By Spc. Chris Erickson, USA
HOLIDAY, Fla., Aug. 30, 2006 – A new middle school named in honor of a Florida soldier who earned the Medal of Honor for heroism in Operation Iraqi Freedom was dedicated here Aug. 25.
The dedication of Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith Middle School came a year after Smith was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on April 4, 2003. That's the date his unit, the 11th Engineer Battalion, was attacked by enemy forces near Baghdad International Airport while the unit was building a prisoner-of-war holding area.
Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division, students, faculty, family and members of the local community gathered at the school to celebrate Smith's legacy. Col. Mark McKnight, 3rd Infantry Division chief of staff, said naming the school after Smith is a fitting honor.
"I think it's very appropriate," McKnight said during his remarks at the ceremony in the school's gymnasium. "Smith wasn't born a hero, he was developed a hero; and part of that development is your school experience. What an honor and a lasting tribute to a Medal of Honor winner to name a school in his legacy, because they'll develop Medal of Honor winners in this school. They may not earn them on the field of battle, but they'll earn them in communities, churches, and government, so I think it's great."
Other soldiers in attendance agreed dedicating the school to Smith's memory was a wonderful act by the community, although some said they felt that Smith was such a humble soldier, he would have shunned the recognition.
"I'm very glad that they did it," said Sgt. 1st Class Glenn A. Goody, an operations sergeant with 3rd ID's 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. "It is an honor for him to have a school that's going to affect so many children. Sergeant 1st Class Smith wouldn't have liked all the fuss. ... To him, he was doing his job."
Smith's widow, Birgit, agreed that her husband wouldn't have sought the attention. "If he were here today, he would be explaining he was only doing his job," she said. "He was a modest man who did not enjoy being in the spotlight."
When his unit was attacked, according to the Medal of Honor citation detailing his horoism, Smith quickly organized a hasty defense consisting of two platoons of soldiers, a Bradley fighting vehicle and three armored personnel carriers. As the fight developed, Smith braved hostile enemy fire to personally engage the enemy with hand grenades and anti-tank weapons, and organized the evacuation of three wounded soldiers from an armored personnel carrier struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and a 60 mm mortar round.
Fearing the enemy would overrun their defenses, Smith moved under withering enemy fire to man a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a damaged armored personnel carrier. "In total disregard for his own life, he maintained his exposed position in order to engage the attacking enemy force," the citation reads.
Smith continued to fire on enemy forces, reloading the machine gun three times, before he was killed by enemy fire.
Those who knew Smith remember him as a noncommissioned officer who demanded a lot from his soldiers, but produced dedicated, disciplined troops as a result.
"Sergeant 1st Class Smith was one of those guys you thought of as Superman," said Staff Sgt. Robert P. Puckett, a platoon sergeant with Co. E, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, after the school ceremony. "In my opinion, there is nothing they could ever do to commemorate him -- there is no dedication worthy. However, I think it's a great thing they're doing here. Hopefully, it will reflect on the students, and the students will grow up to be good people in the world."
Smith's widow said naming the school after her husband will keep his legacy alive.
"The naming of the new middle school after him assures that the community where he grew up will never forget his name and the bravery he displayed at the battle at the Baghdad International Airport," she said. "It was an important battle that had to be won so coalition forces could bring stability to a city of chaos. A city where citizens, for their entire life, never had the opportunity to make their own decisions and choices as we do here in the United States. My husband is a man worthy of being remembered."
She expressed the hope that students attending the school would learn about Smith and try to be like him. "I hope they find encouragement to try and emulate his character, his selflessness, his action of bravery, loyalty and devotion to a cause greater than himself, and especially his desire to inspire those around him to be better people," she said.
This is not the first time Smith has been honored in his hometown. The Holiday post office has been dedicated to Smith, and in November 2003 the former Simulation and Training Technology Center in Orlando, Fla., was renamed in his honor.
The school opened for about 850 students to attend the first day of classes Aug. 8. Among them was Smith's son, David, who began the seventh grade here.
(Army Spc. Chris Erickson is assigned to the 129th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)