“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.

‘I wanted to die fighting’

Ryan Pitts recites the nine names without pause. Abad, Ayers, Bogar. Brostrom, Garcia, Hovater. Phillips, Rainey, Zwilling. The 10 men are forever joined in history for their actions July 13, 2008, in the Battle of Wanat, one of the deadliest clashes for U.S. forces during the long war in Afghanistan.

‘I knew if I didn't move him, that was it’

Outside the wire, anyone can be called on to save a life. It’s a lesson learned by Petty Officer 1st Class Scott Weaver, a Navy EOD technician from Colorado, during a routine reconnaissance patrol in southern Afghanistan in 2012.

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‘The cost was too high’

When a man detonated a suicide vest at the morning bazaar in Khost, Afghanistan, more than two years ago, Staff Sgt. Andrew Braxton and Sgt. Benjamin Bullard were unscathed. Their fellow North Carolina National Guard soldiers were not as lucky.

When ‘normal training isn't going to work, you have to improvise’

The alarm sounds and the Coast Guard takes off, even when its rescue teams aren’t sure what lies ahead. Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Kreske and three other crewmembers knew only that one man suffered a leg injury and another man might have been hurt when their MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter took off from San Diego around noon Jan. 18, 2013.

‘It was probably the worst fight, honestly’

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Frank Troiano had two injured men with him, was taking fire from insurgents with a superior position and was trying to get out of a village in Afghanistan’s Tagab district.

‘Even the Special Forces guys called us crazy’

No U.S. forces had reached the area in eight years of war in Afghanistan. Marine Corps Cpl. Ethan Nagel, an embedded trainer, along with his platoon of Afghan National Army troops, another Marine trainer and a small Special Forces team, were moving up the Uzbin Valley to meet with village elders.

‘That was the point where everything came together’

The wounded U.S. servicemember was not far from Kandahar in Afghanistan. Three others were with him, but they could not get the injured man to safety because of an insurgent ambush. Nearby U.S. Army soldiers could not engage the enemy, and a close-air support coordinator on the ground was panicked and inexperienced.

‘I wasn't going to leave my guys on the ground’

A basic rule of warfare, known by everyone from generals to video game enthusiasts, is to fight from behind something. A rock, tree, building — anything that stops a bullet will do. U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ivan Ruiz ignored that rule Dec. 10, 2013, when insurgents opened fire on his position.

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