there are thousands of Sergeant Smiths out there."
Even so, he acknowledges, Smith - and his act of valor - were indeed uncommon. "You see 100 people, and certain people stand out," says Grimsley. "Certainly, he was a guy deeply devoted to his soldiers and his profession.... It was an incredibly selfless act of service."
More than 3,400 Medals of Honor have been awarded since the decoration was created in 1861, of which more than 600 have been given posthumously.
Military officials rigorously review any nomination for the medal in a process that can last 18 months or more. Only about 840 have been given since World War II, when the requirements were made more stringent.
The other two post-Vietnam Medals of Honor went to Army Master Sgt. Gary I. Gordon and Army Sgt. 1st Class Randall D. Shughart, two Delta Force troopers who died defending the crew of a helicopter that was shot down in Mogadishu, Somalia, in events depicted in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."
- Associated Press