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White House to award first Medal of Honor for service in Iraq

The first Medal of Honor awarded for service in Iraq will be presented next Monday in a ceremony at the White House, White House spokesman Scott McClellan announced Tuesday.

For the family of Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, the honor, the nation's highest military award, brings conflicting feelings: pride that he'll be remembered among America's bravest soldiers, grief that he died two years ago in Iraq.

"At least my mind is at rest because with the Medal of Honor, Paul's name will go on in history," his wife, Birgit Smith, said Tuesday from her home in Holiday, Fla. "His name will never die. This is very important to me."

President Bush will present the medal to Smith's 11-year-old son, David, during the White House ceremony, Birgit Smith said.

There'll be a second ceremony next Tuesday morning at the Pentagon. Then in the afternoon, the family will attend another ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where Smith's headstone will be unveiled.

Smith was nominated for the Medal of Honor by commanders of the 3rd Infantry Division after his death on April 4, 2003.

Smith, 33, died behind the trigger of a .50-caliber machine gun as he fought off an Iraqi attack near Baghdad's international airport. He's credited with saving more than 100 American lives and killing at least 50 Iraqis.

"This was something beyond the call of duty," said Col. Will Grimsley, one of the commanders who signed the medal nomination. "But with a guy like him you knew what he would do to take care of his guys."

Smith, who also served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, was well-known among his soldiers for being demanding, insisting on constant training to prepare them for combat.

Birgit Smith said she thought Smith would have been embarrassed by the honor.

"Paul would think `wow,' and shy away from all the attention," she said. "He would want to share the recognition with his soldiers."

The past two years have been hard on the Smith family. Besides his wife and son, Paul Smith left behind a daughter, Jessica, 18.

The family moved from Hinesville, Ga., to Florida after his death. They live in the house where Paul Smith grew up. His parents live nearby.

The family thinks of him every day, said Lisa DeVane, a sister of his who lives near Atlanta.

"We've waited so long for this," she said. "We're so proud, but it doesn't diminish the fact his loss is enormous in our personal lives."


(Phillips reports for The State in Columbia, S.C.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.