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“Above and beyond the call of duty.”

It’s at the heart of the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest award for valor.

It applies to every hero, every war.

Since the last issue of Heroes, seven men have been chosen to enter this sacred club; two paid the ultimate price for admission. Their actions span four wars and more than 150 years.

The Medal of Honor was first awarded for actions in the Civil War. In 1863, severely wounded Army 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing knew he was going to die on the Gettysburg battlefield but continued to fight. His headstone at West Point reads “Faithful unto death.”

He was honored with the medal in November 2014 by President Barack Obama, who said, “This story is part of our larger American story and one that continues to this day.”

For actions in World War I, 124 men received the Medal of Honor, including Army Sgt. William Shemin. After officers and senior NCOs were killed or wounded in three days of combat in 1918 near Bazoches, France, Shemin took command of the platoon. He was 19. President Theodore Roosevelt was said to have cited him as one of the five bravest Americans in WWI — yet his courage was overlooked for years due to prejudice because he was Jewish.

Army Sgt. Henry Johnson was denied the honor because of his race. He served during WWI with an all-black National Guard unit that would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” In May 1918, while on sentry duty in France, he bravely responded to a German raiding party’s surprise attack. Under intense fire, with serious wounds, he fought with every weapon available, including his knife.

As an infantry machine gunner in Vietnam, Spc. 4 Donald Sloat’s final courageous act saved three fellow soldiers. Just four months into his combat tour — and a month before his 21st birthday — Sloat smothered a grenade with his body. His mother battled for years to have his heroism recognized. She died two years before his brother accepted the medal in Sloat’s honor.

Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins deployed to Vietnam for three nonconsecutive tours after being drafted in 1956. He repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire during 38 hours of close-combat fighting in 1966 to carry wounded comrades to safety and later, to secure vital ammunition.

When Adkins and a small group of soldiers were ordered to evacuate Camp A Shau, they didn’t make it to the last helicopter. He took the group into the jungle, evading the enemy for 48 hours until they were rescued.

His medal citation says Adkins killed up to 175 North Vietnamese soldiers — and sustained 18 wounds. He retired from the Army in 1978.

In Afghanistan, Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts fought against 200 insurgents assaulting observation post Topside in Wanat in July 2008. At one point in the battle, Pitts, badly wounded by shrapnel, crawled to a radio and whispered situation reports that the command post used to provide fire support. He told them everyone at the post was dead or gone. While waiting for reinforcements, Pitts continued to fight. He wanted to die fighting, he said later. He is credited with selflessly preventing the enemy from overrunning the post and taking fallen U.S. troops.

Lance Cpl. Kyle Carpenter used his body to cover a grenade and shield fellow Marines, shattering his jaw and arm, losing an eye and embedding his body with shrapnel. For his actions in 2010 in Marjah, Afghanistan, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, which he has said he doesn’t like to wear. During a speech on the five-year anniversary of the battle, Carpenter addressed several hundred Marjah veterans. He told them he wore the medal that night for them.

“Feel free to come up after and touch it, whatever you like. It’s your medal,” he said.

Above and beyond the call of duty.

Every hero, every war.

— Tina Croley, Managing Editor for Content
croley.tina@stripes.com

Stars and Stripes - Heroes 2015