IRVING — The courage showed by Eric Smith while under fire while serving with the U.S. Marine Corps was recognized on Thursday afternoon.
Smith, a Waxahachie native, was awarded the Navy Cross for his courageous actions on April 6, 2004, while in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Smith was initially awarded the Silver Star, but the Marine Corps upgraded it due to his actions.
“I always kind of felt called to serve. My parents kind of instilled that in me from a young age. My dad was a game warden for the state of Texas. My mom was a dispatcher for the DeSoto Police Department for a long time,” Smith said. “I kind of always grew up around public servants. It was something that always interested me and I knew I wanted to serve my country.”
According to the Department of Defense website, the Navy Cross is the second-highest military decoration that may be awarded to a member of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps or to a member of the Coast Guard when operating under the authority of the Department of the Navy.
The Navy Cross is awarded for extraordinary heroism while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States, in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.
Smith joins the ranks of fellow Marines who have received this honor. Some of these individuals include Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, who also is a recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Major General Paul Kennedy, the commanding general of the Marine Corps Recruiting Command in Quantico, Virginia, presented Smith with the Navy Cross Thursday, Sept. 14.
Kennedy spoke of Smith’s bravery to the crowd gathered at Irving’s Veterans Memorial Park.
“You have heard what he did in the citation but what you don’t know is he did it out of the love of the people that he was fighting along side. He was not doing it for ideals or for the Corps and country,” Kennedy said. "He was doing it for his comrades. He needed to go save their lives and (in the process) became wounded. He got them back to safety.”
Kennedy told Smith that today the country is honoring him for his specific duty and actions he took on that day, but the ribbon represents 1,000 more people that fought beside him. He added he is, “proud to know him.”
Following Kennedy’s remarks, Smith told the crowd that he is honored to be recognized.
“I am honored and humbled to be singled out amongst a sea of deserving Marines. The significance of this award is not lost on me, and I will wear it with pride,” Smith said. “The cost of our victory would be high. Thirty-three marines and one corpsman would make the ultimate sacrifice for our great nation. We remember them today and hold their memories close to our heart."
Smith asked the audience to remember 2nd Lt. John Wroblewski who was killed in action that day calling for help over the vehicle-mounted radio.
Smith left for Marine Corps Boot Camp in San Diego three days after graduating high school in May 2001. His first overseas deployment was from 2002-03 where he was a member of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit stationed in Okinawa, Japan. In February of 2004, he was deployed to Iraq.
While deployed to Iraq, Smith served as a squad leader with Company E of the Second Battalion of the Fourth Marine Regiment in the First Marine Division. He was stationed in the City of Ramadi.
“What happened is when the Blackwater contractors incident (four contractors were killed on March 31, 2004) took place a lot of insurgents that were in Fallujah left knowing that there would be a big offensive there and came to Ramadi,” Smith explained. “Originally our mission was what they call a security and support operation. So we were there to kind of play dual roles, keeping the security and stability and rebuilding their infrastructure and help them in those types of projects.”
Smith recalled the mission changing to a traditional warfare mission because of the insurgency building up across the Anbar Provence. The build up intensified with battles between Marines and insurgents on April 6, 2004.
“There was a lot of firefighting taking place across the city. There were multiple engagements from all of the companies. Second Battalion Fourth Marines is comprised of four companies. Each company was engaged in firefights in various sectors of the city,” Smith recalled. “As a frame of reference, Ramadi is the size of Arlington with a similar population. We had about a 1,000 marines in our battalion, and we were trying to hold down a city with a population near half a million. So we had our hands full, to say the least. “
Smith remembers the day started off early with gunfire and explosions taking place throughout the city. His job that day was as a member of a quick reaction force. This group of Marines would provide support to others that may need help in their company.
“We had a squad of Marines that were doing a patrol in the center of the city that came under an enemy ambush. During that ambush, they had called for a QRF support. My unit headed out of the base to go and support them. During that process we had a four man sniper team that had been compromised and was being over run up against the Euphrates River,” Smith said. “Our company commander, 2nd Lt. John Wroblewski, had made a call to send from within our QRF another section of it to try and help out the sniper team that was in dire straits at the time. In the course of this, we came under another pretty heavy ambush.”
Smith then recalled the moment Wroblewski tried calling in support elements to help the Marines, which was about the time rockets started flying.
As squad leader, Smith was able to get his men out of the ambush site and was able to take an elevated position on top of a house to attack the enemy.
“My lieutenant stayed with the vehicles. The only radio that we had at that point was a vehicle-mounted radio that could not come with us to where we were. He chose to stay with the vehicle and in that process, he was wounded pretty severely. He was unable to move and he had fallen right next to his Humvee,” Smith said. “Once I realized that he was wounded and unable to move himself, I ran back across the 100 yards through machine gun and rocket fire to get to him. I picked him up and took him out of the ambush area.”
Smith then took control of the squad and led a successful counterattack against the terrorists. The Marines were eventually able to free the trapped unit and evacuate the wounded.
“We had to evacuate him out of the area. So we put him in a vehicle and got him back to an aid station where he had a chance. At that point, as a 21-year-old man, I am in charge of a platoon of marines and looking out for their welfare,” Smith recalled. “So we counter attacked the enemy and we were able to reach the squad that was in need of help. We were able to free them from the ambush. We were able to return back.”
Smith stated that they were able to get Wroblewski to a medical helicopter but he succumbed to his wounds on the flight back to Baghdad.
“Lieutenant Wroblewski is someone that I admired greatly. He was a friend of mine. There is an officer and enlisted separation there, but he was someone that I really admired as a leader. He was somebody that I truly considered a friend,” Smith said. “To see him wounded on the battlefield, there was no question as to what needed to be done. It was just the way that I was raised. It never really entered my mind that there was another option. I really have no doubt that if the situation was reversed that he would have crossed that battlefield 100 times to help me.”
Smith noted that, though receiving the honor means a great deal, it is a difficult weight to carry at times.
“It is something that I struggle with. You kind of hear it a lot when it comes to military awards. There is a feeling that I was doing what I was trained to do. I would not want to call it a burden, but there is a lot that comes with it. I would say that I am honored and humbled to be awarded this,” Smith stated. “When you go to boot camp and they teach military history the names are just so iconic and important to our history and nation. To think somehow my name is going to be included in that conversation is kind of surreal. I am just honored and humbled to be given this award.”
Life after duty
Smith left active duty in 2005 as a Staff Sargent and continues to serve others as a lieutenant with the Irving Fire Department. He joined the department in 2008 after graduating from the fire academy.
“When I left the Marine Corps I knew I would probably go into some type of civil service whether it be police or fire. I have an uncle that served with the San Angelo Fire Department for many years and recently retired. Talking with him it kind of started my pathway towards that,” Smith said. “The Irving Fire Department has been great. Awesome place to work and I work with a great group of guys that truly care about the community. I definitely have had my opportunity to make a positive impact.”
Irving Fire Chief Victor Conley stated that the department is proud to have Smith working here in the city.
“The Irving Fire Department is honored to work alongside Lt. Smith. He serves as a tremendous inspiration and role model for the entire department as well as the residents who live here,” Conley said in a statement. “We are certainly proud he chose Irving.”