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Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith was killed in action when his outnumbered unit was attacked by Iraqi forces at the Baghdad airport in April, 2003. Credited with saving hundreds of lives, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.Medals of honor

Only 124 Medal of Honor recipients are still living. Although soldiers have received the lion's share of the nation's highest military award, Marines, sailors, airmen and even one coast guardsman have earned the Medal of Honor as well. Here's how the medals have been split among the services:

Army:2,401

Navy:745

Marine Corps:296

Air Force:17

Coast Guard:1

Total number of awards:3,460

Source:Congressional Medal of Honor Society

Two years to the day after Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith fought and died on a dusty road outside Baghdad, the president handed the soldier’s 11-year-old son a glass-encased Medal of Honor in the name of Congress and the nation.

On April 4, President Bush handed Smith’s family what he described as the “first Medal of Honor in the war on terror.”

Credited with rallying the defense of his platoon in the face of a near-overwhelming counterattack by Iraqi forces after the 3rd Infantry Division seized Saddam International Airport, Smith is the first to be awarded the country’s highest award for valor since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.

In fact, since Vietnam, only two other Medals of Honor had been awarded. Both were given to Delta Force operators — Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart — after the pair were killed trying to save downed aviators in Somalia in 1993. Nearly half of all who have earned the award have died earning its honor.

“On this day two years ago, Sergeant Smith gave his all for his men,” Bush said. “Five days later, Baghdad fell, and the Iraqi people were liberated. And today, we bestow upon Sergeant Smith the first Medal of Honor in the war on terror.”

With the Pentagon brass looking on alongside congressional leaders and a handful of Smith’s soldiers flown in from Iraq — where they are now serving their second combat tour — the fallen soldier’s son David stoically accepted the award for the family as his widowed mom wiped away tears.

“The story of Paul Smith is a story of a boy transformed into a man and a leader,” Bush told the assembly. After joining the Army in 1989, Bush said Smith remained “a typical young American. He liked sports, he liked fast cars, and he liked to stay out late with his friends — pursuits that occasionally earned him what the Army calls ‘extra duty’ scrubbing floors.”

After his first combat tour during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Smith earned his sergeant’s stripes and became known as a stickler for detail.

“Sergeant Smith’s seriousness wasn’t always appreciated by the greener troops under his direction,” Bush said. “Those greener troops oftentimes found themselves [doing] tasks over and over again, until they got it right. Specialist Michael Seaman, who is with us today, says, ‘He was hard in training because he knew we had to be hard in battle.’ Specialist Seaman will also tell you that he and others are alive today because of Sergeant Smith’s discipline.”

In a letter written to his parents but never mailed, Smith wrote he was prepared to “give all that I am to ensure that all my boys make it home.”

And that’s exactly what it took.

“Sergeant Smith’s leadership saved the men,” under him that day, Bush said, “and he prevented an enemy attack on the aid station just up the road.” Manning a heavy machine gun atop an armored personnel carrier, “Smith continued to fire and took a — until he took a fatal round to the head.

“We recall with appreciation the fellow soldiers whose lives he saved, and the many more he inspired. And we express our gratitude for a new generation of Americans, every bit as selfless and dedicated to liberty as any that has gone on before — a dedication exemplified by the sacrifice and valor of Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith.”

Laid to restIn two ceremonies the next day, Sgt. 1st Class Smith was remembered as a tough soldier who made a difference in the lives of others.

“Today, we assemble in another special place, where we will memorialize Sergeant First Class Smith by placing him in a formation with ranks filled by our nation’s most courageous here in the Hall of Heroes,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker told a somber gathering at the Pentagon.

“As I had the honor of serving with and knowing intimately the last two soldiers who joined this special formation,” Schoomaker said, “I am certain that they are very proud to welcome our newest hero, because they are brothers.” Schoomaker, as a former Special Operations commander, led Gordon and Shughart before they were killed in Somalia in 1993, the last to earn the Medal of Honor.

Choking back tears, Smith’s widow, Birgit, said she was proud her husband was one of those people.

“Paul loved his country, he loved the Army, and he loved his soldiers. He loved being a sapper (combat engineer). He died doing what he loved,” she said.

A few hours later, in the Pentagon’s western shadow, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston continued the theme of service to nation at Arlington National Cemetery, where a new memorial was unveiled with Smith’s name etched in the white stone.

“This stone will give soldiers — past and present — and those who aspire to wear the uniform of a soldier, the opportunity to reflect on Paul’s actions two years ago. Actions that saved the lives of 100 of his fellow soldiers,” said Preston, under a cool blue sky.

Smith’s son David sat stoically between his weeping mom and sister as Preston recounted the day Smith died.

“On that day, 100 American solders witnessed and learned leadership of extraordinary proportions — leadership that changes and influenced their lives forever,” Preston said. “Those 100 men will in turn lead hundreds of soldiers who will benefit from that leadership, gained from serving with Sergeant First Class Smith. The process will continue to be shared across the Army from one unit to another.”


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