The GIs were dirty, mosquito-bitten, fatigued, homesick. They had been on the road almost constantly for two weeks. Many had not slept in days.
At dawn on April 4, they arrived at Saddam International Airport to the sound of sporadic gunfire and the acrid smell of distant explosions. Breakfast was a mushy, prepackaged concoction the Army optimistically calls "pasta with vegetables."
Still, the mood was upbeat.
Reaching the airport meant the war was almost over. Some of the men broke out cheap cigars to celebrate.
Afterward, Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith and his combat engineers set about their mission that day, putting up a roadblock on the divided highway that connects the airport and Baghdad. Then, just before 10 a.m., a sentry spotted Iraqi troops nearby. Maybe 15 or 20. By the time Smith had a chance to look for himself, the number was closer to 100.
Smith could oppose them with just 16 men.
He ordered his soldiers to take up fighting positions and called for a Bradley, a powerful armored vehicle. It arrived quickly and opened fire. The Americans thought they were in control until, inexplicably, the Bradley backed up and left.
"Everybody was like, "What the hell?' " said Cpl. Daniel Medrano. "We felt like we got left out there alone."
The outnumbered GIs faced intense Iraqi fire. Whether they would survive the next few minutes hinged largely on Smith. He was 33 years old, a 1989 graduate of Tampa Bay Vocational-Technical High School, a husband and father of two.
To his men, Smith was like a character in the old war movies they had watched as kids, an infuriating, by-the-book taskmaster they called the "Morale Nazi."
But Smith had spent much of his adult life preparing for precisely this moment. Indeed, in a letter to his parents composed just before the war, he seems to have anticipated it:
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.
What explains Smith's commitment to his men?
Few clues are to be found in the story of his early years, growing up in Tampa's Palma Ceia neighborhood. He and three siblings were raised by a single mother who worked two jobs to support the family. Smith was a so-so student, not much of an athlete, not particularly popular. His childhood was altogether unremarkable.
He studied woodworking in high school and did trim work for a contractor. After graduating in June 1989, Smith joined the Army. He was motivated not by patriotism but a desire to find a job offering more stability than the paycheck-to-paycheck life of a carpenter. As a new recruit, Smith left an impression of someone more interested in partying than, say, marksmanship.
But by the time he got to Saddam International Airport, Smith was a different man, a master of the soldier's art. On April 4, in the words of his commanding officer, Smith displayed "extraordinary heroism and uncommon valor without regard for his own life in order to save others . . . in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service . . . "
What Smith offered his men, Abraham Lincoln, in an earlier age, called "the last full measure of devotion."
+ + +
A quarter-million Americans have served in the Iraq war. Paul Ray Smith is the only one thus far nominated for the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for bravery.
Since the start of World War II, just 842 men have received the Medal of Honor. Almost two-thirds were killed in the action for which they were nominated.
"If the Medal of Honor today has an intangible and solemn halo around it," wrote author Allen Mikaelian, "it is partly due to those men who did not survive to wear it."
Gen. George Patton said he would give his soul for one. Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman said they would rather have the medal than be president.
By law, the Medal of Honor is awarded by the president only to those in the armed services who distinguish themselves "conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of (their lives) above and beyond the call of duty."
"Above and beyond the call of duty" has a specific meaning. The medal is not awarded to those who act under orders, no matter how heroic their actions. In fact, according to Library of Congress defense expert David F. Burrelli, it must be "the type of deed which, if he had not done it, would not subject him to any justified criticism."
Given the extraordinarily high standard, it is far from certain Smith will be awarded the Medal of Honor. But his story is as much about professionalism as it is heroism. He had thought about what it means to lead men in combat. He knew that men will more willingly follow a superior who exposes himself to danger, shares their hardships, shows concern for their welfare.
On April 4, Smith did all of those things.
THE TACTICAL SITUATION
Smith and his men were part of the 3rd Infantry Division, 23,000 strong, which moved into Iraq on March 20. On April 4, elements of the division occupied Saddam International Airport.
That day, Smith's combat engineers were part of a force of about 100 men assigned to protect the eastern flank by erecting a roadblock on the highway to Baghdad. The Army believed a Special Republican Guard battalion was in the area. The roadblock would keep the Iraqis from moving on the airport, about a mile away.
The Americans' arrival had been uneventful. But about 9 a.m., the infantry at the roadblock came under fire. The Iraqis seemed to be somewhere to the south. About 20 infantrymen set off to find them. The engineers soon heard explosions and the rat-tat-tat of automatic rifles.
About 9:30, the infantry radioed, asking for a place to put a handful of prisoners.
"Hey, I've got a great place," Smith said. He had seen a walled courtyard on the north side of the road about a quarter-mile from the roadblock. He would string concertina wire across a corner of the courtyard to form a holding area. A short tower just outside the wall could serve as a guard post.
Smith called for a bulldozer, which knocked a hole through the courtyard's southern wall, nearest the highway. He then gathered two squads, 16 men in all, and they began preparing the POW site.
Smith sent two men to guard a louvered aluminum gate on the far side of the courtyard, about 50 yards from the hole punched by the bulldozer.
One of them was 19-year-old Pvt. Thomas Ketchum. Peering through the gate, he could see something that looked like a bus stop, a stand of trees, and off to the right, a white building.
A half hour passed. It was getting hot, fast approaching 100 degrees. Ketchum was tired and bored. Then movement caught his eye. "Hey, I think I see something."
Sgt. Joshua Henry, who had come up with a canteen, asked for Ketchum's rifle, which was fitted with a scope. In the distance, out by the "bus stop," Henry saw 15 to 20 Iraqi soldiers walking from the building. They wore dark green uniforms and carried AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
"Holy s_-, look at all the Hajis," said Henry, 23. ("Hajis" is a GI slur for Iraqi soldiers, taken from the word for the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, "hajj.")
They yelled for Smith. He ran up from the middle of the courtyard and squinted through his own scope, purchased at Guns "R" Us back in Hinesville, Ga., near Fort Stewart.
"We're in a world of hurt," Smith said. He ordered two men with machine guns to get into position behind the gate. Then he sent Ketchum to get a Bradley, an armored vehicle loaded with missiles, a rapid-fire cannon and a machine gun.
"Tell the Bradley there's 50 enemies with RPGs," Smith called to Ketchum, who was sprinting back across the courtyard. Smith's eyes got wide. "No, it looks more like a hundred."
"I'M GOING FIRST'
"I hope they don't see us. I hope they don't see us," thought 21-year-old Spc. Tony Garcia, standing next to Smith at the gate. Once the Bradley got there, he hoped, the sight of the tanklike vehicle would cause the Iraqis to turn and run.
Other soldiers were spoiling for a fight. They had spent weeks on the road, without showers or decent food, battled sandstorms and exhaustion, and had seen little action beyond blowing up Iraqi ammo dumps.
"I wanted to start whupping some ass right then and there," Sgt. Henry said, "but Sgt. Smith told us to wait."
As they waited for the Bradley, Smith executed what the Army calls "recon by fire." He tossed a grenade over the east wall to see if anyone fired back. Nothing.
It took 15 minutes for the Bradley to get the quarter-mile from the roadblock to the courtyard. Entering through the hole in the wall, it moved slowly, its turret scanning, its tracks scraping the concrete leading to the gate. A few engineers and two infantry scouts, who arrived after catching word of the growing Iraqi threat, stood off to the side. They could barely hear over the diesel engine.
The Bradley plowed through the aluminum gate and stopped just outside. Its turret swiveled to the left, aiming toward the Iraqis as they scrambled for cover about 100 yards west and north of the gate. The cannon roared.
The Iraqis replied with RPGs, mortars and rifle fire. Smith and four other soldiers ran behind the Bradley. Smith peeked at the enemy.
"I'm going first," he said.
He looked through the scope on his rifle and fired. Sgt. Matthew Keller saw two soldiers fall.
Some of the Iraqis dropped into ditches. Smith grabbed an AT-4, a bazooka-type weapon that fires a rocket.
"Cover me," he said.
Smith walked to the front of the Bradley, within clear view of the Iraqis.
He fired. The AT-4's backblast knocked Keller to the ground and blew dust off the Bradley. Keller, 24, looked up to see Smith shaking his head.
"Whoa," Smith said. "Remind me not to do that again."
While Smith fired at the Iraqis, other enemy soldiers climbed into the tower overlooking the courtyard, the same one Smith thought would be useful for watching POWs.
The Iraqis in the tower had a commanding view of the GIs below and seemed to use their position to coordinate their fire.
Just outside the hole in the courtyard wall, about six soldiers fired back at the tower, trying to keep the Iraqis' heads down.
Pvt. Ketchum was among them. Years of hunting deer with his dad back in Ohio had honed his aim, and he had been an ace at the shooting range at Fort Stewart. But the range didn't shoot back. Ketchum was scared. His chest heaved; he found it hard to control his breathing. He saw two M113 personnel carriers (big armored boxes on tracks) parked just outside the wall. He wanted to take cover behind one of them. But he stuck with the other guys.
He saw at least 10 Iraqis trying to scale a 10-foot-high wall near the tower. He fired at one. The bullet hit the Iraqi in the collarbone and knocked him off the wall. It was the first man he had shot, and it felt great. "The bastards were trying to kill me," he said.
An Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade streaked over the wall. It sounded like someone ripping a stack of paper _ pheewwt. The RPG hit Sgt. Smith's rucksack hanging on the side of one of the M113s. For a moment, the grenade just sat there, red flames jetting out the back. Then it exploded.
Knee pads, elbow pads, T-shirts, underwear spun through the air. A body went flying.
Something hit Ketchum in the eye.
"I'm hit! I'm hit!"
Sgt. Henry looked him over.
"It's just dirt," Henry said.
Cotton stuffing floated down like snow, and Ketchum realized it wasn't a body the grenade sent flying. It was a sleeping bag.
Up at the gate, Smith turned to Keller and told him to get more men. The short, intense sergeant from Key Largo took off across the courtyard, his rifle fixed on the tower. He came across the line of soldiers firing at the tower and called for four of them.
Pfc. Michael Pace, 23, grabbed a machine gun and made a Dirty Dozen-like dash toward the gate. Iraqi bullets from the tower plunked off the wall behind him.
"Please, God," Pace prayed, "let me make it across this courtyard."
+ + +
Sgt. Kevin Yetter, ordered by Smith to bring up another machine gun, ran across the courtyard, through the hole in the wall and jumped into one of two M113s parked outside. Twenty-three-year-old Sgt. Louis Berwald was on top, manning a big .50-caliber machine gun.
The 113, with a supply trailer still attached, rumbled its way into the courtyard. Soldiers at the gate waved toward the tower, and Berwald blasted it. Then the 113 moved in behind the Bradley up at the gate. Berwald started firing at the Iraqi positions outside the courtyard.
Thud. An Iraqi mortar landed 50 yards away from the 113. Thud. Another hit 20 yards away. Then something struck about a half foot from Berwald. The white flash blinded him. Shrapnel ripped into his face, shoulder and left hand.
Metal shards shattered the scope on Yetter's rifle. Pieces lodged in his forehead, nose and eyes. The 37-year-old jumped out the back and screamed, "We're hit!" Blood streamed from his face. "Am I gonna make it? Am I gonna make it?"
Pvt. Jimmy Hill, 20, was inside the 113. He ran out of the courtyard. A rock-shaped piece of shrapnel was stuck in his neck, pulsating to the rhythm of his heart. Oddly, he was grinning. Then Hill saw blood. "I got hit," he screamed. "I got hit!"
The same blast knocked down Keller and an infantryman.
"What the f_- was that?" the infantryman screamed. He was bleeding from the bridge of his nose.
Keller moved behind the nearby Bradley, loaded his grenade launcher and fired. He was reaching for another round when the big armored vehicle began backing up.
"I thought I was going to get run over," Keller said. "The Bradley had good position on them. It just didn't make any sense to back out."
The Bradley backed around Yetter's damaged 113 and kept going. It nearly ran over Yetter, who was being helped from the courtyard by two other soldiers.
"Why is he leaving us like this?" Yetter wondered. "He's got all this firepower."
The Bradley's arrival had changed the odds in favor of the Americans. When the Bradley left, the Americans were again outmatched.
Fate would now demand payment on Smith's vow "to give all that I am to ensure that all my boys make it home."
BEER, WOMEN, FAST CARS
Fate had sent Smith to war once before, and the experience brought focus to what had been an uneventful life. After enlisting in 1989, Smith was trained as a combat engineer. The next year, the Army sent him to a post in Bamberg, Germany.
He was not much of a soldier then.
Yetter, who served with him, said Smith seemed more interested in offpost activities. Smith was a showoff for the girls, Yetter said, and "he could definitely hold his liquor."
On a couple of occasions, Smith got so drunk he slept through morning formation. Once he showed up with alcohol on his breath. An irate officer made him stay late and scrub floors.
Smith, in the words of his close friend Patrick Thompson, "definitely enjoyed the things Germany had to offer _ beer, women, fast cars."
A favorite GI hangout in Bamberg was a bar called the Green Goose. One night in June 1990, Smith caught the attention of a 23-year-old German woman named Birgit Bacher.
Birgit had sworn off Americans three years earlier, after a soldier got her pregnant and then deserted her and their daughter, Jessica. But a friend persuaded Birgit to travel to Bamberg that night from their home in Bayreuth 40 miles away.
She started talking to Smith as Bon Jovi wailed through the speakers. Smith acted cool _ sunglasses on, the collar of his jean jacket turned up. He was a skinny 6-footer with an angular face, long nose and light green eyes with long lashes. He wore a thin moustache and a wide, toothy smile.
When the bar closed at 1 a.m., Paul and two buddies followed Birgit and her friend to a park, where they sat near a river and gazed at the stars. Then they walked them back to the hotel.
Birgit went to her room. The faint sound of singing drew her to the window. Down on the street, Smith was on one knee.
"You've lost that loving feeling, ooh that loving feeling. You've lost that lovin' feelin'. Now it's gone, gone, gone . . . whoaohoh."
Smith was re-creating a scene from Top Gun, the Tom Cruise movie he had watched earlier that day. As he sang, Birgit picked petals from red flowers in the window box and dropped them to the ground.
They met again and again.
In November, Smith shipped out to Saudi Arabia for the first Gulf War. Inexplicably, he never called, never wrote. The war was a rout. By March, it was over.
Smith still didn't call.
On April 15, 1991, Birgit heard that he was back and headed for the Green Goose. She was sipping a Coke at the bar when Smith came in. He saw her but walked right past, saying nothing.
Birgit followed, confused. "Why are you ignoring me?"
"I just don't want to talk."
Birgit didn't understand at the time, but war had changed Smith, as it does many other men. He never articulated exactly what happened to him in Kuwait in 1991 or what he saw.
"As much as I wanted to go," he told his mom, "I never realized how war was." He mentioned that someone died in his arms but seems to have confided the details to no one.
Smith's friend Patrick Thompson also served in Kuwait.
War, he said, "made us think about how we would be as leaders. I mean that we often spoke about how we train, and if it was the best we could do. As a new soldier you sometimes don't think or even realize that the training you do will ever be used in combat.
"As we found out, it did."
Thompson's wife, Heidi, added a spouse's perspective:
" . . . the experience has a profound effect on them . . . some for the better, some for the worse. They say that once you are in combat, you make up your mind real quick that you will either get out of the Army or stay in for a career. . . . Patrick and Paul took similar roads in their lives, family, kids, backed off on the partying . . .
"They just both experienced a resolve to correct mistakes, be better prepared and better trained. . . . It is an unspoken thing, and I don't know if it is that way on purpose or if they just don't know how to articulate the changes that happen."
IN LOVE AND WAR
Paul Smith and Birgit Bacher were married Jan. 24, 1992.
Smith became a homebody, a family man so attached to the house that Birgit sometimes urged him to "go out and have a drink with the boys."
Of course, you have to be home to be a homebody. Birgit figures her husband was away for half their married years, attending training schools to hasten his climb through the ranks, or serving tours in Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Their son, David, was born in March 1994. Smith took him fishing and fashioned a T-ball pole in the back yard. To his stepdaughter, Jessica, Smith passed on the basics: how to change the oil and transmission fluid in his Jeep Cherokee.
And Smith was not just a changed man at home. The soldier Birgit described as a "military goofball" became something entirely different.
Smith earned his sergeant's stripes and became a stern teacher determined to prepare his men for war _ something he had seen and they hadn't.
The men did not appreciate his methods.
They didn't like Smith's reaction the day he discovered a soldier had not packed correctly for a training mission. Smith made the entire platoon unpack and start again.
They thought Smith went too far when, during an inspection, he found a screw missing from a soldier's helmet. Smith called the platoon back for reinspection. It lasted until nearly 10 p.m.
"If you f__d up, everybody f__d up," said Cpl. Daniel Medrano. "Teamwork was everything to him."
Smith was obsessed with keeping weapons spotless _ "freaking crazy about it," according to Medrano. Smith would push a Q-tip into rifle barrels, looking for dirt.
In Kosovo in 2001, Medrano and others urged Smith to lighten up.
Smith snapped at them: "What are you going to do when the enemy is in front of you and your weapon isn't clean? The reason for all this is I've been to a place where it matters."
"We would joke that we're going to go to war, and then we can say we've been in a place where it matters," Medrano, 27, recalled.
The men did more than joke about Smith. Some mocked him, a few despised him. One of them keyed his silver Jeep parked outside the company headquarters at Fort Stewart.
"He would come home and say, "They hate me. I know they are talking about me,' " Birgit said. "But Paul knew sooner or later they would understand why he was tough on them."
+ + +
On occasion, Smith showed his men a different side.
A week before Thanksgiving in 2001, the 18-month-old daughter of Sgt. Harry DeLauter was hospitalized with anemia. DeLauter was in Elizabeth's hospital room in Savannah when someone knocked on the door.
It was Smith. He had driven 40 miles from Fort Stewart to bring Elizabeth a teddy bear. The bear was bigger than she was.
"I was speechless," said DeLauter, 31. "He was a perfectionist, always demanding 110 percent from everybody, his way or no way. To see him show feeling outside of work like that was a surprise."
+ + +
Smith and the rest of the 3rd Infantry Division's First Brigade left for the Middle East on Jan. 23, 2003. In Kuwait, the soldiers spent two months practicing for war.
Some worked harder than others.
At night, when most other soldiers unwound in their tents watching DVDs on laptop computers, playing cards or gawking at Maxim, Smith had his men out running drills.
Even his superior, 1st Sgt. Tim Campbell, took notice. "Your guys," Campbell told Smith, "are not having any fun."
But Smith's methods were extreme only in degree. For centuries, armies have hammered men with the same lesson: Their fate in battle is inextricably linked to that of their comrades.
In combat, when every natural instinct tells them to flee, men so trained will stand and fight, so as not to let down their buddies.
The payoff comes at storied places like Little Round Top, Bastogne and the Ia Drang Valley. For the men of B Company, 11th Engineer Battalion, the payoff would come in a small courtyard outside Baghdad.
+ + +
After they got to Kuwait, Smith encouraged each of his men to write home, to say the things that need to be said.
On Feb. 26, Smith wrote his own letter to Birgit:
By the time you get this the war will probably be started if it's going to. So I just wanted to say a few things, first I love you and the kids with all my heart. . . . I miss you all very much. And I want you to know that I promised you I would write at least once so here I go . . .
At the end, he added:
P.S. You're still the one.
It was a reference to a single by Shania Twain that had become their song.
APRIL 4, 10:30 A.M.
The GIs in the courtyard and the Iraqis outside had traded gunfire for half an hour. The Bradley fired away, and the battle raged on. Spc. Billy McConnell couldn't believe it when he saw the Bradley back out of the courtyard.
"The dumb sonofabitch," the 27-year-old thought. "Why is he pulling out?"
Without the Bradley, the Americans were in deep trouble.
Enemy soldiers held the tower and still fired from it directly into the courtyard. And other Iraqis still fought from ditches about 100 yards to the west and north of the courtyard, launching rocket-propelled grenades and mortars over the walls.
The most powerful American weapon left was the .50-caliber machine gun atop an M113 armored personnel carrier. But the crew _ Yetter, Berwald and Hill _ had all been wounded. The gun was unmanned.
There was almost no American return fire. Some GIs had left the courtyard, others were helping evacuate Yetter and Berwald.
+ + +
First Sgt. Campbell heard radio reports of wounded Americans. He ran into the courtyard and talked briefly with Smith. "We've got to kill that tower," Campbell said. Then he left to do just that.
Inside the courtyard, what to do next was up to Smith. He reasonably could have ordered everyone to safety through the hole in the wall and followed them out.
His commanding officer now believes Smith rejected that option thinking that if Iraqis overran the courtyard, they would jeopardize about 100 GIs outside. These included the infantry at the highway roadblock, the men of a mortar platoon, medics at an aid station and officers in a command center a few hundred yards down the road.
So Smith climbed on the 113. He tried to back it up, but the trailer kept jackknifing.
"Get me a driver," he yelled.
Pvt. Michael Seaman, 21, ran to help.
"Jump in," Smith said. Seaman backed the 113 to the middle of the courtyard.
Smith climbed into the gunner's hatch. He stood behind the big machine gun, the upper half of his body exposed, the lower half protected by the armored vehicle. He started blasting away.
"Keep me loaded," he shouted to Seaman. Whenever the 100-round ammunition belt that fed the machine gun was about to run out, Seaman reached down for another.
Whenever Smith stopped firing so Seaman could reload, fire from the Iraqis would pick up.
From the hole in the wall, Sgt. Keller could see Smith and waved for him to get out of the courtyard. Word had it that Bradleys were on their way.
Smith motioned back: "No."
"I knew why he wouldn't leave," Keller said. Without Smith's machine gun, "there was no firepower out there."
Keller took off running in search of the Bradley. He came across one up on the road, about 100 yards away, and confronted the men inside. "What are you doing? You need to be out there," Keller said.
The response from one of the Bradley crewmen _ something like, "No, there's friendlies out there" _ confused Keller.
He ran back to the courtyard, to a scene right out of Hollywood.
Smith was atop the 113 shooting toward the gate, over the wall, at the tower.
"He was firing, firing, firing _ reloading _ firing, firing, firing," said Sgt. Robert Nowack, 37. "It was like a director saying, "I want you to look intense.' "
The sight reminded Pfc. Pace of To Hell and Back, the film about the WWII exploits of Army 2nd Lt. Audie Murphy, who climbed onto a burning tank, manned a .50-caliber machine gun and mowed down dozens of attacking Germans.
Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1945.
+ + +
Seaman loaded the third can of ammo for Smith.
"Good job," Smith said, "now get down."
Seaman dropped into the belly of the 113 and looked through the periscope. All he could see was the wall. Smith's machine gun roared. Seaman stuck his fingers in his ears.
Meanwhile, 1st Sgt. Campbell had run outside the courtyard, grabbed three other GIs and set off along the outer wall of the courtyard toward the Iraqi-occupied tower.
Halfway there, Campbell realized Smith's machine gun had stopped firing. Campbell told the others to halt. Their job would be harder if Smith could not keep up fire on the Iraqis in the tower. Then the gun awakened _ Seaman had finished a reload of Smith's .50 _ and Campbell and the others continued.
Again the .50 went quiet.
By now, though, Campbell's team had reached the bottom of the tower. Inside, they saw Iraqis dressed in black, wearing berets. The GIs fired into the tower's narrow window. The Iraqis flopped around, blood spraying.
"It was everywhere," Campbell said.
Back in the 113, Seaman also wondered why Smith had stopped firing. He had plenty of ammo.
Then Smith's knees buckled. He slumped inside the vehicle, blood running down the front of his vest. An enemy bullet, probably from the tower, had hit him in the head.
Seaman lifted himself out of the driver's hatch. Tears streaked his blackened cheeks.
"I told him we should just leave," Seaman mumbled. "I told him we should leave."
Pvt. Gary Evans, 28, ran up to help. He jumped on the 113, grabbing the machine gun's hot barrel "like a dumb-ass." Heat seared his hand. Smith would have ripped him good for doing something that stupid.
Evans was pretty sure Smith was dead. But he spoke to him anyway as he drove the 113 out of the courtyard. "You're going to be all right. You'll be okay."
Just outside the courtyard, the 113 stalled. Some men pulled Smith out the back, put him on a stretcher and carried him 75 yards to the aid station.
It was 11 a.m., about an hour since the Iraqis were first spotted.
Campbell's team had taken out the tower. Smith's machine gun had stifled any Iraqi advance on the courtyard. Enemy fire petered out.
The battle for the courtyard was over.
+ + +
Campbell joined the soldiers tending Smith.
"I need somebody on him quick," Campbell said as he approached the medics. No one responded. Campbell smacked one on the helmet.
"If you don't take care of this guy right now," he said, "he's going to die."
The aid station smelled like rotten meat, from some dying Iraqis brought there earlier. Medics stuck a tube down Smith's throat. Blood flowed from the tube and splattered on the ground. Doctors and medics took turns giving him CPR.
"We got him, we got him," a medic said, feeling a pulse. "We gotta get him out of here." Someone called for a helicopter.
"Don't give up. Come on, you can do this," another medic exhorted Smith.
From his stretcher, Berwald watched their efforts. "What happened to Smith?" he asked. No one replied.
Then a female medic holding Smith's IV bag set it down and walked away. She lit a cigarette.
It was dark by the time Sgts. Lincoln Hollinsaid and Derek Pelletier collected Smith's gear. They turned on his laptop and found letters he had written to Birgit and to his parents. They had never been mailed.
"Oh, my God, I found Sgt. Smith's death letter," said Hollinsaid, 27, who saw Smith as a role model.
"Who's going to send this?" Pelletier wondered.
+ + +
Back in Hinesville, it was afternoon. Birgit sat down to write a letter.
First I want to say that I love you so very much. I hope you are doing fine. It must be very hard for you over there . . .
I always say to myself no news from you is Good news. I hope I am right.
About 11:15 that very night, the doorbell awakened Birgit. She got up, walked to the door and looked through the peephole. Two men in uniform.
"Mrs. Smith, we have bad news."
+ + +
At 8 the next morning at a spot a few miles from the courtyard, the B Company engineers held a memorial service. In front of them stood a rifle, stuck bayonet-first in a dirt pile. A helmet rested on the stock. 1st Sgt. Campbell called the roll of platoon sergeants.
"Here, first sergeant."
"Here, first sergeant."
"Here, first sergeant."
"Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith."
"Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith."
The company stood at attention. The soldiers fired a 21-rifle salute. No one had taps on CD, so they went with what they had, a bagpipe version of Amazing Grace.
That same day, April 5, Sgt. Keller asked Sgt. Hollinsaid, who had replaced Smith as head of the second platoon, why the Bradley left in the middle of the battle. Hollinsaid said he would look into it. But he died in combat two days later.
No one else raised the issue. No one knew where the Bradley came from. Younger soldiers thought it wasn't their place to ask questions.
In late August, while researching Smith's story, a St. Petersburg Times reporter tracked down the Bradley commander. He is Sgt. Michael Wilkins, a 13-year Army veteran from Westchester County outside New York City.
Wilkins said that after his Bradley pushed through the gate, he saw a group of Iraqis in the distance.
"They were charging toward the wall, shooting," he said. Wilkins fired his 25mm cannon and a light machine gun.
"I just started laying them down," he said. "I could have killed at least 25 guys, minimum."
Then a red "low ammo" light flashed on his console. Wilkins knew he needed to go to a safe location, since reloading a Bradley requires the crew to be outside the vehicle and the cannon to be tipped upward.
"With my gun in the air, I couldn't engage anything," Wilkins said. "It seemed like a good time to leave."
"I figured I would stay as long as I saw the enemy," Wilkins explained, "But at this time the situation was calm. . . ."
+ + +
The situation was calm?
Spc. McConnell didn't think so. He had heard firing even as he watched the Bradley back out of the courtyard.
The recollections of other GIs differ. Some agree with McConnell. Others said there may have been a brief lull about the time the Bradley left.
"Not as heavy, but there still was fighting," Pvt. Seaman said.
Oddly, whether or not the soldiers in the courtyard could hear firing didn't affect Wilkins _ because he probably couldn't hear it. Bradley crewmen wear helmets designed to keep out sound, so they can communicate by radio. And the Bradley is powered by a noisy diesel engine.
So Wilkins' perception of the battle was based primarily on what he could see, not what he could hear. And what he could see, in his words, were Iraqis "stretched out, blown to pieces."
The Army said the Bradley was forced to leave the courtyard because of repeated hits from rocket-propelled grenades. But Wilkins said he did not even know his vehicle had been hit until someone told him later.
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Ten Americans were killed in action on April 4, five from the Army and five Marines. Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith was the only American to die in the fighting around the courtyard. His commanding officer believes he and his fellow soldiers killed as many as 50 Iraqis there.
The courtyard itself had little military importance. But the American position there secured the eastern flank for the U.S. forces occupying the airport, and the airport was, in the words of one officer, "the gateway to the future of Iraq." The 3rd Infantry Division secured the airport on April 5.
Baghdad fell four days later.
The final chapter of Paul Smith's story is told by those who knew him best:
PVT. THOMAS KETCHUM: "A lot of people thought (Smith) was a prick, me included. . . . But now I realize what he taught us saved our lives."
JANICE PVIRRE: Paul's mother, who lives in New Port Richey. "I'm angry. I'm very angry. It's caused me to question my own Christianity, and I know I shouldn't. But I know there is a reason for it and it will be revealed one day."
SGT. KEVIN YETTER: He knows Smith could have ordered Seaman to man the machine gun rather than do it himself. But Smith "wouldn't send a private to do it. I think he did it knowing that he was better at it and could lay down that protective fire." Yetter has returned to duty along with the other two GIs wounded in the courtyard, Sgt. Berwald and Pvt. Hill.
ELIZABETH DeLAUTER: Now 3, the daughter of Sgt. Harry DeLauter got over her anemia. She still sleeps with the teddy bear Smith drove 40 miles to give her. Her mother named it Smithy.
JESSICA SMITH AND DAVID SMITH: They miss Sundays, when they wrestled on the floor with their dad. They miss the pushups he doled out as punishment when they ran in the house or slammed a door. "I don't hear you counting," he would bellow. "Do it again."
Jessica, 17, speaks of her adopted dad as "the one who was there for me. He was my father from day one." She plans to study child psychology at the University of South Florida this fall.
David, 9, doesn't talk much about losing his dad. He is in counseling at school. Birgit says he plays war a lot more now than he used to. She fears he'll want to be a soldier when he grows up.
BIRGIT SMITH: After the war, she moved from Fort Stewart to Holiday to be closer to Paul's family. In her new home, she sleeps with Paul's shirts, keeps his dirty Buccaneers ball cap hanging on the bedroom wall. She takes it down when she feels sad and presses it to her face. From time to time she watches Top Gun on DVD.
Birgit is asked about Paul's nomination for the Medal of Honor. Her eyes tear up.
"I'm just glad that he's not a statistic," she says. "Paul died for what he believed in. . . . It kind of upsets me that he was such a good soldier, because where does that leave me?"
What would Paul say to that?
"He would say, "We knew from the beginning that military life is not easy. It takes soldiers to war. . . .'
"I'm sure a lot of guys would put their family before the military," she continues. "But for Paul the military was so overwhelming, so powerful. He really loved living for his men. . . . I hear from the soldiers that we were on his mind constantly, but in the time of battle can you really think of your wife or your family?"
Paul left the answer in his laptop.
You will be in my thoughts and heart every day. You are what I see in the brightest star I see in the evening as I look at the stars . . .
For some reason I can't think of what to say to the kids so tell them I miss them . . . I have a hard time picturing them and I look at the old pictures in my wallet but they are so different than the pictures I have.
Well Birgit, I love ya and don't want ya to go crazy wondering about me. We will be just fine. See ya soon.
_ Reporter Alex Leary can be reached at learysptimes.com or 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247.
Sgt. Paul R. Smith's "actions in face of a determined enemy allowed the safe withdrawal of wounded soldiers and stopped the enemy attack on B Company, 11th Engineer Battalion. ... (His) extraordinary heroism and uncommon valor without regard for his own life in order to save others are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service ..."
_ Lt. Col. Thomas P. Smith, 11th Engineer Battalion commander
ABOUT THIS STORY
The narrative of the courtyard battle is based primarily on interviews with the soldiers who fought there.
Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith took about 16 men with him to build a POW enclosure inside. Two infantry scouts joined the fight. A handful of other soldiers were inside at one point or another, including the three-man crew of the Bradley. Of the total, reporter Alex Leary interviewed 19.
Leary also drew from the report prepared by the 11th Engineer Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Thomas P. Smith (no relation) to support Paul R. Smith's nomination for the Medal of Honor.
The story focuses primarily on action in the courtyard, where Smith fought. It largely ignores the rest of the battle, waged along a 200-yard section of wall running west from the courtyard.
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At several points, the story describes what a person was thinking at a particular time, as in: "Please, God," Pace prayed, "let me make it across this courtyard." In every instance, the source of these thoughts is the person quoted.
For purposes of clarity, misspellings in Smith's letters to his wife and parents have been fixed. Drafts of the letters can be seen on the Times' Web site.
Information from the book Medal of Honor by Allen Mikaelian was used.
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The headline "The last full measure of devotion" is taken from the last sentence in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us _ that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion _ that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
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Editor: Mike Moscardini
Designer: Amy Hollyfield
Graphic artist: Jeff Goertzen
Photographer: Brendan Fitterer
Photo editors: Scott Demuesy, Joseph Garnett Jr.
Copy editor: Joe Barberis
ON THE WEB
More of this special report can be found on the Times' Web site.
+ Audio from interviews with the soldiers.
+ Additional photographs of Smith, his family, fellow soldiers and scenes from Iraq.
+ An animated explainer of the April 4, 2003, battle with sounds from the scene.
+ Video of the roll call ceremony on the field after Smith's death.
+ Smith's unmailed letters to his family, and Smith's wife's last letter to him.
+ A guestbook for reader comments.
+ Links to previous Times stories on Smith.
The battle for the courtyard
On April 4, Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith and his combat engineers were part of a 100-man force sent to the outskirts of Saddam International Airport. Their mission: Set up a roadblock protecting the airport from attack along the main road connecting the airport to Baghdad. About 9 a.m., the roadblock came under fire, and infantrymen set off to find the attackers. The GIs captured some Iraqis and radioed that they needed a place to put them. That set off a sequence of events.
1. Smith volunteers to create POW enclosure inside walled courtyard nearby. He and 16 men plan to string concertina wire across a corner of the courtyard next to a tower, in which he plans to station guards. To gain access to the courtyard, he gets a bulldozer to knock a hole in the wall. He sends men to guard a gate on the far side of the courtyard.
2. About 10 a.m., the guards spot movement 100 yards to the north. They call for Smith, who sees as many as 100 Iraqi troops. He calls for a Bradley, a powerful armored vehicle with a rapid-fire cannon. Quickly, one arrives, drives through the gate and fires at the Iraqis. The Bradley gives the GIs an advantage in firepower. Smith steps in front of the Bradley and fires a rocket at the enemy.
3. Soon, GIs come under fire from Iraqis who have gotten into the tower. Smith calls for more firepower, and an M113 armored personnel carrier pulls into the courtyard and fires on the tower. Then it moves up behind the Bradley. The M113 is hit by enemy fire, and its three crewmen are all wounded.
4. GIs evacuate the wounded. The Bradley takes multiple hits from rocket propelled grenades and runs low on ammo. It backs up, almost running over one of the wounded, Sgt. Kevin Yetter. The Bradley leaves the courtyard, taking away the Americans' firepower advantage. Also, the big machine gun on the M113 is no longer manned.
5. Smith climbs into the M113 and orders Pvt. Michael Seaman to back it up. From a new position facing the west wall, Smith can use the machine gun to cover the gate and the tower. He fires steadily, going through more than three boxes of ammo. Outside, other GIs take out the Iraqis in the tower. The battle ends.
Source: Soldiers of B Company, 11th Engineer Battalion, U.S. Army
Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith strikes a defiant pose March 25 at an Iraqi arms complex roughly 75 miles from Baghdad. 1st. Lt. Brian Borkowski, right, said the building held tons of food. Some GIs hurled jars of spaghetti sauce against the wall, leaving red splotches. Soldiers later blew up the building. The photograph was taken during a sandstorm, which explains its yellow cast.
Smith, age 10, shortly after moving to Tampa.
Smith, age 15, showing off an infectious smile.
Smith, age 19, as a new recruit at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
Months later, at graduation from basic training.
Smith poses inside an Iraqi ammunition bunker in late March. At one site, Smith took a bayonet from an AK-47 rifle to bring home to his son, David.
On the morning of April 4, 3rd Infantry Division soldiers, left, took pictures of themselves at a sign outside Saddam International Airport. The Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, above left, and the M113 armored personnel carrier, below, were to play key roles in the battle. Note the .50-caliber machine gun atop the M113, and the attached trailer. Above right, a view of the tower that was occupied by Iraqi soldiers. From it, they could fire down on Smith's men in the adjacent courtyard.
Smith walks through an Iraqi weapons depot after his men blew it up. Smith and his men had been involved in only minor combat until the of April 4.
Above, the aid station just outside the courtyard is littered with medical supplies after the courtyard battle. Below, as seen through night vision goggles, Smith in Kuwait before the war. Even in Kuwait, Smith worked his men harder than other sergeants.
In Kuwait before the war, Pvt. Gary Evans digs a trench for communications wire. At one point, Sgt. Smith irritated his men by insisting that the wire be buried even though it was just a training exercise.
On the road to Baghdad, Spc. Luis Olivas, above, gestures to Iraqi civilians. The later were not always peaceful, however. On March 29, two Iraqi civilians killed four GIs with a car bomb. Below, Sgt. Matthew Keller, left, Pvt. Michael Seaman and Smith pose with captured Iraqi munitions.
Fifteen minutes after the battle, members of Smith's unit rest. "The biggest lesson (Smith) gave us was teamwork," said Cpl. Daniel Medrano, left. "I can surely say that teamwork pulled us through the courtyard."
Smith, right, as a young soldier in Germany, where, in the words of a friend, he enjoyed "beer, women and fast cars."
Smith and Birgit on their wedding day, Jan. 24, 1992. Denmark required less paperwork than did Germany so they married there.
Smith's children, David and Jessica. Smith took David fishing and went mudbogging in his Jeep with Jessica.
On April 5, a day after the battle, the B Company engineers hold a memorial service for Smith. That same day, Sgt. Matthew Keller asked why the Bradley left in the middle of the battle.
Pvt. Michael Seaman sits in front of an M113 last summer at Fort Stewart after returning from Iraq. Seaman reloaded Smith's machine gun during the courtyard battle.
Birgit and Paul Smith made Shania Twain's You're Still the One their song. She got the tattoo after Paul's death.