Before a cheering audience of several hundred in the Pentagon's courtyard, the three California high school buddies who took down a gunman on a Paris-bound train were introduced Thursday simply as "our heroes."
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter gave Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, Oregon National Guard Spec. Alek Skarlatos and college student Anthony Sadler a loud "well done" at the awards ceremony attended by their families and the top brass.
Stone, a 23-year-old medic, was presented with the Airman's Medal, the highest non-combat award in the Air Force, and the Purple Heart for the hand and face injuries he received in tackling and choking the gunman, later identified as 25-year-old Ayoub El-Kahzzani.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said earlier this week that Stone also will soon be promoted to staff sergeant.
The 22-year-old Skarlatos received the Soldier's Medal, the Army's highest non-combat award, and Sadler, a 23-year-old senior at California State University in Sacramento, received the civilian Medal of Valor, which was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
At the ceremony, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the three, "Thank you for being people who cared enough to make a difference."
Carter related what he called "an amazing story right out of a movie" as the three confronted the gunman carrying an AK-47 rifle, a handgun, 270 rounds of ammunition and a box cutter.
"That's because, after Alek said, ‘Let's go,' Spencer and Anthony sprinted toward the gunman while he trained his rifle on them. Spencer tackled the assailant and the three worked to disarm him. As we know, Spencer was stabbed in the effort," Carter said.
"After they knocked out the gunman, they tended to other injured on board before paramedics and police arrived," he said.
"The words ‘Let's go' are as American as these three young friends," the secretary said. "Time and again, challenge after challenge, at the sound of gunshots and danger, the world has turned to the United States, and its military, for help. "
"And generation after generation, we have answered with a simple ‘Let's Go' and the resolve necessary to beat back dangers and stand up for the values so many around the world hold dear," Carter said.
Earlier, the three met with President Obama in the Oval Office. "Because of their courage, because of their quick thinking, because of their teamwork, it's fair to say that a lot of people were saved and a real calamity was averted," he said.
Obama said he just wanted "a chance to shake their hands in person and to tell them what I think they've heard from a lot of people -- which is they represent the very best of America, American character. And it's these kinds of young people who make me extraordinarily optimistic and hopeful about our future."
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richa@military.com.