(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — On March 25, we commemorate national Medal of Honor Day, which is set aside to recognize this distinguished award and its recipients.

We ask that each of you observe Medal of Honor Day — along with the anniversary of the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 20 — in a way that is appropriate for you, and that you show gratitude to those who served honorably.

An inspiring story, worthy of both Medal of Honor Day and the beginning of OIF, comes from one of our own: Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith.

Smith received his initial entry, skills, and leadership training as a combat engineer here in the heart of our nation at Fort Leonard Wood. After completing his Advanced NCO course, he trained and prepared his Soldiers from Company B, 11th Engineer Battalion, for deployment.

After successfully breaching the border berm defenses the day prior, on March 20, 2003, Smith’s unit started the over 300-mile march to Baghdad in support of Task Force 2-7 Infantry. Having passed through the Karbala Gap — and while moving toward what was then called Saddam International Airport (now known as Baghdad International Airport), he and his men were attacked by a company-sized element of enemy forces on the evening of April 3. Smith quickly established a defensive position, leveraging about two platoons of Soldiers and limited heavy equipment. In the fight, Smith personally engaged the enemy while also evacuating three wounded Soldiers.

It was there that Smith’s heroic actions were ultimately recognized by a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2005. According to the citation, “In total disregard for his own life, he maintained his exposed position … during this action, he was mortally wounded. His courageous actions helped defeat the enemy attack.”

Smith’s extraordinary heroism and uncommon valor are the mark of thousands of men and women like him who served selflessly in OIF.

We are forever indebted to and grateful for all who served and for the family members who endured tremendous stress, disruption and hardship while giving unwavering support to their loved ones. You are a testament to the volunteerism, resolve and sacrifice that continue to make our nation great. We are very proud of you and are proud to serve with you.

Victory Starts Here — Victory Through Skill!