Over the decades, the Medal of Honor—the highest award for valor—has evolved into the U.S. military equivalent of sainthood. Only eight Medals of Honor have been awarded since the Vietnam War, all posthumously. “You don’t have to die to win it, but it helps,” says Army Colonel Thomas P. Smith. A West Point graduate from the Bronx, Smith has a unique perspective. He was a battalion commander in Iraq when one of his men performed actions that resulted in the Medal of Honor. It was then-Lieutenant Colonel Smith who pushed the paperwork for the award through the Pentagon bureaucracy, a two-year process.
On the morning of April 4, 2003, the 11th Engineer Battalion of the Third Infantry Division broke through to Baghdad International Airport. With sporadic fighting all around, Smith’s men began to blow up captured ordnance that was blocking the runways. Nobody had slept, showered, or eaten much for weeks. In the midst of this mayhem, Smith got word that one of his platoon leaders, Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith (no relation) of Tampa, Florida, had been killed an hour earlier in a nearby firefight. Before he could react emotionally to the news, he was given another piece of information: that the 33-year-old sergeant had been hit while firing a .50- caliber heavy machine gun mounted on an armored personnel carrier. That was highly unusual, since it wasn’t Sergeant Smith’s job to fire the .50 cal. “That and other stray neurons of odd information about the incident started coming at me,” explains Colonel Smith. But there was no time then to follow up, for within hours they were off in support of another battalion that was about to be overrun. And a few days after that, other members of the platoon, who had witnessed Sergeant Smith’s last moments, were themselves killed.