The same morning the secretary of the Navy presented upgraded medals to four Marines and a sailor for bravery in Iraq and Afghanistan, he also delivered 17 prestigious upgrades awards for current and former members of Navy special operations commands, including a SEAL killed in May while fighting the Islamic State in Iraq.
In a quiet ceremony in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on Friday morning, Ray Mabus presented eight Navy Crosses and eight Silver Stars to sailors attached to East and West Coast Naval Special Warfare commands, announced his spokesman, Capt. Patrick McNally.
Another Navy Cross upgrade was approved for a sailor who was unable to make it to the ceremony, McNally said. One Navy Cross and one Silver Star were presented posthumously.
While the names of most of the awardees were not made public, Navy Special Warfare Command spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Mark Walton said the posthumous Navy Cross was for Chief Petty Officer Charles Keating IV, 31, who was killed in action in May while in a firefight against Islamic State forces in Northern Iraq.
According to Keating's original Silver Star Medal citation, first obtained by Military.com in June, he was recognized for valor shown on March 4, when he played a crucial role in an operation that repelled more than 100 enemy fighters who were assaulting Peshmerga front lines. He helped to direct the Peshmerga troops in their response, then organized an American quick-response force, eventually personally engaging the Islamic State militants.
"[Keating] continually exposed himself to enemy automatic weapon, mortar, and rocket propelled grenade fire as he diligently maneuvered between the front and flanks of the defensive fighting position to stop enemy advances and keep friendly forces accurately informed of the unfolding situation," the citation reads.
When the ISIS fighters tried to send a vehicle carrying an improvised explosive device to Keating's position, he directed a team to intercept the vehicle with snipers and rocket fire, scuttling the enemy's plans.
According to his citation, Keating's "personal bravery inspired his comrades to vigorously defend their position and repel the enemy assault."
The names of the other awardees were not made public. Most, though not all, were assigned to the Navy's prestigious SEAL teams, Walton said. SEALs guard their identities fiercely to avoid compromising future missions.
"Today we honor some of our nation's finest heroes, not just for their individual acts of courage and bravery in the face of danger, but for the everyday selflessness that they and their peers demonstrate," Mabus said in a statement. "This generation of sailors, and particularly those serving as part of our Naval Special Warfare team, is an extraordinary group of men and women who have given so much to our country. Although today we recognize these individuals for their heroism and valor in combat, we are also honoring the sailors and Marines who fought beside them and those who are still in the fight."
The awards were all upgraded as a result of a Pentagon-wide review of service crosses and Silver Stars presented during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- more than 1,000 medals in all. The Department of the Navy alone reviewed more than 300 valor awards, McNally said, completing its review Nov. 15.
More than 30 upgrades were approved. In addition to the 24 upgraded awards presented Friday, the remaining six or more medals will be presented in coming weeks, he said.
The Navy has also confirmed that two troops have been recommended for upgrades to the highest combat award, the Medal of Honor, though the names of those troops and the status of the recommendations have not been publicly released.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the number of awards upgraded.