There is a memorial to soldiers overseas that says “when you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.” That is what Memorial Day is all about. Each year we see World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans gather on Memorial Day to honor their comrades who paid the ultimate sacrifice. There are movies displaying the heroism of many of the bravest from these past wars. Many recognize the images of Audie Murphy holding off the Germans with a .50 caliber machine gun. It is time we start recognizing the heroics from the warriors of this generation.
Almost 2.5 million citizens or just less than one percent of Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. All of these veterans left families, friends and the comforts of home to answer the call of duty. From the veterans who raised their hands to serve on active duty to the citizen soldiers who left their jobs to serve, they all volunteered. That is why it is time to talk about a new generation of heroes this Memorial Day.
When I arrived at Baghdad International Airport on February 4, 2005, I loaded an armored vehicle and headed to my new base. I locked and loaded my M-16 and prepared for the worst. I heard a soldier sitting in front of me talking about Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith. He pointed out a complex of buildings that looked like a beige maze. As we arrived closer to the exterior wall I saw the scars of battle. Two months later I heard his name again when President Bush presented Smith’s son with the first Medal of Honor awarded for the Global War on Terror.
Smith served in the army for 13 years. He was a veteran of the Persian Gulf War and other peacekeeping missions. He deployed to Iraq in 2003 as part of the 3rd Infantry Division. He was an engineer, and on April 4, 2003, his soldiers were tasked with a construction project when they were attacked by a significantly larger enemy force. Smith’s soldiers and over 100 wounded were vulnerable to the attack and if someone did not make quick decisions the enemy would overrun their position. Smith led from the front and he rapidly assessed the situation. He organized a defense and engaged the enemy.
Smith fought hard, hurling grenades and organizing the evacuation of wounded soldiers. As the enemy continued the assault, he saw no other choice but to mount a damaged armored personnel carrier and man the .50 caliber machine gun from an exposed position. He engaged the enemy cycling through three cans of ammunition. When the smoked cleared and the attack was over his soldiers looked for Smith. They found him slumped over the .50 caliber knowing he died saving their lives.
This is the type of sacrifice we need to remember on Memorial Day. When we gather for the opening of pools and family picnics let us take a minute to remember those who did not return. Let us talk about heroes like Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith. As long as we talk about heroes like Smith they continue to live in our hearts and minds. So join me in continuing to tell of those who gave their yesterday so we can have our today.
Rusty E. McGuire is commonwealth’s attorney of Louisa County and a major in the Virginia Army National Guard. He served in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.