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Marine Who Braved RPG Fire to Save Commander Receives Navy Cross

Eric Smith, a native of Waxahachie, Texas, was presented by Maj. Gen. Paul Kennedy, head of Marine Corps Recruiting Command, with the The Navy Cross. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Courtney White)
Eric Smith, a native of Waxahachie, Texas, was presented by Maj. Gen. Paul Kennedy, head of Marine Corps Recruiting Command, with the The Navy Cross. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Courtney White)

A Marine veteran who left the service as a staff sergeant had his Silver Star award upgraded to the prestigious Navy Cross in a ceremony Thursday presided over by a two-star general.

Eric Smith, a native of Waxahachie, Texas, was presented by Maj. Gen. Paul Kennedy, head of Marine Corps Recruiting Command, with the military's second-highest valor award in recognition of his heroic actions while serving in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2004.

The medal was upgraded to the Navy Cross as part of an awards review initiated by the Pentagon in early 2011 to ensure that troops serving in wars after Sept. 11, 2001, were properly recognized for their heroism.

Smith's Navy Cross is the 40th presented to a Marine since the Sept. 11 attacks, officials said.

"I am honored and humbled to receive the upgraded award of the Navy Cross," Smith said in a statement.

"I understand that this places me in a category of Marines that I would have never imagined to be a part of," he said. "I firmly believe that I was an ordinary Marine placed in an extraordinary situation."

In the medal presentation ceremony in Irving, Texas, Kennedy described the incident in which Smith's heroism took place.

It was April 6, 2004, and, after a relatively peaceful time early in the deployment of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, "the streets of Ramadi erupted into flames" as insurgents waged what would be an intense three-day war on the American troops, he said.

As units were pinned down around the city, quick-reaction forces were dispatched to provide reinforcement and a way out.

Smith, who had been supposed to rest ahead of a patrol the next day, was called upon to go out with a makeshift QRF when other assets were exhausted.

He was teamed with a lieutenant and a staff sergeant, who raced into Ramadi to save another squad when they themselves were ambushed.

"The lieutenant was killed, and the staff sergeant was killed, and somebody had to step up to lead those Marines to safety," Kennedy said. "You heard what he did in the citation. He did it out of the love of the people he was fighting for, his comrades."

Twelve Marines were killed that day, and 33 Marines and a Navy corpsman from 2/4 would die over the course of the deployment to Ramadi.

According to the citation for Smith's Silver Star, presented in 2006, the Marine -- then a corporal and a squad leader -- was, as part of the QRF, ordered to reinforce a squad being attacked by the enemy. On the way to the objective, two Marine Humvees were ambushed, and the platoon commander critically wounded in the attack.

"Under heavy machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire, Corporal Smith assumed command of the platoon, and led them 50 meters across open ground to covered positions," Smith's citation reads. "He then ran back across the fire-swept field to evacuate his platoon commander and his weapons."

For Smith, the day was not done. He then used machine guns and his platoon's 7-ton truck to lead a counterattack against the local insurgent forces, accomplishing the original mission of rescuing the isolated squad.

Then, according to the citation, he worked with an Army Bradley fighting vehicle platoon to evacuate casualties and work out a plan for all units involved in the fight to return to safety.

"By his bold leadership, wise judgment, and loyal dedication to duty, Corporal Smith reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service," the citation reads.

Smith is now a paramedic with the Irving, Texas, Fire Department and a member of the Texas Task Force 2 Urban Search and Rescue team, according to an autobiographical statement provided by Marine Corps officials.

He is also attending Navarro College, where he is pursuing degrees in fire officer and emergency management administration.

In brief remarks at his ceremony, Smith remained humble about what he had done.

"I'm honored and humbled to be singled out against a sea of deserving Marines," he said. "The significance of this award is not lost on me, and I will wear it with pride."

It is fitting that Smith should be the 40th Marine to receive the Navy Cross since the Sept. 11 attacks, as he was a student at the School of Infantry when the towers fell.

"On 9/11, we were checking out gas masks from supply when the towers were struck," he said in his autobiographical statement. "And I knew I would not serve a peacetime enlistment."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.