Uncommon Valor: The Medal of Honor and the Warriors Who Earned It in Afghanistan and Iraqby Dwight Jon Zimmerman, John D. Gresham, Ola Mize
A fascinating look at six of our bravest soldiers and the highest military decoration awarded in this country
Since the Vietnam War ended in 1973, the Medal of Honor, our nation's highest award for valor, has been presented to only eight men for their actions "above and beyond the call of duty." Six of the eight/i>/b>/b>/i>/b>/i>
A fascinating look at six of our bravest soldiers and the highest military decoration awarded in this country
Since the Vietnam War ended in 1973, the Medal of Honor, our nation's highest award for valor, has been presented to only eight men for their actions "above and beyond the call of duty." Six of the eight were young men who had fought in the current war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or both. All of these medals were awarded posthumously, as all had made the choice to give their lives so that their comrades might live.
Uncommon Valor answers the searing question of who these six young soldiers were, and dramatically details how they found themselves in life-or-death situations, and why they responded as they did. For the first time, this book also provides a comprehensive history of the Medal of Honor itself—one marred by controversies, scandals, and theft.
Using an extraordinary range of sources, including interviews with family members and friends, teammates and superiors in the military, personal letters, blogs posted within hours of events, personal and official videos and newly declassified documents, Uncommon Valor is a compelling and important work that recounts incredible acts of heroism and lays bare the ultimate sacrifice of our bravest soldiers.
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Uncommon Valor 1
Paul Ray Smith
Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy near Baghdad International Airport, Baghdad, Iraq, on 4 April 2003. On that day, Sergeant First Class Smith was engaged in the construction of a prisoner of war holding area when his Task Force was violently attacked by a company-sized enemy force. Realizing the vulnerability of over 100 soldiers, Sergeant First Class Smith quickly organized a hasty defense consisting of two platoons of soldiers, one Bradley Fighting Vehicle and three armored personnel carriers. As the fight developed, Sergeant First Class Smith braved hostile enemy fire to personally engage the enemy with hand grenades and anti-tank weapons, and organized the evacuation of three wounded soldiers from an armored personnel carrier struck by a rocket propelled grenade and a 60 mm mortar round. Fearing the enemy would overrun their defenses, Sergeant First Class Smith moved under withering enemy fire to man a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a damaged armored personnel carrier. In total disregard for his own life, he maintained his exposed position in order to engage the attacking enemy force. During this action, he was mortally wounded. His courageous actions helped defeat the enemy attack, and resulted in as many as 50 enemy soldiers killed, while allowing the safe withdrawal of numerous wounded soldiers. Sergeant First Class Smith’s extraordinary heroism and uncommon valor are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the Third Infantry Division “Rock of the Marne,” and the United States Army.
—Medal of Honor Citation, April 5, 2005
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.
—Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith (in a letter to his parents)1
A Career Soldier
Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith was a lanky, six-foot-tall veteran of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm with piercing green eyes, a well-trimmed mustache, and a tough, no-nonsense attitude toward training and preparedness that had made him the bane of his platoon. Whether or not he’d ever heard of General George S. Patton’s dictum that “a pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood,” Sergeant Smith drove his men like he believed it. That hadn’t always been the case. Smith had become a tough-as-nails sergeant because of his experiences in the first Gulf War.
Paul Ray Smith was born on September 24, 1969, in El Paso, Texas, the third of four siblings. When he was nine years old, his family moved to South Tampa, Florida, where he grew up. His mother, Janice Pvirre, later recalled, “Paul was a very ordinary boy.” He was a quiet kid who enjoyed football, bike riding, skateboarding, and collecting rocks. Another big hobby of his was fishing, though his sister Lisa DeVane later observed, “We’d have starved to death if we’d had to depend on his fishing skills.”2 In high school Paul displayed an interest in carpentry and got himself a part-time job as a carpenter’s assistant. He also enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together—anything from a radio to an old car was fair game to Paul. One year he restored a dune buggy with the help of a friend.
His mother remembered that, as a teenager, he became “very methodical. He seemed to be plotting…what he was going to do, and how he was going to do it.” It was around this time, she remembered, that he told her, “I’m going to be a soldier. I’m going to join the military, be a soldier, get married, and have children.”3
Smith graduated from Tampa Bay Vocational Technical High School in 1988. In October 1989, he fulfilled the first part of his dream by enlisting in the U.S. Army. He completed basic and combat engineering training in early 1990 at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He was then assigned to the Eighty-second Engineer Battalion and sent to the army’s primary maintenance center in Europe: the U.S. Army Garrison Bamberg, near the German city of Bamberg in the southern province of Bavaria. Once there, the twenty-one-year-old Smith soon discovered the off-post pleasures of German beer, cars, and women. Specialist Smith established a reputation for hard partying, occasionally getting so drunk that he had to be disciplined. This was a far cry from the quiet young man he had been…or the grim war veteran he was to become.
In June 1990, while at the Green Goose, a popular local bar for the soldiers, Smith met Birgit Bacher, a twenty-three-year-old German woman from the nearby city of Bayreuth (the birthplace of Richard Wagner and the home of the annual Wagner Opera Festival). It was something of a surprise for Birgit to be in the bar. In a story all too familiar to German girls, three years earlier an American soldier had gotten her pregnant with her daughter, Jessica, and then deserted them. The experience had naturally soured Birgit on Americans. But, upon the insistence of a girlfriend, there she was at the Green Goose, being entertained by Smith and two of his buddies.
The impromptu date continued with a nighttime walk to a nearby park after the bar closed. The evening was capped when, in the courtyard outside her hotel room, Smith (channeling his inner Tom Cruise) serenaded Birgit with a rendition of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” Birgit responded by showering him with petals from the flower box on her window.
Birgit later said, “In the beginning he was not my type at all; he was not what I was looking for.”4 Yet she found something in him that attracted her. They dated regularly until November 1990. That’s when Smith and his unit were deployed to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield, and they were there on January 17, 1991, as part of Operation Desert Storm.
From November 1990 until April 1991, when his unit returned to Bamberg, Birgit received no communication from Paul. Shortly after hearing that his unit had returned from Iraq, she went to the Green Goose hoping to meet him. She was sitting at the bar drinking a soda when Smith walked in, saw her…and walked right by without saying a word.
Stung, and baffled, she strode up to him and demanded to know why he was ignoring her. He replied gruffly, “I just don’t want to talk.”
Birgit realized that the Paul Ray Smith standing before her was far different from the one she had known six months earlier. Over the next several weeks, she discovered just how profoundly the experience of combat had changed him.
Because it dramatically ended in just one hundred hours and was a lopsided victory dominated by the use of air-power and armor, Operation Desert Storm has sometimes been incorrectly characterized as the “100-hour non-war.”5 Regardless of the campaign’s brief duration, it retained all of war’s terrible life-and-death intensity. Smith had “seen the elephant”—he had experienced combat. Afterward, in a rare moment of revelation to his relatives, he mentioned that a comrade had died in his arms. There was far more to the story than that. Command Sergeant Major Gary Coker, who fought with Smith in Operation Desert Storm and in Operation Iraqi Freedom, later said that at one point during the assault U.S. helicopter gunships had mistaken Smith’s unit for an Iraqi force and had opened fire on the Americans. According to Coker, “He lost three friends right then and there.” When the campaign ended, Coker said that Smith “knew what death was all about…what war was all about, and he was determined that it wouldn’t happen to his guys.”6
Gone was the “military goofball”7 Birgit Bacher had known, replaced by someone with a new and sharply focused purpose in life. Having decided to make the army his career, Smith also made the decision that he was going to change his life—and spare nothing in preparing troops under his command for combat.
About nine months after his return to Germany, on January 24, 1992, Paul Ray Smith accomplished the next two goals in his life. He married Birgit in Denmark and became the adoptive father of Jessica. Two years later, they had a son, David. Smith was a devoted husband and father. In fact, he became such a homebody that occasionally Birgit grew concerned—and occasionally had to order him to go out and have a good time with his friends.
Smith applied an equally fierce dedication to his army career. He began hitting the books and taking courses to hone his skills and advance in rank. He took advantage of opportunities available to him while stationed in Europe. Already an expert marksman, Smith added to his shooting skills by earning the German Armed Forces Badge for Weapons Proficiency in Gold, which meant he was an expert with pistols, rifles, and machine guns. He also took the French commando course, earning the French Armed Forces Commando Badge.
Not long after his wedding, Paul Ray Smith was promoted to sergeant. For the next seven years, the Smiths led a typical nomadic army existence, traveling from one post to another and halfway around the world and back. In 1999, he was assigned to the Eleventh Engineer Battalion, part of the Third Infantry Division based at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
As he rose through the noncommissioned officer ranks, he strove to make himself what The Army Noncommissioned Officer Guide calls “the Backbone of the Army.” He took to heart the admonition of retired Army Command Sergeant Major Gary L. Littrell, a Medal of Honor recipient, who wrote in the guide that the primary duty of a sergeant is “to train and take care of [a] soldier’s every need.” To accomplish that goal, Littrell said the sergeant has to identify the difference between being liked and being respected: “It is human nature to want to be liked, but we can never sacrifice respect for that. The respect you gain through properly training your soldiers to succeed and in ensuring they and their families are taken care of may not always make you popular, but it will earn their respect.”8
A Hard-Nosed Leader
Combat engineering is one of the most challenging of military professions. Combat engineers accompany frontline units and assist in such tasks as bridge building, mine laying and mine clearing, demolitions, the construction and repair of facilities, and logistics support. Many of these tasks are required to be conducted while under fire. The elite of the combat engineers are called “sappers” and are distinguished by a sapper tab worn on their left shoulder. The term sapper comes from the French word sapeur. The seventeenth-century French military was the first to use troops trained in engineering skills designed to “sap” the defensive strength of an enemy.
Smith was extraordinarily proud of being a sapper. In addition to the red and white sapper tab sewn on his dress uniform, he wore a subdued-colored sapper tab under his battle-dress-uniform pocket flap, and later in combat he wore a sapper tab just above his chest nameplate on his body armor. On the platoon wall behind his desk he hung a large painting of a sapper tab. And he chose for his call sign “Sapper 7”—the “7” signifying his role as the senior non-commissioned officer in the company. Sergeant Daniel Medrano, then a corporal in Smith’s platoon, later said that Smith “was always trying to push you to go to sapper school. He knew what he was talking about, and he was always willing to share that knowledge.”9
During the 1990s, Smith would go on to serve tours of duty with the First Engineer Battalion, based in Fort Riley, Kansas; the 317th Engineer Battalion in Fort Benning, Georgia; the Ninth Engineer Battalion in Schweinfurt, Germany; and, in 1999, the Eleventh Engineer Battalion, the “Jungle Cats” (a nickname acquired during a 1920s tour of duty in Panama), in Fort Stewart, Georgia. With each assignment, his men abruptly learned that their new noncom was holding them to a higher standard.
In 1995, he was part of the stabilization force following the NATO air campaign in Bosnia that lifted the siege of Sarajevo. And, in 1999, he returned to the Balkans as part of the operation that forced the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo.
But Smith’s dedication and army-to-the-core attitude was not appreciated by everyone. Long before Paul Ray Smith reached the rank of first sergeant in 2002, he had, in truth, come to be hated by the men in his platoon because of how hard he worked them. Behind his back, they called him a number of names. One of the few printable ones was Superman. It was not then meant as a compliment.
Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith at a base camp in an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia.
Photo: Department of the Army
Sergeant Medrano recalled that “teamwork was everything” to Smith, whose attitude was that if one member of the unit screwed up, the entire unit had screwed up. During inspection, the smallest infraction by a single soldier resulted in the entire platoon undergoing a meticulous reinspection. Smith became famous—or infamous—for pulling a cotton swab out of his breast pocket without warning and conducting a snap weapons inspection by swabbing the interior of a soldier’s rifle or machine-gun barrel. If the swab had even a speck of dirt on it, everyone in the platoon had to stop what they were doing and clean their weapons.
Though he was tough and drove his men hard, Smith was not insensitive. In November 2001, shortly before Thanksgiving, the eighteen-month-old daughter of one of his men, Sergeant Harry DeLauter, had to be taken to a hospital in Savannah, Georgia, forty miles east of Fort Stewart. DeLauter was with his daughter when he heard a knock on the hospital room door. When he opened it, there was Sergeant Smith, holding a stuffed teddy bear for Sergeant DeLauter’s daughter that was bigger than the little girl. Until Sergeant DeLauter’s daughter was released, Smith made the one-hour drive every night from Fort Stewart to Savannah to support the family.
On another occasion, shortly before the Christmas holiday, the wife of another soldier in Smith’s unit had to have surgery. As a result, the soldier was not able to provide a Christmas celebration for his family. Smith gathered food from the company Christmas party, Birgit purchased gifts for the kids, and then they drove to the soldier’s home and presented the food and presents to the family.
It was also known among his men that if a private needed some money to tide him over until the next payday, Smith’s wallet was always out. But this soft side of his character never got in the way of the serious business of soldiering.
When the Third Infantry Division (3-ID) arrived in Kuwait in early 2003 as part of what would become Operation Iraqi Freedom, First Sergeant Smith of Bravo Company took his dedication to training his men for combat to a new level. At the end of the day, while the soldiers in other units were allowed to rest, Smith could be found leading his men in running drills or cleaning weapons and vehicles. Occasionally sergeants from other units would approach Smith and recommend that he lighten up on his men a bit, but Smith refused.
Sergeant Smith was past wanting to be liked, and at this point he wasn’t even looking for respect. He wanted his soldiers to have the skills and training necessary to successfully engage in—and survive—combat. In letters home he revealed that he knew his men’s negative feelings about him; he accepted that as a price he had to pay because he repeatedly made clear that he was determined to bring them all home alive.
On the morning of April 4, 2003, Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith’s men would discover the ground truth about weapons in combat: dirty weapons jam; clean weapons don’t. Two weeks earlier in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, Private Jessica Lynch and the soldiers of the 507th Maintenance Company had learned this lesson the hard way. The 507th leaders and soldiers failed in their land navigation, took the wrong bridge, and ran into an ambush, and most of them died or were captured. An official investigation was formed to determine the cause. The investigation concluded that a contributing factor to the unit’s defeat was that the unit was unable to defend itself because its M16s had jammed. More important, the commanders of the unit had failed to uphold even the most basic U.S. Army standards for combat readiness.
Sergeant Smith’s men would be ready for combat, and their weapons would be clean.
Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced on March 20, 2003. On April 1, the Third Infantry Division, nicknamed the Rock of the Marne for its heroic stand against the German army in World War I, roared through the Karbala Gap, the historic southern gateway to Baghdad. It was there, in a two-mile-wide corridor flanked by the Euphrates River on the east and the Bahr al Milh lake on the west, that General Tommy Franks, commander of the Coalition forces, and his staff expected Saddam Hussein to make a stand. But the only resistance they encountered was passive—untended minefields. What Coalition commanders and troops didn’t know was that when it came to threat priorities, Saddam Hussein’s concerns were elsewhere: preventing a palace coup and an attack by Iran. An offensive by the American-led Coalition came third—and a distant third at that—because even at this late date Saddam believed the Coalition units would stop before they reached Baghdad, just as they had a decade earlier in Operation Desert Storm.
Coalition command also didn’t know that Iraq’s military chain of command had devolved since 1991 into a balkanized agglomeration of fiefdoms dominated by members of Saddam Hussein’s family or tribe. At the top of the heap were the Special Republican Guards, followed by the Republican Guards and the paramilitary Fedayeen Saddam. These formations had been supplied with vast amounts of light weapons, ammunition, and explosives, in the belief that a long-term insurgency would eventually defeat any occupation by foreign forces. At the bottom of the logistics chain was the regular Iraqi army.
A surreal sideshow to the unfolding military drama was provided by a character who seemed to have emerged from something written by Lewis Carroll or George Orwell: the Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, more popularly known as Baghdad Bob. In his press briefings before groups of international journalists he bombastically and repeatedly proclaimed the doom, death, destruction, or outright nonexistence of approaching Coalition units. The contrast between his pronouncements and the reality on the ground baffled and bemused journalists and government leaders. But Baghdad Bob was only saying what Saddam Hussein wanted to hear. Understandable, since Saddam had a reputation for killing messengers who brought him or publicly acknowledged bad news. Thus it was that on April 4, 2003, he would proclaim in no uncertain terms, “We have retaken the airport! There are no Americans there! I will take you there and show you! In one hour!”10
The truth was somewhat more complex.
Located about eleven miles west of the city, Saddam International Airport (now Baghdad International Airport) was a dual-use civil-military facility possessing a 13,000-foot runway for civilian traffic and, west of it, an 8,800-foot military runway. The airport was surrounded by a concrete-block wall approximately ten feet high. Concrete observation towers, each about twenty feet high, were posted about every three hundred feet and were connected to Baghdad by Matar Saddam al-Duwali Road, a four-lane divided highway.
Like all major airports, Saddam International had an elaborate underground tunnel system for maintenance and servicing. What the Coalition senior command and the troops did not know was that the airport’s tunnel system extended well beyond the airport grounds and was connected to a group of Saddam Hussein’s nearby presidential palace complexes.
Three presidential palace complexes bordered the airport. The Radwaniyah Presidential Palace, which contained a large military command and control headquarters, was off the southwest corner, near the military airfield. The other two were on the east side, flanking Matar Saddam al-Duwali Road and part of the immense Abu Ghraib presidential-grounds complex. Stationed in those complexes was the Eighth Battalion (security), First Brigade, of the Special Republican Guard.
Distinguished by their red berets and red delta-shaped shoulder patches bordered in black, the Special Republican Guards (SRG) were Saddam Hussein’s praetorian guard. In addition to providing for Saddam’s personal security, the SRG were tasked with the security of all presidential palaces and the defense of Baghdad. In fact, the only military force allowed to operate in Baghdad and at the airport was the Special Republican Guard. Officers and ranks of the SRG were composed almost exclusively of men who were members of Saddam Hussein’s al-Bu Nasir tribe. In addition to being the first in line for weapons, vehicles, and supplies, members of the SRG and their families were accorded special privileges that placed them first in line for goods, services, homes, and land. They were the pampered elite of the elite.
With its headquarters in the Abu Ghraib Presidential Palace, the First Brigade SRG, contained about 180 officers and almost seven thousand troops organized into five battalions, each containing 1,300 to 1,500 men. The First Brigade was composed of security battalions only, meaning it had fewer heavy tank and artillery units than the other brigades. But it was equipped and trained to be a highly mobile, quick-response unit. Morale was high and the men were well trained and intimately familiar with the local terrain and infrastructure, above and below ground.
The assault on Saddam International Airport was assigned to the Third Infantry Divison’s First Brigade combat team, under the command of Colonel William Grimsley. Earlier in the morning of April 3, his unit had captured Objective Peach, a strategic bridge crossing the Euphrates River about twenty-five miles southwest of Baghdad. With his men tired, his units scattered, and their vehicles in need of maintenance, he thought he would have a couple of days to rest and regroup. But Major General Buford “Bluff” Blount III, the commanding officer of 3-ID, had other ideas. Blount had observed the operation that captured Objective Peach, and he wanted to exploit the initiative, continue the advance, and seize the airport before the Iraqis could organize resistance. But doing so aggravated some existing problems of his own. The Iraqis had succeeded in blowing up enough bridges to cause significant traffic congestion, and by accelerating the campaign’s timetable, Blount risked making the congestion worse. But he felt the benefits outweighed the risk. Grimsley would just have to regroup on the fly as best he could. Shortly after 3 P.M., the first of Grimsley’s units commenced the drive to Saddam International Airport.
Designed to conduct ad hoc operations independently during the course of a campaign, the First Brigade combat team was built around what is called an organic unit, so-named because all its subformations—combat, communications, medical, logistics, and so on—are integrally part of its table of organization. Administratively, the Brigade combat team is designed for maximum flexibility in order to appropriately respond to rapidly changing combat situations. Additional units, usually engineering, are assigned on a temporary basis by division headquarters. Once the particular mission is complete, the attached units are returned to the division.
To take the airport, Grimsley planned a three-prong combined armor and mechanized-infantry attack from the south, composed of the Third Battalion, Seventh Cavalry Regiment (3-7 CAV); Third Battalion, Sixty-ninth Armor Regiment (3-69 AR); and Second Battalion, Seventh Infantry Regiment (2-7 IN) and their attached units. His Brigade combat team was a unit heavy on armor, containing almost a hundred M1 Abrams main battle tanks, roughly an equal number of M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, assorted other tracked vehicles including Paladin 155mm self-propelled howitzers, bridging equipment, and approximately five thousand troops.
The troops were warned to expect everything from attacks with chemical weapons and pitched battles with Republican Guard units to ambushes by suicide squads and individual suicide bombers. Lieutenant Colonel Scott Rudder commanded the 2-7 IN, which included the attached Eleventh Engineer Battalion and Sergeant Smith’s Bravo Company.
The operation to occupy the airport called for engineers to breach the security wall around the airport. Then the assault force would rush through the openings and fan out to seize the facility and its eastern approaches. If there was little or no resistance, the bulk of the armor would then continue east along Matar Saddam al-Duwali Road and conduct probing attacks in the outskirts of Baghdad in order to set the stage for the western assault on the Iraqi capital. Lieutenant Colonel Rudder’s task force was charged with establishing a blocking position about a mile east of the airport, at the junction where its periphery highway intersects with Matar Saddam al-Duwali Road.
Like everyone else in the brigade combat team, Rudder’s men were hungry, tired, and grimy. They had literally been on the run with little sleep and less maintenance for their vehicles for three days. When they received their new orders, they were about thirty-one miles south of their jump-off point. To get there in time, in addition to battling military traffic, they had to travel over difficult urban and farmland terrain composed of interlocking irrigation canals and paved and unpaved roads and bridges that were not designed to support heavy vehicular traffic. The 2-7 IN, containing roughly fifteen hundred troops and approximately one hundred vehicles (including high-mobility multi-wheel-vehicles, often referred to as Humvees), more than fifty M2 Bradleys, and about a dozen M9 armored combat earthmovers, was still en route when the assault kicked off at about 6:00 P.M. on April 3.
Engineers supporting the other units smashed or blew large holes in sections of the airport’s south security wall and, as planned, elements of the First Brigade combat team promptly roared through the breaches and fanned out to clear their assigned areas. The combined mechanized-infantry and armor units encountered only sporadic artillery fire and almost no Iraqi infantry. Only a few wrecked or disassembled commercial aircraft were discovered in hangars; their engines and other parts hidden elsewhere. Defensive positions on the runways and near buildings and hangars were unmanned or abandoned, a fact that almost immediately raised concerns that the Iraqis planned a chemical-weapons counterattack.
Rudder’s task force finally reached its assigned location at the junction of Matar Saddam al-Duwali Road and the airport’s periphery highway about two hours before dawn. At the base of the junction, Matar Saddam Al-Duwali Road’s two lanes split into four, one upper and three ground level, and formed graceful curves that connected to the airport’s access highway, which paralleled the runway. An exceptional feature of the site was a ten-foot-high concrete-block wall and series of guard towers that extended east along both sides of the road, similar to what existed around the airport. The task force’s tactical operations command, a mobile headquarters, was established at the junction’s base, beneath an overpass. The rest of the unit continued east. After traveling about a half mile, they encountered a paved break in the meridian. In addition to allowing traffic to reverse directions, this intersection also connected on the south side to a service road that continued south. The location was promptly dubbed Four Corners. Here an advance base was established that included the unit’s forward aid station and a parking lot for its vehicles, including Humvees, M113 armored personnel carriers, and M9 armored combat earthmovers—bulldozers designed for use in combat. As the site was being prepared, Sergeant Smith, in his personal command Humvee, led a motorized-heavy-construction team that continued east down the highway for another quarter mile, where it dragged and pushed concrete berms across the lanes as roadblocks.
An M9 armored combat earthmover smashes down a cinder-block perimeter wall surrounding a suspected special weapons facility building in Rahsidiya, Iraq.
Photo: Sergeant Rachel M. Ahner, U.S. Army
Meanwhile, embedded journalists with the First Brigade combat team used their satellite feeds to beam around the world euphoric reports that American troops had captured Saddam International Airport. Strictly speaking that was an exaggeration; the airport had not been secured. Mopping-up operations to clear buildings of enemy troops were ongoing. Detection teams were conducting inspections for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. But, because the attack had gone so smoothly, most of the unit’s armor was sent east to prepare for the next stage, the attack on Baghdad itself.
All deep-penetration assaults into enemy territory contain, for the offensive force, a combination of good and bad news. The American advance into Saddam International Airport succeeded in large part because it was done swiftly. That was the good news. But the bad news was that it was also done in haste. The organizational problems Colonel Grimsley experienced at Objective Peach were nothing compared with the situation he now had on his hands. In those early morning hours of April 4, reconnaissance satellite photos and images taken by a Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle flying sixty thousand feet above the area would show that the First Brigade combat team was anything but organized. Units stretched for miles, and the team’s disposition somewhat resembled an elongated balloon squeezed in the middle, with the bulk of the American forces divided between the western “bulge” that was the airport and the eastern “bulge” in the outskirts of Baghdad. The narrow neck—Four Corners—contained the fewest troops. Bravo Company’s heaviest weapons were the .50 caliber M2 machine guns mounted on the unit’s M113 armored personnel carriers.
The troops of the First Brigade combat team had been told to expect an attack from the east—from Baghdad. But the truth was that there was no “front.” What the Americans at Four Corners didn’t know was that their position in particular was right in the middle of the Eighth Battalion Special Republican Guard’s Abu Ghraib presidential grounds complex. They were surrounded by a well-organized, well-equipped, highly motivated, highly trained, hidden, and rested enemy.
The speed of the American attack had taken the commanders of the First Brigade Special Republican Guard by surprise. But they had quickly recovered. A response was organized. Orders were issued and troops deployed. A two-prong attack would begin in the south. After American attention was focused there, troops in the second prong would strike—from the north, through Four Corners.
The task force’s executive officer, Major Kevin Cooney, was at the tactical operations center. The group had been in position almost four hours. During that time no one had seen any sign of enemy activity. Responding to the call of nature, he grabbed his entrenching tool and walked across a muddy, freshly plowed field to a patch of thick underbrush in a small grove of palm trees just south of their position. Shortly after he had dropped his pants, several bursts of AK-47 fire shattered the stillness. The gunfire was followed almost simultaneously by a salvo of airburst antipersonnel mortar fire. One mortar round exploded above the major. Miraculously, though the concussion knocked him to the ground, he was otherwise unhurt.
Quickly, about a half-dozen men began laying down cover fire. Holding up his pants with one hand, his gear in the other, and bent down to reduce his profile, Major Cooney burst out of the bushes and awkwardly waddled as fast as he could toward the vehicles. At one point in his “dash” over the wet field, the major tripped and belly-flopped into the mud, scattering entrenching tool, baby wipes, and other gear all about him. Almost immediately, Major Cooney was up again and managed to reach the safety of the armored vehicles. (It would have been a fabulously funny moment for the troops, had they not been under attack.)
On top of the nearby overpass, a Fox M93A1 vehicle, used for detecting nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and its crew came under fire from an Iraqi T-72 main battle tank. A number of forward positions started receiving sniper and rocket-powered-grenade (RPG) fire. Alerted by the firefight at the overpass, an American Abrams tank drove up from the airport. By this time, the American troops at the overpass discovered they were fighting not one tank, but a platoon of four T-72 tanks. Meanwhile, about an hour’s drive south of the airport, an American supply convoy suddenly found itself having to fight its way through an ambush. At about the same time, unbeknownst to the Americans at Four Corners, Eighth Brigade SRG troops from the Abu Ghraib complex to the south were traveling through a tunnel beneath them in preparation for an assault from the north.
The Iraqi counterattack to retake the airport was on.
As the action from the south began heating up, Lieutenant Brian Borkowski, Bravo Company’s commanding officer, received a call requesting an armored combat earth-mover and additional support. Leaving Sergeant Smith in command of about eighteen men, Borkowski took most of the company’s soldiers and headed south.
In the disconnect that is unique to combat, the troops at Four Corners were simultaneously a part of and apart from the battle. They could hear the staccato crackle of small-arms fire and the explosions of RPGs and tank shells. But since it was not directed at them, they were essentially just uniformed spectators—with the exception of the medical personnel caring and treating the wounded that had been and were still arriving. That was about to change.
Roughly a half an hour after Lieutenant Borkowski left, Smith received a message that a handful of prisoners had been captured and that a prisoner-of-war holding area was needed. “Hey, I’ve got a great place,” Smith said. Earlier, Sergeant Smith had noticed a courtyard with a ten-foot-high wall and adjacent watchtower just north of where the forward aid station had been established. If it checked out, they could transform it into a large, temporary holding cell in what was regarded by the commanding officer as a boilerplate engineer mission.
After a little discussion, the decision was made to punch a hole in the southern wall with one of the platoon’s bulldozers and then string up a security gate using concertina wire. Smith gathered with him a small group that included Staff Sergeant Lincoln Hollinsaid, Sergeant Derek Pelletier, Sergeant Joshua Henry, Private First Class Thomas Ketchum, and Private James Martens.
As the group headed to the southern wall of the courtyard, Sergeant Joshua Dean started up one of the armored combat earthmovers. With the basso profundo sound of the 295-horsepower Cummins diesel engine filling the air, the group watched Sergeant Dean drive the armored bulldozer into the wall, smashing through the masonry as if it were a sheet of cardboard. Sergeants Smith, Hollinsaid, and Pelletier followed, clambering over the rubble.
The courtyard was about half the size of a football field and shaped roughly like a right-angle triangle, with the wall they had entered through forming the base. The perpendicular side ran straight north to where it anchored a small aluminum gate. There was a watchtower to their left, where the base and perpendicular walls joined. The ground featured a number of small mounds and was covered with patches of thick brush. Once they had cleared the brush, run a concertina-wire barrier the length of the courtyard to separate officers from enlisted men, strung a concertina-wire gate across the breach in the south wall, and posted guards at the gates on both ends and in the watchtower, they’d have a serviceable temporary-holding compound for prisoners.
Tasks were assigned, and the soldiers began working.
The first order of business in the courtyard was the torching of the brush. Despite the recent rain, the brush burned quickly. After the fire had extinguished itself, Smith ordered Ketchum and Martens to take up sentry positions by the aluminum gate in the north. A few minutes later, Henry decided to walk over and check in on the two privates. When he got there, his eyes caught sight of some suspicious movement coming from a large compound about three hundred yards north of them. Seeing that Ketchum’s rifle had a scope, Henry shouldered the weapon and peered through the lens. Within seconds, he identified a heavily armed Iraqi force of between fifteen and twenty soldiers. Henry immediately called out to Smith, who rushed up to see for himself. Looking through his own rifle scope in the direction Henry had pointed, Smith spotted an additional force of twenty-five to fifty men about two hundred yards away. Some were coming out of barracks, others were emerging from a tunnel opening. And more were coming.
Overwhelmed By The Enemy
Against what appeared to be a company-sized enemy unit of about one hundred soldiers equipped with AK-47s, mortars, and RPGs, Smith had just sixteen combat troops and three .50-caliber heavy machine guns mounted on the M113 armored personnel carriers parked at Four Corners. With a calmness that impressed his men, Smith said quietly, “We’re in a world of hurt.”11
As the Iraqi soldiers fanned out in their advance, Smith began issuing a rapid-fire string of orders. One man with a squad automatic weapon, another with an M240B light machine gun, and a third with an M203 40mm grenade launcher were told to get into defensive position just behind the aluminum gate. One of the sergeants was told to call for a Bradley fighting vehicle located at the roadblock about a quarter mile away to reinforce them ASAP. The rest of the men were ordered to stop work on the gate, grab their weapons, and prepare to form a skirmish line to repel an attack. Smith dashed over to a Humvee parked at Four Corners and grabbed some grenades and a single-shot AT-4 anti-tank rocket launcher.
By the time the Bradley arrived some fifteen minutes later, advance elements of the Iraqi force had reached the wall; they were running north to south and were continuing down to the watchtower. The Bradley entered the courtyard, followed by the rest of the combat troops. When it got close, the Bradley opened fire on the aluminum gate with its 25mm Bushmaster chain gun, dramatically ripping it free of its pole.
As this was happening, Sergeant Smith threw a couple of grenades over the wall to knock out any Iraqis waiting in ambush. After the grenades exploded, Smith led a small group of men—Private Gary Evans, Sergeant Matthew Keller, Private Martens, and Specialist Tony Garcia—past the gate and into the open ground north of the courtyard in support of the Bradley. As soon as the group emerged from the courtyard, they came under combined AK-47, RPG, and mortar fire.
Smith saw a number of Iraqi soldiers take up position in a ditch. “Cover me,” Smith shouted as he shouldered his AT-4 and got into position in front of the stationary Bradley and, he thought, well away from his men. Taking aim at the Iraqis, Smith pulled the trigger. The AT-4’s powerful back-blast knocked Keller, the soldier nearest him, off his feet and cleaned all the dust off the Bradley’s chassis. They received no more enemy fire from the now-smoldering ditch. Another soldier with an AT-4 took aim at the watchtower from which some Iraqi troops were firing RPGs and AK-47s. His rocket exploded inside the tower, temporarily silencing the threat from that quarter.
But the enemy was too strong, and the troops killed by the AT-4 rocket were soon replaced. With a commanding view of the American positions, the Iraqi mortar fire became more concentrated and coordinated, indicating that an officer with a radio was probably directing the attack. In addition, flanking fire from Iraqi SRG troops who had climbed the north-south wall, along with snipers hidden in nearby trees, began raking the Americans in the courtyard and in the forward aid station.
Gunners in the three M113 armored personnel carriers at Four Corners trained their .50-caliber machine guns on the Iraqi-occupied tower and, together with nearby infantrymen, began returning fire. An Iraqi soldier in the tower with an RPG fired a point-blank shot at one of the M113s. The RPG round hit the vehicle’s exterior rucksack rack and exploded. Clothing, personal items, and bedding erupted into the air; scattered cotton filler from sleeping bags fell like snow to the ground. Though the rucksacks and their contents had been annihilated and the M113 crippled, the personal effects had absorbed enough of the blast to save the crew inside, which was able to evacuate the vehicle unharmed.
Smith saw he needed more firepower at their forward position and ordered Sergeant Kevin Yetter to bring up one of the M113s. Yetter ran the length of the courtyard without getting hit, climbed into one of the two remaining M113s, and ordered it forward. With Sergeant Louis Berwald manning the vehicle’s .50-caliber heavy machine gun, Yetter guided the M113, with its supply trailer still attached, through the courtyard and up behind the Bradley. The armored vehicles became the focus of intense RPG and mortar fire. The Bradley was repeatedly hit by RPG rounds, though it suffered little damage. Then, the first of three mortar rounds fired in a “walking” pattern landed near the M113. The third mortar shell struck the top hatch of the armored personnel carrier less than twelve inches from Sergeant Berwald and exploded—blinding and wounding Berwald and wounding Yetter and the driver, Private Jimmy Hill. Amazingly, none were killed.
Smith dashed over to help pull the wounded out of the armored personnel carrier and apply first aid. Keller was behind the Bradley, firing his grenade launcher, when suddenly he saw that the armored fighting vehicle had shifted into reverse and was backing away from the fight. Keller watched, incredulous, as the Bradley retreated through the courtyard and retired from the battlefield. Sergeant Yetter, who was almost run over by the Bradley, couldn’t figure out why it was leaving in the middle of a fight. Only much later did the men discover that the Bradley had to leave because it was almost out of ammunition.
The tactical situation was bad, bordering on disaster. Smith had three wounded men with him and scores more at Four Corners. They were receiving fire from the watchtower, from enemy troops in trees and on the courtyard wall, and from the main body approaching from the north.
His men needed time—time to get the wounded to the aid station, time to organize a better defense at Four Corners, and time for reinforcements to arrive. Smith made the decision to buy his men that time. He entered through the rear of the armored personnel carrier and tried to back it through the courtyard. But the attached supply trailer kept jackknifing on him.
Smith stuck his head out and shouted, “Get me a driver!” Private Michael Seaman ran up and jumped into the driver’s seat. Smith ordered Seaman to back the armored personnel carrier into the courtyard and get into position in the eastern corner of the triangle, so that it had a clear view from the open gateway in the north down to the watchtower in the south. After they were in position, Smith told Seaman to keep him loaded as he was going up to man the .50-caliber machine gun. As Seaman threw the M113 into reverse, Smith climbed into the commander’s hatch, swung the still-operational heavy machine gun around, took aim at the enemy, and pressed down on the “Cadillacs,” the butterfly-shaped triggers.
The Browning M2 .50-caliber air-cooled heavy machine gun, nicknamed “Ma Deuce,” is, because of its age, something of an anachronism, but arguably the finest automatic firearm ever made. Designed by John Browning, one of the world’s great arms designers, it entered service in the U.S. military in 1921. The basic model has remained in service with surprisingly few modifications ever since. Its design is simple, and it’s easy to shoot and maintain. And it is powerful. It can fire 450 rounds per minute under sustained use, but that rarely happens in combat situations—short bursts being most effective. This high volume combined with the bullet’s size (2.31 inches long and .5 inches in diameter) and kinetic energy (minimum 2,800 feet per second) is devastating. Even a glancing wound can be fatal.
Smith had maneuvered the M113 into a position to make maximum use of his unit’s most powerful weapon, which now became the target for every Iraqi SRG soldier from the watchtower to the gate.
To operate the machine gun, Smith had to stand up. Even though he was wearing his helmet and armored vest, he was exposed to enemy gunfire from the waist up because the machine gun was not equipped with a shield. Smith was repeatedly hit in the chest. (Afterward, thirteen bullet holes would be found in his armored vest.) Smith ignored the incoming bullets as he arced the machine gun back and forth, steadily squeezing off bursts in the manner that had earned him his machine-gun marksmanship awards, raking Iraqi positions from one end to the other. Even the courtyard wall opposite him was no protection for the enemy. Because it was within point-blank range, the .50-caliber bullets were able to easily smash through the masonry.
Smith’s cover fire enabled his men to carry the wounded and retreat through the courtyard. At one point Keller shouted to Smith, calling him to leave. From across the courtyard, Smith locked eyes with Keller, shook his head slightly, and then made a short cutting motion across his throat with his right hand. He was staying.
A belt of .50-caliber bullets has a hundred rounds held together by links. Three times Private Seaman had to reload. Shortly before the third reload, Sergeant First Class Timothy Campbell took four soldiers with him in an effort to seize the watchtower. They had to pause during the third reload, since Smith’s cover fire was vital for their attack. As soon as he heard the distinctive sound of the M2 firing resume, Campbell led the charge. They reached the tower and began shooting inside when Smith’s machine gun again fell silent.
Inside the M113, Private Seaman wondered why his sergeant had stopped shooting; he had plenty of ammo. Then Sergeant Smith’s body fell down the command hatch, blood flowing down the front of his vest. A bullet, probably fired from an Iraqi in the tower, had struck Smith in the head. Seaman, in shock, pulled himself out of the driver’s hatch of the armored personnel carrier. As others arrived, Seaman muttered repeatedly, “I told him we should leave.”
Private Gary Evans jumped inside and, calling encouragement to Smith, drove the M113 out of the courtyard, where it stalled. Others rushed up with a stretcher and carried the seriously wounded sergeant seventy-five yards to the aid station. Triage was performed. A medevac team was summoned and, minutes later, carried Sergeant Paul Ray Smith away in a helicopter.
Meanwhile, reinforcements, including Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, had finally arrived. But by then the Iraqi attack had been broken up. Outnumbered and out-gunned, Sergeant Smith and his men had successfully stopped the northern prong of the Iraqi attack, with Smith personally accounting for killing approximately fifty of the enemy’s soldiers.
But the elation the men felt over their victory vanished quickly. News had come from the hospital about the hard-core sergeant they had hated in the States and in Germany, whose unending training had saved their lives in Iraq. Word was passed from soldier to soldier, “Superman is down.” This time, Smith’s nickname was spoken with respect and reverence.
An extraordinary soldier’s life and career had come to an end, but a new chapter in the history of America’s highest and most respected military decoration had begun. For the first time in the twenty-first century, an American warrior’s actions in combat would result in the awarding of a Medal of Honor.
On the evening of April 4, at 11:30 P.M., the bell on the door rang at the Smith residence in Hinesville, Georgia, near Fort Stewart. Earlier that evening, Birgit Smith had finished writing a letter to her husband that she planned to mail the next day. In it she had penned the sentence, “Life without you here is just not the same.”12 Birgit was asleep when the doorbell rang. She later recalled, “I looked out through the peephole, and there were two soldiers. One was an E-7 [Sergeant First Class] like Paul’s rank. The other was a chaplain.” Birgit let them in, knowing immediately that something was wrong. After they sat down, she received the words all family members dread. She recalled, “The E-7 said, ‘Paul is dead.’ And I told him, ‘Are you sure? Our last name is so common, maybe it was a mistake.’ And, he said, ‘Ma’am, I wouldn’t be here if it’s not a hundred percent.’”13
Two memorial services in the States for Sergeant Smith soon followed, the first at Fort Stewart, the second in Holiday, Florida, where Smith’s mother and stepfather lived. Per the request in his will, Sergeant Smith was cremated and his remains scattered in the waters of the Tampa region, where he and his stepfather had fished. Birgit keeps a box with some of the ashes on her nightstand.
Sergeant Paul Ray Smith has received additional honors since the medal ceremony. In Holiday, the post office and a recently built middle school now bear his name, as does an army simulation and training technology center in Orlando, and a fitness center at Fort Benning.
On April 15 at 8:00 A.M. Baghdad time, the soldiers of Bravo Company assembled in formation at Four Corners. They stood at parade rest before a pair of empty boots, flanking an upended M16, its bayonet embedded in the desert soil and a helmet resting on its stock, the symbol of a comrade fallen in battle, and prepared for Sergeant Smith’s final roll call—a memorial service eloquent in its Spartan simplicity.
On April 6, 2009, a special memorial service honoring Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith was held at Four Corners. First Sergeant David Roman, A Company, Forty-sixth Engineer Combat Battalion (Heavy), is recounting the battle scene that occurred six years earlier. In the background is the concrete observation tower, still pockmarked with bullet holes from that battle.
Photo: Sergeant Rebekah Malone, U.S. Army
Sergeant First Class Timothy Campbell faced the company and called the roll of the company’s platoon sergeants.
“Here, first sergeant.”
“Here, first sergeant.”
“Here, first sergeant.”
“Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith.”
“Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith.”
The company then stood at attention. A twenty-one-gun salute was fired. As the echo of the last round faded, the company heard the martial skirl of bagpipes over the loudspeakers and the air of Four Corners resounded with the sounds of “Amazing Grace.”
UNCOMMON VALOR. Copyright © 2010 by Dwight Jon Zimmerman and John D. Gresham. Foreword copyright © 2010 by Lee Mize. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Meet the Author
DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is an award-winning author of books and articles on military history and a member of the Military Writers Society of America. He lives in Brookyn, NY. JOHN D. GRESHAM is a veteran military analyst and the co-author, with Tom Clancy, of Clancy's bestselling nonfiction series, including Special Forces: A Guided Tour of the US Army Special Forces, and Fighter Wing: A Guided Tour of an Air Force Combat Wing. He lives in Fairfax, VA.
DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN has written extensively on military-history subjects for American Heritage, the Naval Institute Press, Vietnam Magazine, and numerous military-themed publications. His books include The Hammer and the Anvil and The Vietnam War: A Graphic History. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
JOHN D. GRESHAM is a veteran military analyst and co-author with Tom Clancy on his bestselling series of nonfiction "guided tour" books about military units, including Special Forces and Marines. He lives in Virginia.
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This book presents a goood account of the individuals, their life outside of the military, and their families. I look forward to an updated addition as more men are honered and more information comes to light.