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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 April 4, 2003. He is credited with saving hundreds of lives. (U.S. Army photo)Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith

Unit: 11th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division

Medal: Medal of Honor

Earned: April 4, 2003, Baghdad airport

Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously during a White House ceremony April 4, for his gallantry in action with an armed enemy near Saddam International Airport two years before.

Here is his story.

It had been a long, hard slog for the “Jungle Cats” of 3rd Infantry Division’s 11th Engineer Battalion.

Sixteen days and some 300 sandblasted miles since they’d begun pushing through the desert across the Kuwaiti border, plunging deep into Iraq, about 100 bleary-eyed men from the battalion’s Company Bravo found themselves staring down the road to Baghdad along the eastern side of Saddam International Airport.

It was the company’s job to erect barriers to prevent Republican Guard reinforcements from breaking through as the division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team secured the key runways, dubbed Objective Lions, and began probing forward toward the capital city.

That’s when Bravo’s second platoon got new orders to construct a makeshift holding pen for enemy prisoners.

It was Smith — a hard-nosed 33-year-old platoon sergeant from Tampa, Fla. — who got things moving.

A veteran of the Persian Gulf War and then peacekeeping tours in Bosnia and Kosovo, Smith was known as a strict leader. During the buildup for the invasion, he had pushed hard not only to continually refine his troops’ traditional building and demolition skills, but also to carve out time for advanced marksmanship training and urban combat drills.

Maybe that’s why, through the dust and clamor of building the prisoner camp, one of Smith’s troops noticed something strange a few hundred yards away and alerted him.

Peering through the scope on his rifle, Smith could see dozens of Iraqi troops flanking around the division’s lead elements.

The Iraqi counterattack was coming, but not from the direction it was expected. Instead, they were coming right for Smith’s position.

Even as Smith barked orders to grab a nearby Bradley fighting vehicle and bring his own armored personnel carriers into position while dispatching the rest of his troops into a hasty defense, more than 100 enemy fighters were soon swarming into nearby fighting positions around a walled compound.

Facing a storm of enemy rifle, rocket and mortar fire, Smith charged the position, lobbing a grenade as the Bradley maneuvered into the fray.

In the ensuing melee, Smith would rally his troops leading from the front as he directed fire, repositioned his squads and — at one point — destroyed an enemy position with an anti-tank rocket.

Before long, though, the Bradley was running low on ammunition and had to withdraw to reload. That’s when one of Smith’s armored personnel carriers rocked back from a direct mortar hit, wounding three troops inside.

“The enemy attack was at its strongest point and every action counted. Not only were the wounded soldiers threatened but also more than 100 soldiers from B Company, the Task Force Aid Station, and the Mortar Platoon were at risk,” reads the official narrative of the battle.

When one of his soldiers slumped behind the .50 caliber machine gun mounted atop another APC, Smith jumped behind the big gun, yelling to a nearby soldier, “Feed me ammunition whenever you hear the gun get quiet.”

Firing unprotected, Smith would burn through at least three boxes of ammunition before being fatally wounded.

He is credited with killing 25 to 50 enemy soldiers while allowing the safe withdrawal of numerous wounded U.S. soldiers.

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