Of the roughly 2.5 million service members who have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade, just 16 have received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor.
It's not an award most aspire to. The criteria for receiving it are incredibly stringent, requiring significant risk to life and limb in direct combat and a display of "personal bravery or self-sacrifice so extraordinary as to set the individual apart from his or her comrades."
But for some service members put into extreme circumstances, the daily grind can give way to moments of incredible bravery that warrants them the nation's highest award. We've collected them here (in alphabetical order).
Cpl. Kyle Carpenter
On Nov. 21, 2010, then-Lance Cpl. Kyle Carpenter was providing security alongside his friend Lance Cpl. Nick Eufrazio on a rooftop at a combat outpost the Marines had established the previous day. It wasn't long before the shooting started, forcing both to lie on their backs to avoid getting hit.
An hour later, Taliban bullets began getting closer to the compound, and under that cover fire, insurgents launched three grenades inside at the Marines. One landed in the center of the base, injuring an Afghan soldier. The second harmlessly detonated near a post that was destroyed the previous day. The last landed on the roof, dangerously close to both Marines.
"I only remember a few moments after I got hit," Carpenter told me when I interviewed him for Business Insider. "But nothing before."
An extensive investigation found that Carpenter had actually jumped on the grenade, absorbing the majority of the explosion. "The majority of the grenade blast was deflected down rather than up, causing a cone-shaped hole to be blown down through the ceiling of the command operations center," his award summary reads.
Carpenter was severely wounded, with injuries to his face, jaw, and upper and lower extremities. Eufrazio received shrapnel to the head. Both were immediately evacuated and survived.
"I wouldn't change anything," Carpenter said. "We're both alive and we're here and I'm fully appreciating my second chance."
Award Presented: June 19,2014
Staff Sgt. Ty Carter
On Oct. 3, 2009, Carter was one of 54 members of B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment defending Combat Outpost Keating in Nuristan Province. Shortly before 6 a.m., the remote base was rocked with blistering enemy machine gun and rocket fire. More than 400 fighters were attempting to overrun the base.
Then-Specialist Carter sprinted across open ground to join his fellow soldiers on the perimeter, then ran back again to gather up necessary supplies despite withering enemy fire. Later, Carter noticed his fellow soldier Specialist Stephan L. Mace was wounded.
While Larson provided cover fire from within a nearby Humvee, Carter stanched Mace's bleeding and placed a tourniquet on his shattered leg.
He realized he couldn't carry Mace while he had his weapon. He returned to the Humvee and told Larson his plan. Larson got out of the Humvee and provided cover fire while Carter returned to Mace, picked him up and carried him through the hail of bullets back to the Humvee, and went back to firing.
During the 12-hour long battle, Carter continued to give medical aid to Mace, engage the enemy, and communicate with his fellow soldiers to retake the base. According to the Army's official narrative of the battle, "Carter's remarkable acts of heroism and skill, which were vital to the defense of COP Keating, exemplify what it means to be an American hero."
Award Presented: Aug. 26, 2013
Cpl. Jason Dunham
While his unit was engaged in a major firefight in Iraq along the Syrian border on Apr. 14, 2004, Dunham and his team stopped several vehicles to search them for weapons.
As he approached one of the vehicles, the driver lunged at Dunham's throat and they fought in a hand-to-hand battle. Wrestling on the ground, Dunham then yelled to his Marines, "No, no watch his hand."
The insurgent then dropped a grenade with the pin pulled. Dunham jumped on top of it, placing his helmet between his body and the grenade in an effort to brunt the explosion.
"He knew what he was doing," Lance Cpl. Jason A. Sanders, who was in Dunham's company, told Marine Corps News. "He wanted to save Marines' lives from that grenade."
He saved the lives of at least two Marines, and was mortally wounded in the blast.
Award Presented (posthumously): Jan. 11, 2007
Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta
On Oct. 25, 2007, Giunta's platoon was on patrol in Afghanistan's deadly Korengal Valley when they were hit with a fierce L-shaped ambush from fighters only 10 meters away.
The 10 to 15 enemy fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades, machine-guns, and AK-47s, which immediately wounded two soldiers. With his team pinned down, Giunta left a covered position to give first aid to his wounded squad leader. He was shot twice — one hit the rocket launcher on his back, and the other hit him in the chest of his bulletproof vest.
Once he recovered from the shots, he got up and bounded towards the enemy in order to push them back. When he noticed two Taliban fighters dragging away one of the wounded soldiers, he chased after them, killing one and forcing the other to flee.
"If I'm a hero, every man that stands around me, every woman in the military, everyone who goes into the unknown is a hero," Giunta later told The Christian Science Monitor. "So if you think that's a hero – as long as you include everyone with me."
Award Presented: Nov. 16, 2010
Pfc. Ross McGinnis
As McGinnis' platoon was driving through Adhamiyah, Iraq on Dec. 4, 2006, an insurgent on a rooftop tossed a fragmentation grenade into his Humvee.
McGinnis, who was in the gun turret behind the .50 cal, could have jumped out of the hatch and escaped the blast. Instead, he screamed, "grenade" to warn his fellow soldiers as he tried to grab it to toss away, but he missed.
From Command Posts:
He stood as if he were going to leap out of the top of the Humvee, but instead he dropped down from his fighting position into the truck. Newland thought McGinnis was trying to escape the grenade. But he wasn't. McGinnis had realized that his teammates hadn't spotted it, and so he was chasing it. Newland couldn't move quickly enough to get out of the truck with its combat-locked doors, and none of the guys quite understood what was going on because McGinnis hadn't dived out.
The soldiers watched as McGinnis threw himself on the grenade and took the blast. He gave his life to save the four men inside the vehicle.
Award Presented (posthumously): Jun. 2, 2008
Sgt. Dakota Meyer
On Sep. 8, 2009, Meyer was providing rear security as the four other members of his team (along with Afghan troops) headed on foot into the village of Ganjgal, Afghanistan to meet with village elders.
It turned out to be a trap, and they were ambushed by more than 50 enemy fighters with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and machine guns firing from high ground.
Listening on the radio to his team — who was now cut off — Meyer disobeyed orders to remain in place and manned a .50 caliber machine gun on a gun truck heading into the village. Despite being wounded and braving intense enemy fire, Meyer went in and picked up wounded Afghans and brought them to safety four times. On his fifth trip, he dismounted and recovered the bodies of his four-man team, who Meyer had been trying to save throughout the battle.
"I was a failure," Meyer later told CNN. "My guys died. That was my whole team."
Award Presented: Sep. 11, 2011
Staff Sgt. Robert Miller
On Jan. 25, 2008, Miller's Special Forces team was on a reconnaissance patrol near the Pakistani border when they came under attack. The first attack was quelled after calling for close air support, but soon after, insurgents opened up with heavy machine guns.
Miller's team captain was seriously wounded early in the battle. Completely disregarding his own safety, he ran into the hail of bullets from over 100 enemy fighters to give his team an opportunity to escape to covered positions.
Even after being shot in his upper torso, he ignored the wound and ran over open ground, ultimately killing at least 10 insurgents and wounding dozens more, according to his award citation.
"Five members of his patrol had been wounded, but his team had survived," President Barack Obama said at the award presentation. "And one of his teammates surely spoke for all of them when he said of Rob, 'I would not be alive today if not for his ultimate sacrifice.'"
Award Presented (posthumously): Oct. 6, 2010
Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Monsoor
While providing sniper overwatch in Ramadi, Iraq on Sep. 29, 2006, Monsoor and his SEAL Team eliminated insurgents that were planning a coordinated attack.
As the enemy activity ratcheted up, Monsoor took up a rooftop position to watch for more insurgents. Then a grenade bounced off his chest and landed at his feet.
From The Washington Post:
"Grenade!" Monsoor shouted. But the two snipers and another SEAL on the roof had no time to escape, as Monsoor was closest to the only exit. Monsoor dropped onto the grenade, smothering it with his body. It detonated, and Monsoor died about 30 minutes later from his wounds.
"He made an instantaneous decision to save our teammates. I immediately understood what happened, and tragically it made sense to me in keeping with the man I know, Mike Monsoor," said Lt. Cmdr. Seth Stone, Monsoor's platoon leader in Ramadi.
Award Presented (posthumously): Apr. 8, 2008
Sgt. 1st Class Jared Monti
On Jun. 21, 2006, Monti's unit established a small base on a ridge above a valley in northeastern Afghanistan to support troops below.
Later that evening, a group of at least 60 insurgents established two firing positions only 50 yards away and opened up on the team of only 16 soldiers.
"We were taking so much fire we couldn't make out where the mortars landed. It was coming in so close that ... you could hear it right over your head, just like whizzing through," Private First Class Derek James told Stars Stripes. "They were so close at one point you could hear their voices."
With soldiers killed and wounded, Monti called in artillery and close air support. But one of his soldiers was hit and cut off from the rest of the men.
Monti left the cover of rocks and moved through open ground and gunfire to try and rescue Specialist Brian Bradbury, saying, "that's my guy. I am going to get him."
He tried twice to make it to his wounded comrade, but intense enemy fire pushed him back. With his men laying down covering fire, he went once more, almost making it before being shot himself.
Award Presented (posthumously): Sep. 17, 2009
Lt. Michael Murphy
While leading his Navy SEAL team on Jun. 28, 2005 to infiltrate and provide reconnaissance on a Taliban leader, Murphy and the three other members of his team came under withering gunfire from 30 to 40 enemy fighters.
The fierce gunfight pitted the SEALs against insurgents on the high ground, and they desperately called for support as all four operators were hit by gunshots.
When his radioman fell mortally wounded, and with the radio not able to get a clear signal, Murphy disregarded the enemy fire and went out into the open to transmit back to his base and call for support.
From his Summary of Action:
He calmly provided his unit's location and the size of the enemy force while requesting immediate support for his team. At one point he was shot in the back causing him to drop the transmitter. Murphy picked it back up, completed the call and continued firing at the enemy who was closing in.
"I was cursing at him from where I was," Hospital Corpsman Marcus Luttrell, the only survivor of the battle, later told The New York Times. "I was saying, 'What are you doing?' Then I realized that he was making a call. But then he started getting hit. He finished the call, picked up his rifle and started fighting again. But he was overrun."
Award Presented (posthumously): Oct. 23, 2007
Staff Sgt. Leroy Petry
After his platoon of Army Rangers jumped out of helicopters in Paktia Province, Afghanistan to look for a high-value Taliban target on May 26, 2008, they came under serious attack.
Spotting a nearby compound, Petry led his soldiers in clearing the courtyard which had three Taliban fighters inside. Despite being hit in both legs by gunfire, Petry pushed in and led his soldiers to cover and assess other wounded soldiers.
Only a short time later, both of his soldiers were wounded by a grenade thrown at them by one of the fighters, and then another landed nearby. That's when Petry decided he would throw it back.
"It was almost instinct; off training," Petry told the Army News Service. "It was probably going to kill all three of us. I had time to visually see the hand grenade. And I figure it's got about a four-and-half second fuse, depending on how long it has been in the elements and the weather and everything and how long the pin has been pulled. I figure if you have time to see it you have time to kick it, throw it, just get it out there."
Saving the lives of two soldiers, the grenade exploded just as he was throwing it, taking off his right hand. He then calmly placed a tourniquet on his arm as other soldiers neutralized the threat from the Taliban.
Award Presented: Jul. 12, 2011
Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts
On July 13, 2008, Taliban fighters attacked a small outpost in Wanat, Afghanistan in an attempt to overrun it, and almost immediately, a number of soldiers were wounded or killed in a blistering volley of rocket-propelled grenade fire.
"It was just a barrage of RPGs, and it was very disorienting," Pitts told the Army Times. The first volley left Pitts' lower body peppered with shrapnel, forcing him to crawl to areas where he could return fire. "I'd blind fire, spraying along the rock, and once I thought I had laid down enough suppressive fire, I'd pop up and try to take out whatever I could."
From Business Insider:
Crucially, Pitts maintained radio contact between the OP and the command post as the battle progressed, warning of enemy movements. After fighting for over an hour despite being critical wounded, Pitts was medically evacuated.
Were Pitts not present at the Battle of Wanat, the outcome would have been significantly different.
Award Presented: Jul. 24, 2014
Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha
With only 53 U.S. troops at Combat Outpost Keating, Afghanistan, the early morning of Oct. 3, 2009 was quite different than what they had endured before.
Over 300 Taliban fighters were attacking from all sides with the goal of overrunning the remote base. But Romesha wasn't going to let that happen. "We weren't going to be beat that day," he later said.
As fighters breached the perimeter of the camp, Romesha calmly rallied his men to repel the assault even after he was wounded. He personally played "peek-a-boo" with an enemy sniper, took out an enemy machine-gun position, and called in airstrikes that killed at least 30 Taliban fighters.
From The New York Times:
His bravery, Mr. Obama said, helped prevent the outpost from being overrun by Taliban fighters. He was wounded in the neck, shoulder and arms by shrapnel after a rocket-propelled grenade hit a generator he was hiding behind. Eight American service members were killed in the October 2009 battle, one of the most intense of the war.
Award Presented: Feb. 11, 2013
Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith
On April 4, 2003, after his unit briefly battled and captured several Iraqi fighters near the Baghdad International Airport, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith instructed his men to build an impromptu holding area for the prisoners in a nearby walled compound.
A short time later, his troops were violently attacked by a larger force. Smith rallied his men to organize a hasty defense, then braved hostile fire to engage the enemy with grenades and anti-tank weapons.
He then ran through blistering gunfire to man the .50 caliber machine gun on top of an armored personnel carrier to keep the enemy from overrunning the position, completely disregarding his own safety to protect his soldiers.
Smith was mortally wounded during the attack, but he helped defeat the attacking force which had more than 50 enemy soldiers killed, according to his award citation.
Award Presented (posthumously): April 4, 2005
Capt. Will Swenson
On Sept. 8, 2009 while assigned as a trainer and mentor to the Afghan border police, Capt. Will Swenson's team was ambushed by a force of more than 50 Taliban fighters. With no reinforcements and repeated denials for fire support, Swenson repeatedly risked his own life to search for members of the team who were cut off.
From the U.S. Army:
With complete disregard for his own safety, Swenson voluntarily led a team into the kill zone, exposing himself to enemy fire on three occasions to recover the wounded and search for missing team members.
Returning to the kill zone a fourth time in a Humvee, he exited the vehicle, evaded a hail of bullets and shells to recover three fallen Marines and a Navy corpsman, working alongside then-Marine Corps Cpl. Dakota Meyer, who on Sept. 15, 2011, received the Medal of Honor for his own actions in the battle.
"This award was earned with a team, a team of our finest: Marines, Army, Air Force, Navy and our Afghan partners, standing side by side," Swenson told reporters after his award ceremony. "And now that team includes Gold Star families who lost their fathers, sons and husbands that day. This medal represents them. It represents us."
Award Presented: Oct. 15, 2013
Sgt. Kyle White
On Nov. 8, 2007, Kyle White repeatedly ran through intense enemy gunfire to get to wounded troops, called in steady reports and air support to beat back Taliban fighters, and directed medical evacuations for the dead and wounded, Army Times reports.
"An RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] hit right behind my head and knocked me unconscious ... it was just lights out ... when I woke up, I was face-down on a rock," White told Army News Service, recalling that as he came to, an enemy round fragmented near his head and sent a shower of broken rock chips and debris into the side of his face. "I didn't feel pain at all, just numb like when you go to the dentist."
With chaos all around him, White realized that 10 of those with his 14-man team embedded with Afghan soldiers had been forced to slide more than 150 feet down the side of a rocky cliff. As one of four soldiers left above (and closest to enemy fire), White tended to a wounded soldier for some time before seeing a Marine on the team lying wounded out in the open.
White then ran through blistering enemy fire to reach wounded Marine Sgt. Philip Bocks, but unfortunately his injuries were mortal. "I worked on him until he was no longer with us." Remarkably, White was never hit by enemy fire during the 16-hour battle, although his pack, weapon, and equipment were hit multiple times.
As night fell, White — now suffering from two concussions — directed Afghan Army soldiers to set up a defensive perimeter as he kept a badly-wounded Spec. Kain Schilling from falling asleep and marked a landing zone so helicopters could land and bring the soldiers out.
Award Presented: May. 13, 2014