U.S. Air Force officials compared Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone to the comic book hero "Captain America" and said he will receive the Airman's Medal and possibly the Purple Heart for helping stop a gunman on a European train.
"What the gunman didn't expect was a confrontation with our very own 'Capt. America' -- and believe it or not, that is what Airman Stone's friends nicknamed him during Air Force technical training," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said during a press conference Monday at the Pentagon.
Stone was traveling on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday when he, along with two of his friends and British businessman, subdued a gunman and suspected Islamic extremist who was armed with an AK-47, Luger pistol and box cutter.
Stone's unit has recommended him for the Airman's Medal, the service's highest non-combat award, and he may also receive the Purple Heart for being injured in the ordeal, officials said. He was hospitalized with cuts to his head, face and hand after the gunman attacked him with a box cutter.
The 23-year-old Stone "leapt into action" with two of his buddies from a California middle school -- National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, 22, and Anthony Sadler, 23 -- as well as 62-year-old British businessman Chris Norman in confronting gunman who had strapped the assault rifle across his bare chest.
"Had it not been for this heroic quartet, I'm quite sure that we'd be discussing a bloodbath" rather than their heroism, James said. "They subdued the gunman and saved lives."
The secretary said that Stone's unit had put him up for the Airman's Medal and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said that he also may be eligible for the Purple Heart.
"We are looking at the potential, to see whether we can award the Purple Heart as well," Welsh said, but it will first have to be determined whether the train incident was an act of terrorism. The 2009 attacks at Fort Hood, Texas, by then-Army Maj. Nidal Hasan were eventually ruled to be terrorism, making victims eligible for the Purple Heart.
The gunman has been identified as 26-year-old Moroccan Ayoub El-Khazzani. He was being held and questioned by French counterterrorism police outside Paris.
French and Spanish authorities have alleged that El-Khazzani is an Islamic extremist who may have spent time in Syria. El-Khazzani's lawyer said on Sunday that he was homeless and trying to rob passengers on the train to feed himself.
Earlier Monday, French President Francois Hollande awarded Stone, Sadler, Skarlatos and Norman the French Legion of Honor, the country's highest award.
In the gilded splendor of the Elysee Palace, Hollande said, "One need only know that Ayoub El Khazzani was in possession of 300 rounds of ammunition and firearms to understand what we narrowly avoided, a tragedy, a massacre."
"Your heroism must be an example for many and a source of inspiration," Hollande said. "Faced with the evil of terrorism, there is a good, that of humanity. You are the incarnation of that."
Stone, whose thumb was severely cut by the gunman, still had his left arm in a sling as well as a bruised eye.
"I kind of just woke up from a deep sleep and my friend Alek was sitting next to me," he recalled of the incident during a press conference at the U.S. embassy in Paris, according to a CNN video. "I turned around and saw he had what looked to be an AK-47 and it looked like it was jammed or it wasn't working and he was trying to charge the weapon.
"Alek just hit me on the shoulder and said, 'Let's go.' And [I] ran down, tackled him. We hit the ground. Alek came up and grabbed the gun out of his hand while I put him in a choke hold."
Not only did he tackle the gunman, Stone is also credited with helping save a passenger who was shot in the neck and squirting blood. He said he "just stuck two of my fingers in his hole and found what I thought to be the artery, pushed down and the bleeding stopped," according to an Associated Press article. He kept the position until paramedics arrived, the article stated.
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.