French train hero to get top Army medal: Lessons from the attack

Aleksander Skarlatos, a National Guardsman from Oregon, was one of a group of men who eventually wrestled an automatic weapon from a would-be gunman on a crowded Paris-bound train last week.

Staff Sgt. Sara Keller, US Air Force/AP
In this Aug. 24, 2015 picture, provided by the US Air Force, Oregon National Guardsman Aleksander Skarlatos, right, meets Brig. Gen. Jon T. Thomas, 86th Airlift Wing commander, as he arrives at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

One of the three Americans who tackled and disarmed a suspected terrorist aboard a Paris-bound train last week will be awarded the US Army's highest non-combat medal, Army officials said Tuesday.

National Guardsman Aleksander Skarlatos will receive the Soldier's Medal, the Army's highest award for acts of heroism not involving actual combat with the enemy, NBC News reported.

Mr. Skarlatos, along with friends Spencer Stone and Anthony Sadler, was traveling on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris after touring Europe to celebrate Skarlatos's return from a tour of duty in Afghanistan when a man emerged from a bathroom with an assault rifle, a pistol, and close to 300 bullets.  He had already injured one man and was attempting to cock his rifle aboard the train carrying 500 passengers.

“I turned around and I saw he had what looked to be an AK-47, and it looked like it was jammed or wasn’t working,” Stone said.

“He clearly had no firearms training whatsoever,” said Skarlatos, who has just finished a tour in Afghanistan. “If he knew what he was doing, or even just got lucky … we would have all been in trouble and probably wouldn’t be here today – along with a lot of other people.”

The three men charged and tackled the armed assailant, who was later identified as Moroccan-born Ayoub El-Khazzani, a suspected Islamist militant. They wrestled away a Lugar pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle from Mr. Khazzani, who injured two people with a box cutter, including Mr. Stone, in the scuffle. With the help of two others aboard the train, Khazzani was eventually subdued and tied up with a necktie of a fellow passenger.

"Specialist Skarlatos's actions that day epitomize what we mean by a soldier of character – one who lives by a personal code where dedication to duty and taking care of others is sacred," Secretary of the Army John McHugh said Tuesday in announcing that Skarlatos would receive the Soldiers Medal.

His praise was echoed by leaders around the world.

President Francois Hollande awarded the men the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest award.

"By their courage, they saved lives," President François Hollande said. "They gave us an example of what is possible to do in these kinds of situations."

President Obama phoned the three Americans to thank them for their bravery.

"It is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy," the President said in remarks after the attack.

“Airman Stone and Specialist Alex Skarlatos are two reasons why – on duty and off – ours is the finest fighting force the world has ever known,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in a statement.

According to reports, Stone, an Airman 1st Class, is also being nominated for the Air Force's highest medal for non-combat bravery.

The three men grew up in the Sacramento area together and will receive a heroes' welcome and a parade in their hometown, Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson said Monday.

The foiling of the French train attack highlights the role ordinary citizens can play in preventing terrorist attacks. The 2009 Christmas underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was subdued by fellow passenger Jasper Schuringa, a Dutch film director. And the 2010 Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was foiled when a street vendor noticed smoke in a car and alerted police.

"...In some circumstances, engaging the enemy is not a matter of choice: on an airplane or a train where mobility is confined, it may be the right move," writes Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst and professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

But, she adds, those actions are not applicable in all situations.

"[I]n almost every training session for active shooter cases – especially at colleges and universities that have seen their fair share of them – the general rule is to run," she says. "Don't hide; don't engage; don't stay put. Exit as fast as you can."

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