Dressed in his best black suit and wearing a broad grin, Mike Nagel couldn't hide his jitters.
Most everybody he loved was filing into the Navy Operational Support Center in Minneapolis on Tuesday, where his youngest boy would be awarded the Silver Star for heroism in Afghanistan. The proud papa couldn't have been more excited.
"It's just so overwhelming," Nagel said shortly before the U.S. Marine color guard kicked off a moving, half-hour ceremony. "It's almost like having a new baby."
Minutes later, Cpl. Ethan Nagel, decked out in Marine dress blues and standing against the backdrop of a giant U.S. flag, was pinned with the Silver Star, the third-highest honor in the U.S. armed forces, given in recognition of "gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States."
As Nagel's former captain told the harrowing tale of how the wounded Nagel rescued a fallen comrade in a 2009 ambush by Taliban fighters and kept him from being captured, more than 120 friends, relatives and military comrades rose from their seats and delivered a standing ovation.
The proud Marine beamed, then embraced his captain in a lengthy hug.
"I'm so proud of him," said Wendy Bradshaw, a longtime family friend who has known Nagel since he was a toddler. "If anybody was going to do it, it was going to be him. He always had such spunk.
"I never heard the story, the whole story. We knew he saved lives, but we didn't know he was that close."
Ambushed in valley
Even now, more than four years later, Nagel's former boss, U.S. Marine Capt. Michael Buckley, says it was something of "a miracle" that the 26-year-old Marine from Prior Lake survived the attack and kept the Taliban from capturing his wounded comrade.
"It sends shivers down my spine thinking about it," Buckley said after the ceremony. "But he was going to stand his ground."
The firefight erupted the morning of July 29, 2009, after Nagel and more than two dozen Marines, U.S. soldiers and Afghan troops on a joint patrol headed north in the Uzbin Valley of eastern Afghanistan to meet with tribal elders. On their return trip, Nagel, along with a smaller special forces unit, split off to patrol a river bed.
Within minutes, the Taliban pounced, pummeling Nagel and his comrades with machine gun and small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. Shrapnel pierced Nagel's face.
The special forces team eventually fought its way onto a ridge, where it ran into more Taliban fighters.
The unit held its ground, but Nagel was hit again: A bullet grazed his neck and shrapnel sliced into his neck, leg and forearm.
Worse, Chief Warrant Officer Douglas Vose was gravely wounded after being shot in the chest.
With gunfire exploding around him and the Taliban closing in, Nagel raced across open countryside to help Vose and stop the bleeding. At one point, with his hand on Vose's chest, Nagel pulled his pistol and shot back at the enemy, some of whom were as close as 25 yards away.
"The rounds were just kicking over my head," Nagel said Tuesday. "It was intense. But that did the job. We pounded 'em back. That's kind of what we do."
For the next 45 minutes or more, Nagel and comrades worked to keep Vose alive. As they administered first aid, other special forces soldiers and Marines doubled back to help, too, and air support was called in.
"We weren't going to leave him behind," Nagel said of Vose. "We wanted to make sure nobody took him, even if it cost us our lives.
"We kept working on him until the medevac helicopter came. We never quit."
Always a leader
Hours later, after beating back the Taliban and returning to his base, Nagel learned that Vose had died.
"Every day I think about it," he said Tuesday. "He was a great soldier. He was a great guy. And he deserves this award more than me, because he made the ultimate sacrifice.
"I'm proud and I'm humbled," he added, speaking of the Silver Star. "But there's more to the story. It's not just all me. There are other guys there who helped out and who performed amazingly."
Mike Nagel said Ethan wanted to be a Marine "ever since he was little." Both grandfathers were Marines, he said, along with Ethan's older brother, Anthony.
Nagel, who captained his high school football and wrestling teams, joined the Marines in the summer of 2005 after graduating from Lutheran High School in Bloomington. He served two stints in Iraq before heading to Afghanistan in 2008.
He left the Marines in 2009 and joined the Minnesota National Guard in August.
"What actually happened today is hard to believe," Mike Nagel said. "But my son's actions weren't. It's not hard to believe he would step up like that. He's always been a leader."
Said Edith Allen, Nagel's grandmother, as she ate celebratory cake: "He's quite a boy."