ARLINGTON, Va. — Marcos Ugarte wasn’t even thinking; he just knew he had to do it. He propped up a ladder against a burning home, climbed it and pulled to safety a 7-year-old boy who had been trapped in a second-floor room.

So when 21 Medal of Honor recipients gathered this week to honor the 15-year-old Ugarte and three other civilians with an award for bravery and sacrifice, the teen couldn’t help but think that what he did didn’t quite stack up.

“What I did was so small compared to what they have done in the war,” said Ugarte, of Troutdale, Ore. “They’re amazing. They’ve all done great deeds in the war, and I think it’s just an honor to shake their hand.”

But to the war heroes who presented the Citizen Service Before Self Honors medal at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, what the civilian heroes did was just as important.

“We’re surrounded by heroes every day, ordinary people who do extraordinary things,” said Thomas G. Kelley, a former captain in the Navy who was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading a convoy of boats against attacks from enemies during the Vietnam War. “They risked their lives to save somebody else who was helpless at the time. That’s about as noble you can get.

“That’s what they sometimes say … about people like Clint (Romesha) and me … but we were getting paid to do it. We were in uniform and we were in conflict and battle, and we were expected to do it,” said Kelley, who serves on the Citizen Service award’s selection panel. “These people, there’s just something ingrained. When something happens, they respond.”

The recipients are chosen each year from hundreds of nominations across the U.S. by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. They are chosen based on a display of heroism or commitment to putting others first, to show how ordinary citizens can share the same traits as war heroes.

“It’s a great honor to be able to come back and see that effort, without being asked, because it’s the right thing to do,” said Romesha, a former Army staff sergeant who received the Medal of Honor in February. “You just can’t thank them enough.”

Since its inception in 2008, the Citizens Service award has been presented on March 25 — National Medal of Honor Day. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the day dedicated to Medal of Honor recipients.

The fact that Father Joe Carroll was receiving an award from war heroes on a major anniversary wasn’t lost on him.

“They take time out of who they are, America’s greatest heroes, to honor some of us who think we’re just doing our job? Especially on their 150th anniversary, they’re going to honor me? The more you hear it, the more overwhelming it becomes to me,” Carroll said.

Carroll, of San Diego, was being honored for starting the Joan Kroc Center, a transitional housing program that has offered health care, job training, counseling, food and supplies for the homeless. The program often works with veterans, who are among the most difficult to rehabilitate, Carroll said.

“They’re usually the hardest group to work with because there’s a real emotional breakdown,” Carroll said. “They did risk their lives, they did go to war for us … and we need to find better ways to take care of them.”

Also honored were Jesse Shaffer III and Jesse Shaffer IV, a father-son duo who braved 100-plus mph winds during Hurricane Isaac to rescue 120 people stranded in their homes as floodwaters inundated the town of Braithwaite, La., in August 2012.

And like the other honorees and Medal of Honor recipients, the Shaffers insisted that what they did was nothing special.

“It had to be done,” said Jesse Shaffer IV. “It wasn’t something I was forced to do, I was going to go in there no matter what.”

Town officials were forced to call off rescue efforts because their vehicles couldn’t get through high waters, but the Shaffers set out in their flatboat, making dozens of rescues during a 16-hour period.

In one harrowing rescue, the Shaffers saved a family of five, including young children, from the roof of a trailer moments before it was engulfed by 18-foot waves.

“It doesn’t matter, really, if it was saving 120 people or saving one life. It’s just as important,” said Bob Maxwell, a Medal of Honor recipient for World War II. “It isn’t just military that are heroes. In everyday life you find people who are heroes.”

Citizen heroes in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., will be honored in a separate ceremony later this spring, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.

For more information, visit Twitter: @cjlinSSPhotographer's Twitter: @mjtibbs

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