Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith: A Real Soldier's Soldier
By Zeno Gamble
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 6, 2005 Over the past two days, I have spent quite a bit of time with the family of Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith. His German-born wife Birgit, their son, David, and their adopted daughter, Jessica, arrived in town April 3. Members of his extended family from Germany also are here, plus a handful of his fellow soldiers who served with him in Iraq.
It has been two years since Smith was killed in action, firing a .50-caliber machine gun from atop a broken-down armored personnel carrier in a courtyard where he had been instructed to build a containment facility for detainees near the Baghdad airport. His actions that day saved more than 100 of his fellow soldiers.
We all gathered in Washington for the presentation of the Medal of Honor to Smith's son, 11-year-old David.
My friend Ernie Stewart and I had both been invited to join the Smith family. Stewart heads an organization named "Let's Bring 'Em Home." We had been helping reunite service members and their families for Christmas holidays over the years. We had done what we could in helping to take care of the family since Smith's death, and were invited to take part in the ceremonies.
David was a trooper like his father. As he stood next to his mother and his sister at the White House, David received the medal from the president. His face reflected the solemn mood of the ceremony, and his Aunt Lisa and Uncle Brad predicted that he would indeed grow up to be like his father. Later, he proved that his childhood was still intact, and he chatted freely of videogames and cartoons.
Jessica seemed distant at times, but was not shy. It appeared to me that her father's sudden recognition had affected her life, and in a positive way. When the soldiers rolled up their sleeves to show off, she showed off her own Celtic design on her lower back.
Birgit remained in the highest of spirits throughout it all. Each ceremony brought her to tears, but when she spoke I could see that her words were full of pride for her husband. Her smile never wavered, and she was strong. It was with a grin when she showed off her tattoo. A red heart containing the name "Paul Ray" was emblazoned on her left arm under the words "You're still Number 1."
John Boxler also was there. The young man from Johnstown, Pa., had offered to become David's pen pal, knowing firsthand what it's like to lose a father. Boxler's father, Army Sgt. John Boxler Sr., had been killed when a Scud missile struck his camp in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. The Smith family asked Boxler to join in attending the April 5 ceremony at the Pentagon. The visit would complete his desire to visit all three places where the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred.
Spc. Michelle Chavez was there. She was the medic who worked on Smith after he was shot in the head. Chavez had attempted to remove his helmet to treat him, but found that the helmet was holding his head together. She worked for 30 minutes trying to save him.
Pfc. Michael Seaman was there. He had been the driver of the armored personnel carrier. He was the guy injured by a rocket-propelled grenade who did his best to keep feeding Smith ammunition during the battle. He wore an Army Commendation Medal with a valor device on his uniform.
Spc. Louis Berwald was there. He had been manning the .50-caliber machine gun on the APC before it was struck with a mortar, inflicting injuries to his face, shoulder, and hand. He was evacuated from the courtyard and later received the Army Commendation Medal with valor device and a Purple Heart.
Sgt. Matt Keller was there. He had crossed the courtyard with Smith where a Bradley fighting vehicle knocked down a gate so they could engage the enemy. He followed Smith through, firing AT-4 rockets and his weapon at enemy positions and then returned through the breach while Smith fired the .50-caliber machine gun from the armored personnel carrier. He received a Bronze Star with valor device.
Sgt. Derek Pelletier was there. He had been firing anti-tank rockets at enemy positions alongside his boss. Knowing Smith almost four years, he was a loyal and dedicated subordinate. Pelletier was awarded the Bronze Star for his action in that battle. He was awarded another Bronze Star for heroism in a later battle where he saw Smith's replacement hit by enemy fire. When he tried to pull him from the battlefield, he discovered that his boss had been cut in half. After duty in Iraq, he was admitted to the hospital for five months and then released from active duty to return to his home in Boston.
Enshrined in the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon, Smith joined the brotherhood of soldiers whose true valor Americans rarely see. Birgit spoke in the hall, her red-heart tattoo visible under the see-through sleeves of her blouse.
Steadying her voice and holding back tears, Birgit told us that not only was her husband tough on his troops, but also on himself. That was reflected in his ideals.
"American soldiers liberated the German people from tyranny in World War II," she said. "Today, another generation of American soldiers has given the Iraqi and the Afghan people a birth of freedom. This is an ideal that Paul truly believed in."
Before finishing, she said she knew her husband would be proud that she had finally started the process to become an American citizen. Everyone in the Hall of Heroes applauded loudly.
It is an understatement to say that when a soldier read Smith's citation aloud, citing his "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty" I got choked up. Army Maj. Al Rascon, a Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient, standing next to me with his wife, Carol, had tears in his eyes and couldn't speak a word. Smith's battle buddies also were silent. You could hear them sniffing as each tried to hold back tears.
I felt honored that Birgit had asked me to join the family and guests. The ceremonies at the White House and the Pentagon were a prelude to a final ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where the sound of "Taps" brought the world to a standstill and everyone to a moment of closure. It is the saddest song in the world.
After the official ceremonies were over, about 20 of us -- family, friends, and soldiers - gathered in the lounge at the Washington Hilton and talked late into the night about life, the world, politics, religion, weather and death. The somber voices faded away as we drank beer and schnapps and brandy. Cigarette smoke wafted about as the frowns slowly turned to smiles, then laughter, as we noticed the gathering had become an impromptu wake.
Birgit's nephew Mathias shared a brew with his father and me as we talked about the overwhelming emotions of the past two days.
"You know, back home in Germany, I can only hope to see the Bundeschancellor on television," he said. "But when our family comes to America, we are greeted by the president. This is indeed a funny situation."
As the evening turned late, and our energy waned, we all parted ways. We exchanged hugs, addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. We had all been drawn together by a single tragedy resulting from an attack on our nation, and we each had to deal with the events that had led us to this time and place.
A terrorist attack, a soldier's unwavering duty to his country, the loss of a loved one -- such things are difficult to totally comprehend.- Yet from such tragedies one cannot help but feel pride. As we separated and made one last toast to Paul Ray and to Birgit, I wondered where each of us was going and if any of us would see one another again.
We knew where Birgit was going. She was going on to New York to see the World Trade Center site. She said she wanted to see what her husband had died for. I hope that the others in our group also find the closure in our lives where Paul Ray Smith had once been.
(Zeno Gamble is a writer in the Executive Secretariat at the Pentagon.)