There Have Only Been 15 Instances In Modern Combat Worthy Of America's Highest Award

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Kyle Carpenter Afghanistan US Marine Corps Cpl. Kyle Carpenter

On Thursday , President Obama will award the Medal of Honor to Cpl. Kyle Carpenter, making him the 15th recipient of the nation's highest military award for bravery after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The medal is an incredible honor, and while it is a symbol of courage and sacrifice for those who receive it, it's not something many aspire to.

That's because the criteria for receiving the award is incredibly stringent, requiring significant risk to life and limb in direct combat and a display of "personal bravery or self-sacrifice so extraordinary as to set the individual apart from his or her comrades."

For some service members put into extreme circumstances, the daily grind can give way to moments of incredible bravery that warrants them the nation's highest award.

Often it is the family of the fallen hero who receives the award posthumously. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been relatively few who have received the honor after more than a decade at war.

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Sergeant First Class Paul Smith held off hundreds of Iraqi soldiers from an exposed position

Sergeant First Class Paul Smith held off hundreds of Iraqi soldiers from an exposed position

On April 4, 2003, after his unit briefly battled and captured several Iraqi fighters near the Baghdad International Airport, Smith instructed his men to build an impromptu holding area for the prisoners in a nearby walled compound.

A short time later, his troops were violently attacked by a larger force. Smith rallied his men to organize a hasty defense, then braved hostile fire to engage the enemy with grenades and anti-tank weapons.

He then ran through blistering gunfire to man the .50 caliber machine gun on top of an armored personnel carrier to keep the enemy from overrunning the position, completely disregarding his own safety to protect his soldiers.

Smith was mortally wounded during the attack, but he helped defeat the attacking force which had more than 50 enemy soldiers killed, according to his award citation.

Award Presented (posthumously): April 4, 2005

Corporal Jason Dunham dove on an enemy grenade and saved the lives of two Marines

Corporal Jason Dunham dove on an enemy grenade and saved the lives of two Marines

While his unit was engaged in a major firefight in Iraq along the Syrian border on Apr. 14, 2004, Dunham and his team stopped several vehicles to search them for weapons.

As he approached one of the vehicles, the driver lunged at Dunham's throat and they fought in a hand-to-hand battle. Wrestling on the ground, Dunham then yelled to his Marines, "No, no watch his hand."

The insurgent then dropped a grenade with the pin pulled. Dunham jumped on top of it, placing his helmet between his body and the grenade in an effort to brunt the explosion.

"He knew what he was doing," Lance Cpl. Jason A. Sanders, who was in Dunham's company, told Marine Corps News. "He wanted to save Marines' lives from that grenade."

He saved the lives of at least two Marines, and was mortally wounded in the blast.

Award Presented (posthumously): Jan. 11, 2007

Lieutenant Michael Murphy went into the open during a fierce battle to call for support

Lieutenant Michael Murphy went into the open during a fierce battle to call for support

While leading his Navy SEAL team on Jun. 28, 2005 to infiltrate and provide reconnaissance on a Taliban leader, Murphy and the three other members of his team came under withering gunfire from 30 to 40 enemy fighters.

The fierce gunfight pitted the SEALs against insurgents on the high ground, and they desperately called for support as all four operators were hit by gunshots.

When his radioman fell mortally wounded, and with the radio not able to get a clear signal, Murphy disregarded the enemy fire and went out into the open to transmit back to his base and call for support.

From his Summary of Action:

He calmly provided his unit’s location and the size of the enemy force while requesting immediate support for his team. At one point he was shot in the back causing him to drop the transmitter. Murphy picked it back up, completed the call and continued firing at the enemy who was closing in.

“I was cursing at him from where I was,” Hospital Corpsman Marcus Luttrell, the only survivor of the battle, later told The New York Times. “I was saying, ‘What are you doing?’ Then I realized that he was making a call. But then he started getting hit. He finished the call, picked up his rifle and started fighting again. But he was overrun.”

Award Presented (posthumously): Oct. 23, 2007

Sergeant First Class Jared Monti ran through a hail of gunfire three times to save a wounded comrade

Sergeant First Class Jared Monti ran through a hail of gunfire three times to save a wounded comrade

On Jun. 21, 2006, Monti's unit established a small base on a ridge above a valley in northeastern Afghanistan to support troops below.

Later that evening, a group of at least 60 insurgents established two firing positions only 50 yards away and opened up on the team of only 16 soldiers.

“We were taking so much fire we couldn’t make out where the mortars landed. It was coming in so close that ... you could hear it right over your head, just like whizzing through,” Private First Class Derek James told Stars & Stripes. “They were so close at one point you could hear their voices.

With soldiers killed and wounded, Monti called in artillery and close air support. But one of his soldiers was hit and cut off from the rest of the men.

Monti left the cover of rocks and moved through open ground and gunfire to try and rescue Specialist Brian Bradbury, saying, "that's my guy. I am going to get him."

He tried twice to make it to his wounded comrade, but intense enemy fire pushed him back. With his men laying down covering fire, he went once more, almost making it before being shot himself.

Award Presented (posthumously): Sep. 17, 2009

He could've escaped the blast, but Petty Officer Michael Monsoor jumped on top of a grenade that would have killed his teammates

He could've escaped the blast, but Petty Officer Michael Monsoor jumped on top of a grenade that would have killed his teammates

While providing sniper overwatch in Ramadi, Iraq on Sep. 29, 2006, Monsoor and his SEAL Team eliminated insurgents that were planning a coordinated attack.

As the enemy activity ratcheted up, Monsoor took up a rooftop position to watch for more insurgents. Then a grenade bounced off his chest and landed at his feet.

From The Washington Post:

"Grenade!" Monsoor shouted. But the two snipers and another SEAL on the roof had no time to escape, as Monsoor was closest to the only exit. Monsoor dropped onto the grenade, smothering it with his body. It detonated, and Monsoor died about 30 minutes later from his wounds.

"He made an instantaneous decision to save our teammates. I immediately understood what happened, and tragically it made sense to me in keeping with the man I know, Mike Monsoor," said Lt. Cmdr. Seth Stone, Monsoor's platoon leader in Ramadi.

Award Presented (posthumously): Apr. 8, 2008

Specialist Ross McGinnis saved the lives of the soldiers in his truck by pinning a grenade against his body

Specialist Ross McGinnis saved the lives of the soldiers in his truck by pinning a grenade against his body

As McGinnis' platoon was driving through Adhamiyah, Iraq on Dec. 4, 2006, an insurgent on a rooftop tossed a fragmentation grenade into his Humvee.

McGinnis, who was in the gun turret behind the .50 cal, could have jumped out of the hatch and escaped the blast. Instead, he screamed, "grenade" to warn his fellow soldiers as he tried to grab it to toss away, but he missed.

From Command Posts:

He stood as if he were going to leap out of the top of the Humvee, but instead he dropped down from his fighting position into the truck. Newland thought McGinnis was trying to escape the grenade. But he wasn’t. McGinnis had realized that his teammates hadn’t spotted it, and so he was chasing it. Newland couldn’t move quickly enough to get out of the truck with its combat-locked doors, and none of the guys quite understood what was going on because McGinnis hadn’t dived out.

The soldiers watched as McGinnis threw himself on the grenade and took the blast. He gave his life to save the four men inside the vehicle.

Award Presented (posthumously): Jun. 2, 2008

Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta ran through vicious gunfire to rescue a soldier being taken prisoner by the Taliban

Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta ran through vicious gunfire to rescue a soldier being taken prisoner by the Taliban

On Oct. 25, 2007, Giunta's platoon was on patrol in Afghanistan's deadly Korengal Valley when they were hit with a fierce L-shaped ambush from fighters only 10 meters away.

The 10 to 15 enemy fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades, machine-guns, and AK-47s, which immediately wounded two soldiers. With his team pinned down, Giunta left a covered position to give first aid to his wounded squad leader. He was shot twice — one hit the rocket launcher on his back, and the other hit him in the chest of his bulletproof vest.

Once he recovered from the shots, he got up and bounded towards the enemy in order to push them back. When he noticed two Taliban fighters dragging away one of the wounded soldiers, he chased after them, killing one and forcing the other to flee.

“If I’m a hero, every man that stands around me, every woman in the military, everyone who goes into the unknown is a hero,” Giunta later told The Christian Science Monitor. “So if you think that’s a hero – as long as you include everyone with me.”

Award Presented: Nov. 16, 2010

Staff Sergeant Robert Miller charged into an enemy assault so his fellow soldiers could escape

Staff Sergeant Robert Miller charged into an enemy assault so his fellow soldiers could escape

On Jan. 25, 2008, Miller's Special Forces team was on a reconnaissance patrol near the Pakistani border when they came under attack. The first attack was quelled after calling for close air support, but soon after, insurgents opened up with heavy machine guns.

Miller's team captain was seriously wounded early in the battle. Completely disregarding his own safety, he ran into the hail of bullets from over 100 enemy fighters to give his team an opportunity to escape to covered positions.

Even after being shot in his upper torso, he ignored the wound and ran over open ground, ultimately killing at least 10 insurgents and wounding dozens more, according to his award citation.

"Five members of his patrol had been wounded, but his team had survived," President Barack Obama said at the award presentation. "And one of his teammates surely spoke for all of them when he said of Rob, 'I would not be alive today if not for his ultimate sacrifice.'"

Award Presented (posthumously): Oct. 6, 2010

Staff Sergeant Leroy Petry saved two soldiers by picking up an enemy grenade and throwing it back

Staff Sergeant Leroy Petry saved two soldiers by picking up an enemy grenade and throwing it back

After his platoon of Army Rangers jumped out of helicopters in Paktia Province, Afghanistan to look for a high-value Taliban target on May 26, 2008, they came under serious attack.

Spotting a nearby compound, Petry led his soldiers in clearing the courtyard which had three Taliban fighters inside. Despite being hit in both legs by gunfire, Petry pushed in and led his soldiers to cover and assess other wounded soldiers.

Only a short time later, both of his soldiers were wounded by a grenade thrown at them by one of the fighters, and then another landed nearby. That's when Petry decided he would throw it back.

"It was almost instinct; off training," Petry told the Army News Service. "It was probably going to kill all three of us. I had time to visually see the hand grenade. And I figure it's got about a four-and-half second fuse, depending on how long it has been in the elements and the weather and everything and how long the pin has been pulled. I figure if you have time to see it you have time to kick it, throw it, just get it out there."

Saving the lives of two soldiers, the grenade exploded just as he was throwing it, taking off his right hand. He then calmly placed a tourniquet on his arm as other soldiers neutralized the threat from the Taliban.

Award Presented: Jul. 12, 2011

Sergeant Dakota Meyer repeatedly drove through intense enemy fire during a 6-hour battle to save his four-man team

Sergeant Dakota Meyer repeatedly drove through intense enemy fire during a 6-hour battle to save his four-man team

On Sep. 8, 2009, Meyer was providing rear security as the four other members of his team (along with Afghan troops) headed on foot into the village of Ganjgal, Afghanistan to meet with village elders.

It turned out to be a trap, and they were ambushed by more than 50 enemy fighters with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and machine guns firing from high ground.

Listening on the radio to his team — who was now cut off — Meyer disobeyed orders to remain in place and manned a .50 caliber machine gun on a gun truck heading into the village. Despite being wounded and braving intense enemy fire, Meyer went in and picked up wounded Afghans and brought them to safety four times. On his fifth trip, he dismounted and recovered the bodies of his four-man team, who Meyer had been trying to save throughout the battle.

"I was a failure," Meyer later told CNN. "My guys died. That was my whole team."

Award Presented: Sep. 11, 2011

Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha helped prevent an Army outpost from being overrun by hundreds of Taliban fighters

Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha helped prevent an Army outpost from being overrun by hundreds of Taliban fighters

With only 53 U.S. troops at Combat Outpost Keating, Afghanistan, the early morning of Oct. 3, 2009 was quite different than what they had endured before.

More than 400 Taliban fighters were attacking from all sides with the goal of overrunning the remote base. But Romesha wasn't going to let that happen. “We weren’t going to be beat that day," he later said.

As fighters breached the perimeter of the camp, Romesha calmly rallied his men to repel the assault even after he was wounded. He personally played "peek-a-boo" with an enemy sniper, took out an enemy machine-gun position, and called in airstrikes that killed at least 30 Taliban fighters.

From The New York Times:

His bravery, Mr. Obama said, helped prevent the outpost from being overrun by Taliban fighters. He was wounded in the neck, shoulder and arms by shrapnel after a rocket-propelled grenade hit a generator he was hiding behind. Eight American service members were killed in the October 2009 battle, one of the most intense of the war.

Award Presented: Feb. 11, 2013

Sergeant Kyle White repeatedly ran through gunfire to save wounded troops, called in steady reports and air support, and directed medical evacuations.

Sergeant Kyle White repeatedly ran through gunfire to save wounded troops, called in steady reports and air support, and directed medical evacuations.

On Nov. 8, 2007 while serving in an advisory role for Afghan soldiers, then-Specialist White and his fellow soldiers walked into an enemy ambush that left his platoon leader dead and many more wounded.

In the immediate chaos, White was knocked out by an rocket-propelled grenade that hit close by, but once he woke up, he realized that 10 of those with his 14-man team had been forced down the side of rocky cliff.

"I knew he needed help and there was a lot of fire coming in, but it really didn't matter at that point, but by then I already had known, well, sh--, we're not gonna make it through this one; it's just a matter of time before I'm dead," White told Army News Service of the wounded Marine laying in the open. "I figured, if that's going to happen, I might as well help someone while I can."

White ran out into the open to grab the Marine despite blistering fire, and throughout the hellish 16-plus-hour firefight, directed fellow soldiers to set up a perimeter, called in air and medical support, and ultimately marked the landing zone that got them all to safety.

"He was a trained, humble and selfless paratrooper and warrior that did not seek recognition or prod the system for recognition," Col. Bill Ostlund, White's former battalion commander, told Army Times.

Award Presented: Sep. 11, 2011

Staff Sergeant Ty Carter ran through intense enemy fire to save a wounded soldier, and helped repel an overwhelming enemy force attacking his base.

Staff Sergeant Ty Carter ran through intense enemy fire to save a wounded soldier, and helped repel an overwhelming enemy force attacking his base.

The battle of Kamdesh saw a massive wave of more than 400 Taliban militants attempting to overrun a small American outpost manned by just 53 soldiers.

But in the 12-hour firefight that followed — the same battle involving Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha — Carter sprinted across open ground to defend the perimeter, then later rescued a fellow soldier who was wounded and took him to safety.

Stripes has more:

While Larson provided cover fire from within a nearby Humvee, Carter stanched Mace’s bleeding and placed a tourniquet on his shattered leg.

He realized he couldn’t carry Mace while he had his weapon. He returned to the Humvee and told Larson his plan. Larson got out of the Humvee and provided cover fire while Carter returned to Mace, picked him up and carried him through the hail of bullets back to the Humvee, and went back to firing.

Carter continued to give medical aid to Mace, engage the enemy, and communicate with his fellow soldiers to retake the base. According to the Army's official narrative of the battle, "Carter’s remarkable acts of heroism and skill, which were vital to the defense of COP Keating, exemplify what it means to be an American hero."

Award Presented: Aug 26, 2013

Cap. William Swenson drove into an enemy kill zone four times to search for and recover fallen and wounded troops.

Cap. William Swenson drove into an enemy kill zone four times to search for and recover fallen and wounded troops.

While serving as an embedded advisor with Afghan border police, Swenson's unit walked into a trap in the village of Ganjgal on Sep. 8, 2009, where they were supposed to meet with village elders.

Instead, the Taliban unleashed a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire — and quickly tried to flank the surprised American and Afghan forces. On the radio, they told him he should just surrender.

"The enemy called for Capt. Swenson to surrender. He responded by throwing a hand grenade," President Obama said during his award ceremony.

From Army.mil:

Swenson stopped administering aid long enough to throw a grenade at approaching enemy forces, then assisted with moving Westbrook for air evacuation.

After using aviation support to mark locations of fallen and wounded comrades, it became clear that ground recovery was required due to the proximity of heavily-armed enemy positions to potential helicopter landing zones.

Swenson completely disregarded his own safety and voluntarily led a team into the kill zone to recover the dead and wounded, along with fellow Medal recipient Dakota Meyer.

Altogether, he drove into the fire four times and recovered three fallen Marines and a Navy corpsman.

Award Presented: Oct. 15, 2013

Cpl. Kyle Carpenter jumped on an enemy hand grenade to save the life of his best friend.

Cpl. Kyle Carpenter jumped on an enemy hand grenade to save the life of his best friend.

With his small squad-sized unit of Marines, Afghan soldiers, and engineers, then Lance Cpl. Kyle Carpenter moved south of Marjah on Nov. 19, 2010 to establish a new patrol base in Taliban territory.

It was no easy task, as the Marines knew anytime they moved south they were guaranteed to come under enemy fire.

The next day, while manning a rooftop post with another Marine, Carpenter and Lance Cpl. Nick Eufrazio came under intense fire, forcing them to lie on their backs to avoid being shot.

That gave the Taliban an opportunity: "Enemy forces had maneuvered in close through the use of the walls of the compound across the street to the east," according to the summary of action. They threw three grenades into the compound.

One landed in the center of the base, injuring an Afghan soldier. The second harmlessly detonated near the post that was destroyed the previous day. The last landed on the roof, dangerously close to both Marines.

"I only remember a few moments after I got hit," Carpenter said. "But nothing before."

An extensive investigation found that Carpenter had actually jumped on the grenade, absorbing most of the explosion. "The majority of the grenade blast was deflected down rather than up, causing a cone-shaped hole to be blown down through the ceiling of the command operations center," the summary reads.

Carpenter was severely wounded, with injuries to his face, jaw, and upper and lower extremities. Eufrazio received shrapnel to the head. Both were immediately evacuated and survived. Eufrazio is still recovering from the attack.

Award Presented: June 19, 2014

You've seen the 15 Medal of Honor heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan ...

You've seen the 15 Medal of Honor heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan ...

Now learn more about what Cpl. Kyle Carpenter did, in his own words -->

or...

Watch the moment when the President of the United States called and told him he was receiving the award >

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