US President Joe Biden has bestowed the nation’s highest military award on three soldiers, including the first black serviceman to receive the decoration since the Vietnam War.
Army Sergeant Alwyn Cashe died of burns suffered while rescuing soldiers from a flaming armoured vehicle in Iraq.
He also becomes the first black soldier to receive the Medal of Honor during the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Two other troops credited with saving lives were also given the award.
Sgt Cashe, 35, died after a roadside bomb detonated under the Bradley Fighting Vehicle he was commanding in October 2005, igniting its fuel tank.
After he and another soldier extinguished the flames that had engulfed their driver and pulled him to safety, his uniform, which was drenched in petrol, caught fire.
With second and third-degree burns covering nearly 75% of his body, he one-by-one rescued six soldiers and one Iraqi interpreter from the vehicle – all while taking enemy fire. He died from his injuries about three weeks after the attack.
“No soldier is going to be left behind on his watch,” Mr Biden said at a White House ceremony on Thursday.
“A soldier’s soldier, a warrior who literally walked through fire for his troops,” he said, as Sgt Cashe’s wife and children looked on from the audience.Rules require that soldiers be nominated within five years of their brave action, but last year Congress passed a waiver in order for Sgt Cashe to receive the award. It came after years of soldiers and family members advocating for his Silver Star medal to be upgraded.
According to the Washington Post, former President Donald Trump was going to award the Medal of Honor to Sgt Cashe before he left the White House in January, but that plan was scuppered amid safety concerns after Trump supporters rioted at the US Capitol.
Mr Biden also gave the Medal of Honor to Green Beret Sgt Earl Plumlee, 41, for his role in repelling an attack on his base in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province in 2013.
After insurgents exploded a truck bomb outside his military post, creating a breach for suicide bombers and rifle-wielding attackers to pour in, he and other troops mounted a defence of their wounded troops by driving into enemy fire.
“Without cover and with complete disregard for his own safety, he advanced on the superior enemy force engaging multiple insurgents with only his pistol,” according to the White House memo outlining his gallantry.
Sgt Plumlee was thrown off his feet by multiple suicide bomb blasts, but suffered only light injuries.
“I still don’t know why they weren’t able to hit me,” he told the Washington Post.
Army Ranger Sgt Christopher Celiz died in Afghanistan’s Paktia Province in 2018 while he was helping a medical helicopter transport casualties under fire.
After a large group of insurgents attacked his unit, he ran into the hail of bullets to retrieve a heavy weapons system and retake the initiative in the fight, according to the White House.
As the helicopter was preparing to depart, he used his body as a barrier to protect the aircraft’s occupants from being hit. As it lifted off, he was hit by enemy fire, but gestured to his fellow troops to keep going without him.
“He knew he was hit, but he waved for the air crew to depart without him,” Mr Biden said. “In the face of extreme danger, he placed the safety of his team and crew above his own.”