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France train attack: why heroes probably won't get US medal for valor

US Air Force officials applauded the heroism of Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, as well as Spc. Alek Skarlatos and two others. Had it not been for the group, the officials said, things would have gone quite differently aboard the train last Friday.

Regis Duvignau/Reuters
(L. to r.) US Airman First Class Spencer Stone, student Anthony Sadler, and National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos attend a ceremony at the US Embassy in Paris, August 23, 2015. The three men helped overpower a Kalashnikov-toting attacker on a high speed train heading for Paris from Amsterdam on Friday.

His fellow Air Force comrades had dubbed him “Captain America” long before he foiled what French authorities are calling a terrorist attack on a high-speed train last Friday.

Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone got the nickname, Pentagon officials said, during Air Force technical training.

Air Force officials invoked this colorful sobriquet as they applauded his heroism aboard the train. Also praised was Spc. Alek Skarlatos, a National Guardsman, as well as childhood friend Anthony Sadler and British businessman Chris Norman.

“Had it not been for this historic quartet, I’m quite sure that today we would be sitting here discussing a blood bath,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James said in a Pentagon briefing Monday.

Airman Stone’s unit has said it will be nominating him for the Airman’s Medal, which is the highest medal for noncombat bravery that the Air Force can bestow.

However, it appears unlikely that either Stone or Specialist Skarlatos – now recipients of the French Legion of Honor award – will also receive an American military commendation for valor.

“There was consideration for it, but for a noncombat award, this is the highest one we can give to an airman,” said Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, referring to the Airman’s Medal.

That said, the Pentagon is awaiting the French law enforcement investigation, and if it officially deems the incident a terror-related event, Air Force officials will examine the precedent established in the 2009 Fort Hood attack by Nidal Hasan, “to look at whether we can award the Purple Heart as well,” General Welsh said.

But as for a Bronze Star with valor device, or a Silver Star, “not now,” Welsh added. “This is not a combat action, so it doesn’t qualify right now, as we see it.”

That said, Pentagon officials do not dispute that the actions of the group were extraordinarily heroic.

The four were able to take down and subdue Ayoub El-Khazzani of Morocco, who authorities say appeared intent on a terrorist strike, brandishing an AK-47, hundreds of bullets, a Luger pistol, and a box cutter.

His lawyer says he just wanted to rob people and merely came across the weapons at the train station.

But when the gunman entered their train cabin apparently brandishing the AK-47, “Alek taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Go get ’em!’ And that’s when I sprinted at him,” Stone said later. “It was a long spring. It felt like slow motion.”

Stone heard the “click” of the assault rifle as he charged, and he feared he would die, he said. But “I heard the ‘click’ and thought, ‘Whew, I’m still here.’ ”

In grappling with the gunman, Stone was stabbed repeatedly. Doctors later told him that the cuts came dangerously close to being fatal. Despite his injuries, he saved another train passenger who was stabbed in the neck. “I yelled out, ‘I’m a medic! I’m a medic!’ and took the guy and held him down,” he recalled.

The actions of Stone and his friends “personified service before self, no question about it,” Secretary James said, noting with pride that US airmen like Stone “bind themselves to a set of core values, which are integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all that we do.”

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