Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.
At the age of 33, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith was already a veteran of 13 years in uniform and two wars with Iraq. "I met Paul in Desert Storm back in 1990," said Gary Coker, a retired command sergeant major. "He was a little snot-nosed pain in the ass then," Coker recalled fondly, and added that when the two men joined forces again in 2002, "he was a bigger pain in the butt. He lived for the long hours and darn near perfection. Eight o'clock at night, I'd be leaving the office and I see his guys out back still working on something. He drove my battalion commander nuts." That battalion commander, Col. Thomas Smith (no relation), recalled Sgt. Smith's hard-driving nature. "When the goal was to give the guys a break and allow everybody to slow down for a few days, he wouldn't allow that," Col. Smith said, "and the guys in his platoon hated that, in an Army kind of way."
Sgt. Smith drove his young soldiers so hard because he knew something that they did not. In 1991, U.S. helicopters had mistaken his troops for Iraqis and opened fire. "He lost three friends right then and there," Coker said. "He knew what death was all about, he knew what war was all about, and he was determined that it wouldn't happen to his guys." Yet the driven sergeant also overflowed with boisterous energy. "He was an avid motorcycle enthusiast. He loved to go fishing," Coker recounted. "He was one of the best dads you could ever expect. And, all of a sudden, money would fall out of his wallet to help out that one private who was ultra-tight that month."
When the 2003 invasion began, Smith brought the same joyful enthusiasm to the work of war. As the top sergeant in a platoon of combat engineers, or sappers, Smith had the job of clearing land mines, laying bridges, and removing obstacles to the Army's advance -- if necessary, under enemy fire. "He was living on a cloud, doing everything a sapper could dream of, blowing up everything in sight," Coker remembered. "He was finding [Iraqi] ammunition caches. He had [prisoners of war] up to his ears."
Smith's engineers were building an ad hoc holding area for Iraqi prisoners on the day he died, April 4, 2003. The Army's 3rd Infantry Division had seized the airport west of Baghdad and had already sent its heavy combat units east to probe the city. Support troops were clustered at the airport, with a battalion mobile headquarters and a field aid station for casualties set up just behind Smith's engineers. But a company of Iraqi Republican Guards had lain low while the American tanks passed. Now 80 to 100 of Saddam's best moved through an underground highway tunnel to counterattack the airport.
The soldiers in Smith's platoon -- just 16 strong -- were caught in the courtyard where they had been planning to place their prisoners, with the Iraqis firing down from the walls and, most dangerously, from an elevated guard tower. A mortar shell and a rocket-propelled grenade hit the engineers' lightly armored M-113 transport, wounding the three men inside. A heavier Bradley fighting vehicle from a nearby scout team moved to their aid, but it swiftly ran out of ammunition and withdrew under RPG fire -- nearly running over the three wounded Americans on its way out.
It was at this moment that Smith grabbed a nearby soldier, Pvt. Michael Seaman, and asked if he could drive an M-113. Seaman could. The two men leaped through enemy fire to the damaged vehicle. Seaman took the driver's seat, inside. Smith manned the M-113's only weapon: a heavy .50-caliber machine gun mounted atop the armor; he had to expose his head and chest to fire it. He told Seaman to drive the vehicle into a better position, then pass up ammunition and keep his head down. He ordered the other engineers to retreat with the wounded.
"They were some of the best kids, and they proved that on the day he needed them most," Coker said. "Everyone could've tried to play John Wayne and probably would've been killed, but they followed orders, and their orders were to evacuate the wounded and get out." Smith pinned the Iraqis down with fire, skillfully keeping his temperamental machine gun just short of overheating, pausing only to reload, and literally shoving Seaman back inside the vehicle when the private tried to help. Meanwhile, the rest of the engineers withdrew from the deathtrap of the courtyard and took their wounded to the undefended aid station across the road. Then, led by 1st Sgt. Timothy Campbell -- who would receive the Silver Star -- the engineers returned to the fight, throwing smoke grenades to blind the Iraqi gunners as they attacked the enemy's most commanding position, the guard tower.
"Every time Sergeant Smith was firing, they could move forward on the tower," said Col. Smith. "Whenever Smith and Seaman had to reload, they got pinned down." At last, Campbell's crew silenced the shooters in the tower. But Smith's machine gun had already gone quiet. As the Iraqis withdrew, word went out that Sgt. Smith was dead. "Literally, the phrase was 'Superman is down,' " Coker recalled. "It really took the wind out of them. But that's when the training really kicked in" -- the training they had griped about from the man they had called "the terrorist Smitty, the hard-core Smitty," Coker said.
Their sergeant was dead, but the instincts he had drilled into them survived. "That's why you do things over and over and over," Coker said. "We've still got a job to do."