The beginning of the story of Paul R. Smith:
The GIs were dirty, mosquito-bitten, fatigued, homesick. They had been on the road almost constantly for two weeks. Many had not slept in days.
At dawn on April 4, they arrived at Saddam International Airport to the sound of sporadic gunfire and the acrid smell of distant explosions. Breakfast was a mushy, prepackaged concoction the Army optimistically calls "pasta with vegetables."
Still, the mood was upbeat. Reaching the airport meant the war was almost over. Some of the men broke out cheap cigars to celebrate. Afterward, Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith and his combat engineers set about their mission that day, putting up a roadblock on the divided highway that connects the airport and Baghdad. Then, just before 10 a.m., a sentry spotted Iraqi troops nearby. Maybe 15 or 20. By the time Smith had a chance to look for himself, the number was closer to 100.
Smith could oppose them with just 16 men. He ordered his soldiers to take up fighting positions and called for a Bradley, a powerful armored vehicle. It arrived quickly and opened fire. The Americans thought they were in control until, inexplicably, the Bradley backed up and left.
"Everybody was like, "What the hell?"' said Cpl. Daniel Medrano. "We felt like we got left out there alone." The outnumbered GIs faced intense Iraqi fire. Whether they would survive the next few minutes hinged largely on Smith. He was 33 years old, a 1989 graduate of Tampa Bay Vocational-Technical High School, a husband and father of two.
To his men, Smith was like a character in the old war movies they had watched as kids, an infuriating, by-the-book taskmaster they called the "Morale Nazi."