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First Iraq Medal of Honor Recipient Honored at Arlington

By Terri Lukach
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 6, 2005 – At the foot of a hill crowned by trees and dappled by bright sunlight, the family of a certified hero unveiled a gold-lettered memorial headstone April 5 in Arlington National Cemetery.

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A soldier stands watch at the Arlington National Cemetery site of a memorial headstone for Operation Iraqi Freedom Medal of Honor recipient Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith. Smiths widow and children unveiled the headstone in an April 5 ceremony. Photo by Terri Lukach

(Click photo for screen-resolution image)

The day before, the young widow and her two children accepted the hero's Medal of Honor from the president. Just before they came to the cemetery, they'd seen him enshrined in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes. Now, the family of Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith -- his widow, Birgit, and their two children, Jessica and David -- unveiled his memorial stone before a small company of family and friends.

Smith was killed in a firefight with Saddam Hussein's forces at Baghdad International Airport on April 4, 2003, while saving the lives of more than 100 fellow soldiers. His Medal of Honor - the nation's highest award for valor in combat -- is the first awarded for service in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the global war on terror.

Soldiers from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, who were part of the mission in which Smith gave his life, also were present at the ceremony.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston called Smith's memorial an important reminder to soldiers past and present and to the more than 4 million people who visit Arlington each year that "freedom is not free." He also called Smith a dedicated soldier who "solidified the very core of our Army."

"On that day, 100 American soldiers witnessed and learned leadership of extraordinary proportions -- leadership that changed and influenced their lives forever," Preston said. "Those 100 men will in turn lead hundreds of soldiers, who will benefit from the leadership gained from serving with Sergeant 1st Class Smith. That process will continue to be shared across the entire Army from one unit to another." Preston said that with the permanent memorial at Arlington, Smith has "become a part of the history of our country."

"For as long as our flag stands," he said, "these 200 hundred acres of sacred ground will cradle our heroes and the memory of Paul's commitment."

The memorial erected for Smith is one of only six such markers scattered throughout Arlington.

Below the hilltop on which the ceremony took place, a sloping sea of weathered white headstones falls away as far as the eye can see. As the group was gathered, the haunting sound of "Taps" could be heard rising up from another service far below.

Following Preston's remarks, Birgit, Jessica and David Smith approached the memorial draped in blue fabric. As the shroud was removed, Smith's widow knelt, caressed the stone, and wiped away a tear as she kissed the marker.

A lone bugler sounded "Taps," this time for Smith, after Birgit placed a red, white and blue wreath at the site.

Contact Author

Sgt. Maj. Of the Army Kenneth O. Preston

Related Sites:
Arlington National Cemetery
Army Web Site Honoring Sgt. 1st Class Smith

Related Articles:
Medal of Honor Awardee Smith Inducted Into Hall of Heroes
President Presents First Medal of Honor for Terror War Gallantry

Click photo for screen-resolution imageBirgit Smith visits her husband's memorial headstone April 5 at Arlington National Cemetery. Smiths husband, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, was mortally wounded saving his platoon in Operation Iraqi Freedom and is the first soldier to receive the Medal of Honor in the conflict. U.S. Photo by Staff Sgt. Reeba Critser, USA  
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