Hero Recognition Day?
The 24/7 news cycle destroys and distorts context and perspective; it befogs the memory. Think 9/11, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom
On February 2, 2005 several articles appeared announcing the fact that Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith of Tampa, Florida would become the first Medal of Honor recipient among Soldiers participating in the Iraq war. The St. Petersburg Times reported that President Bush will present the posthumous award to Smith's wife Birgit at a White House ceremony, possibly in March.
Staff Sgt. Smith earned the medal for actions above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 11th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom. My guess is that most people who happened to read or hear about SFC Smith on February 2 have already forgotten about it. Which brings us to those other forgotten heroes.
They are the Soldiers, Sailors and Marines who have earned the next highest awards for heroism, Navy Cross and Silver Star. At last count there were about 150 of these brave individuals, some of whom, like SFC Smith, were given the medal posthumously.
One of the most important aspects of this war on terror is sustaining morale and will to persevere. Among other methods, an effective way to achieve this would be to publicize the relatively anonymous heroes in our midst, known only to families, friends and fellow unit personnel. Sure there are websites that name these men and other similar internet resources. But the Pentagon, for unknown reasons, makes no special effort to tell Americans about these heroes and thus sustain morale and national will.
Maybe they figure that folks who write articles complaining about this issue, which cite medal recipients and above—mentioned websites, are doing that work for them. And there are always hometown newspapers. And Google.
SFC Smith's Medal of Honor dates back to 2003 and Operation Iraqi Freedom so maybe it is understandable that his name is not known. Smith's 16—man unit had roadblock duty near Baghdad International Airport on April 4 when they were assigned a new mission: build a holding pen for Iraqi prisoners inside a walled courtyard. Soon after they began, the Americans began taking fire from100 Iraqi soldiers. The Bradley Fighting Vehicle that Smith radioed for arrived suppressed enemy fire for a while, then, inexplicably, left. Smith was then left with several options, one of which was to leave. But his commanding officer, LTC Thomas Smith (no relation) later said he believed SFC Smith 'rejected that option because it would jeopardize about 100 GIs outside the courtyard, including aid station medics.' He also had several wounded men in his unit.
So Smith mounted a nearby abandoned armored personnel carrier and manned its .50 caliber machine gun, holding off the advancing enemy, blazing away through several cans of ammo fed to him by Private Michael Seaman as the rest of his unit withdrew to safety. As the firefight wound down, Smith was hit in the head and died before he could be evacuated. When his body was retrieved, a half dozen impact marks were found in his body armor.
Mere words, straightforward accounts, cannot relate the true nature, the resonant valor of such deeds. What is known, however, is that they are performed by American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq; who personify American character and values.
As noted above, SFC Smith earned his Medal of Honor in 2003 — probably too long ago in terms of 24/7 news cycle—impaired memories. Then, do the names Raymond Bittinger, Christopher Fernandez or Ralph Waters ring a bell? They all earned Silver Stars in 2004, as did many others.
So let me suggest that the particular day on which President Bush presents the posthumous Medal of Honor to SFC Smith's widow be designated National Heroes Day in recognition of all the others who have served with notable courage, bravery and self—sacrifice in the global war on terror.
John B. Dwyer is a military historian.