By Lisa Hoffman
Scripps Howard News Service
In a walled courtyard not far from Baghdad's airport, Smith and his 15 lightly armed soldiers were trying to hold off 100 Special Republican Guard fighters wielding rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and AK-47 assault rifles. When wounds downed the U.S. crew of the armored vehicle bearing the Americans' sole heavy machine gun, Smith scrambled into the breach.
In the gunner's hatch of that personnel carrier, with half his body exposed to enemy fire, the sergeant sprayed the crack Iraqi fighters with as many as 500 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition, creating cover for his soldiers to get to safety. As he did, Smith, 33, took so many hits that, in the end, the bulletproof ceramic plate in his flak jacket had shattered into pieces.
When the shooting stopped, the only American to perish in that April 4, 2003, battle was Smith, a father of two from Tampa, Fla. An estimated 50 Iraqi soldiers died.
For his valor, Smith is slated to posthumously receive the nation's highest medal for bravery. His widow, Birgit, says military officials have told her that President Bush will soon present the first Medal of Honor of the Iraq war to Smith at a White House ceremony.
The first to earn the award since 1993, Smith is unlikely to be the last to achieve such historical immortality on the bloody battlefields of Iraq. As the war begins its third year March 19, the roster of American combat heroes is rich, according to accounts by relatives, fellow service members and medal-nomination narratives.
Though most have won little note outside their own units and hometowns, dozens of GIs - many brand-new to adulthood - have distinguished themselves with extraordinary valor in what for many were their last moments of life.
One was Sgt. Rafael Peralta, 25, of San Diego, a Mexican immigrant who joined the Marines the day after he got his "green card." A platoon scout who didn't have to go on the dangerous Nov. 15 mission, Peralta volunteered to join a "stack" of five Marines hunting insurgents house-to-house in Fallujah.
Three enemy fighters waited behind a closed door. When Peralta opened it, he was hit in the head and chest by a close-up fusillade of AK-47 fire.
His Marine mates fought on, until one of the insurgents rolled a grenade toward Peralta, who lay bleeding on the floor. To save his nearby comrades, Peralta reached for the explosive and tucked it under his stomach, where it exploded. He was the only Marine to die.
"This champion of men made the split-second decision to sacrifice his life for his men," Julie Snyder, a Snohomish, Wash., mother of a Marine saved that day, wrote in an online tribute to Peralta. "The words don't exist to describe what's in my heart for this man."
Last April, Cpl. Jason Dunham, 22, of Scio, N.Y., similarly sacrificed himself to save his fellow Marines. As he checked a line of civilian vehicles for weapons near Karbala, a man leaped from his battered Toyota SUV and grabbed Dunham by the throat.
As they wrestled in the dirt, Dunham spotted a grenade in the man's grip. When the insurgent released the grenade, Dunham shouted to warn away his 14-man patrol, dived onto the explosive and cupped it under his helmet to shield the other Marines.
Dunham, who had extended his enlistment in order to stay with his squad in Iraq, died eight days later without regaining consciousness. Everyone else - including the insurgent - survived.
"His personal action was far beyond the call of duty and saved the lives of others," Lt. Col. Matthew Lopez wrote in his recommendation that Dunham be awarded the Medal of Honor.
So did 1st Sgt. Brad Kasal, 38, who led a half-dozen Marines into an insurgent-held house in Fallujah in November last year to rescue three wounded leathernecks trapped inside. When the mission was over, Kasal had been shot seven times and punctured by 40 pieces of shrapnel, which he absorbed when he used his body to shelter an injured comrade from an enemy grenade. Kasal survived, as did all but one of the other Marines.
Many American soldiers have died not only for their band of brothers, but also for Iraqi civilians in harm's way.
Marine Lance Cpl. Todd Bolding, 23, and his platoon were handing out soccer balls and school supplies to schools near Ramadi last June when an insurgent fired an RPG, missing the troops' Humvees and hitting a group of children instead. As the Marines frantically worked to save the badly injured kids, another enemy RPG struck, leaving Bolding, of Manvel, Texas, mortally wounded.
Also 23, Army 1st Lt. Adam Malson, of Rochester Hills, Mich., died Feb. 19 after stopping to aid an Iraqi woman begging for help by the side of the road, bleeding from wounds from an earlier insurgent bombing of worshippers on their way to a Baghdad mosque. As he tended to her, a suicide bomber pulled up behind him and detonated his explosives. The woman survived. Malson did not.
The selflessness of Army Staff Sgt. Jason Hendrix began long before he died last month while rescuing members of his platoon from an enemy artillery attack in Ramadi.
Earlier, Hendrix, 28, of Claremore, Okla., had spent more than $2,000 of his own money to buy for his fellow soldiers night-vision goggles, flashlights, face masks and other equipment that the Army did not supply them. Often, he would give his meal rations to hungry Iraqi kids. And he donated his Christmas leave to another soldier, so the new father could go home to see his baby for the first time.
A burly, 10-year soldier on his second Iraq tour, Hendrix took on heavy fire that hit his squad Feb. 16. In charge of an armored carrier "decoy" unit whose mission was to draw enemy fire away from advancing U.S. troops, Hendrix managed to pull a half-dozen fellow soldiers from fiery vehicles before an explosion killed him.
Like Hendrix, Army Spc. Joseph Herndon, just 21, jeopardized his own safety to protect others. A former high-school football-team captain from Derby, Kan., who had been the man of the house since his father died when he was 9, Herndon had already earned two Purple Hearts by the time he was killed by a sniper's bullet last July while on patrol.
The first time, in April, he was hit in the chest by a rocket-propelled grenade during a battle in Hawijah. Despite his shrapnel wounds, he refused treatment until after he helped carry two other injured troops out of harm's way.
In June, after being struck by shrapnel and two AK-47 bullets during an insurgent attack on his convoy, Herndon again saved a fellow soldier before seeking help for his own wounds. After his second Purple Heart, Herndon had the option to leave Iraq for good. He insisted on returning to serve with his unit.
So did Army Spc. Taylor Burk. A 21-year-old medic from Amarillo, Texas, Burk earned the Bronze Star for his dedication to duty last April when insurgents let loose a five-hour barrage of gunfire on his nighttime patrol and other U.S. forces.
In an unarmored Humvee, Burk took a bullet smack in the heel, shattering the bone. He kept quiet about the agonizing pain. Still under fire, Burk hustled to tie a tourniquet to stop the deadly arterial bleeding of a buddy hit in the thigh, then demanded they speed with lights out along dangerous Baghdad streets to get the wounded man, Pvt. Joseph Bridges, to a surgical facility.
Lauded later for his valor, Burk said simply, "I just did my job."
Known as a soft-spoken, cheerful guy, Burk spent the next six months in rehabilitation at Fort Hood, Texas. Miserable, he lobbied to rejoin his unit. Once back in Iraq, he was assigned a headquarters job, but convinced his commanders to let him replace another frontline medic who had been wounded.
In November, days before his second Iraq tour was to end, a piece of shrapnel from a roadside bomb slammed through Burk's collarbone and killed him. Among the throng at his funeral was Bridges, the man whose life he saved.
At a Feb. 14 memorial service for Army Sgt. Zachary Wobler, those who spoke described how he embodied the devotion to duty, honor and country that commanders try to layer deep in every soldier, along with a steely commitment to their comrades that appears rarely in the civilian world.
About a week before, Wobler, 24, had fought with all the ferocity the brass could want when he and other soldiers were pinned down in a Mosul warehouse by a carload of insurgents.
Though wounded three times, Wobler, of Ottawa, Ohio, managed to kill the driver of the car during an intense firefight. Though bleeding badly, he resisted being evacuated, continuing to return fire even as he was carried away on a stretcher.
So insistent was he to rejoin his fellow soldiers that medics had to sedate him before they could treat him.
In the end, he bled to death.
"I do this for you," Wobler wrote in a "letter to America" he penned before he died, which was read by a chaplain at his service and quoted in the Toledo Blade newspaper. "I ask just one thing of you: Stand behind us."