General George Patton said he would sell his soul for one. President Truman indicated that he would rather have one than be president. On Monday, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, who grew up in Tampa, was posthumously awarded what both craved: a Congressional Medal of Honor.
While admittedly critical of the numerous miscalculations and failures of the war in Iraq, these seem to fade to the background when reflecting on Smith’s life and eventual death in battle. He puts a human face on a war that has taken place half a world away. While resigned to the fact that troops will continue to serve in Iraq, the increasing challenge is to remember that it is a war affecting real people, not a war limited to a numerical quantity of troops.
Smith moved to Tampa when he was 9 years old and eventually graduated from Tampa Bay Vocational Technical High School. He developed an interest in carpentry, but his family mentions in his Medal of Honor profile that as far back as they can recall, he said, “I want to be a soldier, get married and have kids.” Even though some may not have military service as a goal, his aspirations for family are not much different from many people’s. He was able to attain these goals as he joined the Army, became a combat engineer, was married and had two children.
Supporting the fact that Smith’s leadership was nurtured rather than innate, President George W. Bush even indicated during the Medal of Honor ceremony on Monday that Smith occasionally received “extra duty” for his extra-curricular activities off the military base early in his career. The turning point for Smith was his service in the first Gulf War. Returning, he mentioned that he “never realized how war was.” It gave him a focus on leadership and genuine concern for his soldiers, referring to them as “his boys.” As evidence, Smith once drove 40 miles from his Ft. Stewart, Ga., base to deliver a teddy bear to a daughter of a subordinate who was hospitalized.
All these events led up to his heroism on April 4, 2003, near Baghdad International Airport. Serving in the Third Infantry Division, Smith’s unit was attacked by some 100 Iraqi forces. With his torso and head exposed, Smith fired hundreds of rounds to protect his troops, and according to his award, “Smith’s actions saved the lives of at least 100 soldiers.”
Smith is now in elite company. He is one of only 3,459 since the Civil War, and only the third since Vietnam, to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. In an emotional ceremony, his 11-year-old son David received the award from the president, and his wife Birgit described Smith as a “very tough and passionate soldier.”
The power of Smith’s story is not in the chronology of events leading up to this battle a few days before the fall of Baghdad, but in its intangible lessons for everyone. While we don’t expect to face a firefight in class today, there are opportunities to lead as well as to help others succeed, just as we strive to attain our own goals. We can read all the leadership books available and while they may help, the truth will be evident in how we react when it matters. This will be the case whether in academia, the business sector, the health care industry or anywhere else we may end up after our formal schooling is completed.
Smith’s life is a powerful message that although we may debate the correctness of this war and how it has been waged, the fact remains that it is happening and some American soldiers are truly acting in a heroic manner. Questions will remain about prisoner treatment, defeating the pesky insurgency and when the occupation will end, but stories like Smith’s renew our belief in the ability to overcome odds and put others before ourselves.
Aaron Hill is a juniormajoring in firstname.lastname@example.org