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NAPLES, Italy — What is a hero?

To one Arizona man, it’s Gunnery Sgt. Phillip Griego of the Fleet Air Mediterranean staff in Naples.

“That day, he became a hero,” said Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Walter Gaskin about Christmas Eve in 2001 when Griego and his brother-in-law pulled a man from a burning building, seconds before the roof collapsed.

Gaskin, chief of staff for NATO’s Naval Striking and Support Forces Southern Europe, presented Griego with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal during a ceremony at the Naples base’s Capodichino site Wednesday.

The Navy and Marine Corps Medal, equivalent to the Soldier’s Medal or Airman’s Medal, is the highest award presented by the military for bravery in peacetime.

Griego, who at the time was assigned to Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13 in Yuma, Ariz., explained he had nearly passed the building before he decided to stop.

“Something in the back of my head said to turn around. ...,” he said after the ceremony. They noticed a man unsuccessfully trying to escape through a window.

When they rushed to the front door they couldn’t open it.

“The only obstacle was that the door was locked,” Griego said.

Despite his small, compact frame, Griego figured he could get in.

“I thought if I ran into it, it would hopefully break,” he said. The door gave and Griego landed on the floor of a room filled with smoke, flames and ash.

“My brother-in-law ... picked me up and said ‘Let’s go,’” he said.

They grabbed the man and left.

Within seconds the roof collapsed.

More than a year and a half later, Griego was recognized for his actions.

“The medal means a lot, but not as much as saving a life,” he told the gathering of sailors, Marines and civilians.

His wife, Frances, and sons Emilio, 7, and Phillip Jr., 5, stood at his side.

“This was a heroic act, an unconscious act of selflessness,” Gaskin said. “No one knows why we do these things. This is what we do.”

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