Spc. Ricardo Cerros gave his life when he threw himself in the path of a grenade to protect two fellow soldiers a year and a half ago. They survived, and they credit the fallen 24-year-old soldier for keeping them alive.
Sgt. Peter Cimpoes took a similar risk in October when he put himself between enemy shooters and two wounded Rangers, enabling his team to retrieve the injured men during a 35-minute gunfight at close distances.
The Army on Wednesday thanked Cerros and Cimpoes, both members of Joint Base Lewis-McChord's storied Ranger battalion, for putting themselves in grave danger so others could live. Each soldier received a Silver Star, the Defense Department's third-highest medal for valor in combat.
Their stories stood out on a night when the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, handed down 11 Purple Hearts and 12 more medals for valor from deployments to Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012.
They gathered in typically stoic fashion, accepting awards for actions that Cimpoes, 25, said "everybody behind me would have done."
But one moment cracked the Rangers' tough veneer. Cerros' parents, Ricardo Cerros Sr. and Marguerite Quiroz, crossed the gym at St. Martin's University to accept their son's Silver Star.
Cerros Sr. fought back tears as he accepted the medal from Lewis-McChord's senior officer, Lt. Gen. Robert Brown. Quiroz gave in and cried.
"My son is an American hero," Quiroz said after the ceremony. "He's the best."
Their loss and Spc. Cerros' sacrifice brought hundreds of veterans and Army family members to their feet for the night's only standing ovation.
Cerros "saved his comrades who meant more to him than life," Brown said.
Cerros went on his last mission Oct. 7, 2011, in Afghanistan's Logar Province. He was protecting an alleyway when his team came under enemy gunfire, including several shots that wounded Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Moore.
A medic rushed to care for Moore even as the enemy attack continued. One insurgent managed to throw a grenade in the alley. Cerros used his body to shield Moore and the medic.
Moore, 32, said that Cerros saved his life. Moore has deployed 14 times with the Ranger battalion.
He liked what he saw in Cerros, a go-getter from Salinas, Calif., who had just joined the battalion that year. Moore said he would call on the junior soldier to go on another tough mission if he could.
"He was definitely one of my favorite privates," Moore said.
Cimpoes was recognized for tilting the balance in a shootout on Oct. 11 of last year during a night raid in Afghanistan's Ghazni province.
One combined team of American and Afghan special operators cleared a series of buildings and moved to a second compound. That's when a group of barricaded Afghan insurgents opened fire on an American squad from distances of three to 20 feet.
Two soldiers, Sgt. Thomas MacPherson and Pfc. Sean Pesce, were wounded almost instantly.
Cimpoes helped take control of the gunfight by rushing into it, forcing the insurgents to fire in his direction as Rangers sought to reach the wounded men inside a compound. Pesce was near an entry point, and Cimpoes pulled him out of the "kill zone," saving his life.
Cimpoes then went back into the compound for MacPherson, shooting at one Afghan fighter and using grenades to deter two more.
"Sgt. Peter Cimpoes didn't hesitate. He knew instinctively what he needed to do," Brown said.
MacPherson later died from his wounds, leaving behind a wife and son. Pesce is recovering at a veterans hospital in Florida. He attended the awards ceremony in a wheelchair.
Cimpoes has since left the Army.
The battalion is preparing for another deployment to Afghanistan in May. It will be its 16th combat mission of the Iraq and Afghanistan war era.