Two years to the day after Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith was killed defending his unit from an enemy attack near the Baghdad airport, President Bush on Monday presented his family the first Medal of Honor awarded in more than a decade.
In a tear-filled White House ceremony, Bush handed Smith's 11-year-old son, David, the nation's highest award for valor in combat.
"Scripture tells us . . . that a man has no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. And that is exactly the responsibility Paul Smith believed the sergeant's stripes on his sleeve had given him," Bush told an audience that included Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "In a letter he wrote to his parents but never mailed, he said that he was prepared to 'give all that I am to ensure that all my boys make it home.' "
On April 4, 2003 -- barely two weeks after the Iraq war began and five days before Baghdad fell -- the 3rd Infantry Division captured the capital's airport. Smith, 33, who had served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in Bosnia and in Kosovo, was assigned to turn a courtyard near the airport into a temporary holding pen for Iraqi prisoners.
But as his unit of the 11th Engineer Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division advanced, it was attacked by more than 100 members of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.
Outnumbered and out in the open, Smith climbed aboard an armored personnel carrier and began shooting a .50-caliber machine gun, firing more than 300 rounds of ammunition. He held off the attack, killing nearly 50 Republican Guard soldiers and protecting his own men before being mortally wounded by Iraqi fire.
"Sgt. Smith's leadership saved the men in the courtyard, and he prevented an enemy attack on the aid station just up the road," Bush said. "We thank his family for the father, the husband and son and brother who can never be replaced."
In his remarks, the president recalled a young man who, after graduating from high school in Tampa, Fla., joined the Army in 1989 and received "extra duty -- scrubbing floors" for misbehavior with friends. But that soldier became, the president said, a "devoted family man who played T-ball with his son and taught his daughter how to change the oil in his Jeep Cherokee."
Smith's wife, Birgit, whom he met in 1990 while stationed in Germany, clutched the left hand of her 18-year-old daughter, Jessica, and wept as the president handed the framed medal, with its signature blue ribbon with 13 stars, to her son.
"Every one of our soldiers deserves the title of a hero," Birgit Smith, who lives in Holiday, Fla., said after the ceremony. "To truly honor Paul, we must honor all the soldiers and the work and sacrifice they do on a daily basis in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world."
It was only the third such medal given since the Vietnam War. The last combat action in which Medals of Honor were awarded was Somalia. Two were given to Army sergeants killed in the October 1993 "Black Hawk Down" incident in Mogadishu.
Recommendations for the Medal of Honor take at least 18 months to investigate. Including the award to Smith, 3,460 Medals of Honor have been presented since the award was established in 1861.
Birgit Smith said getting her shy son to accept his father's medal was not difficult.
"He is now the man in our household," she told reporters outside the White House.