President Obama awarded the military's highest honor to a soldier who died trying to save his wounded comrade in Afghanistan — saying Sgt. First Class Jared C. Monti personified the values of honor and heroism.
Obama presented the prestigious Medal of Honor award to Monti's parents during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Monti of Raynham, Mass., died in Afghanistan on June 21, 2006, while trying to save a young private who was wounded. Obama said the fallen soldier "did something no amount of training can instill."
In an interview with FOXNews.com Thursday, Monti's mother, Janet, said the award is a "tremendous honor," but she called the ceremony "bittersweet."
"We're very proud of him, but we're also very sad," she said.
Monti's platoon — part of the 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment — was on an intelligence-gathering patrol when it was ambushed by more than 60 insurgents in Afghanistan's Nuristan province. After calling in artillery support and directing his men’s return fire, Monti braved withering enemy fire to try to pull the comrade to safety from an exposed position. Monti, who was 31, was mortally wounded on the third attempt.
Janet Monti described her son's innate selflessness and desire to help others, saying he "would always stick up for the underdog." She recounted a story in which her son rescued a group of children who were being taunted by Albanian youths while he was stationed in Kosovo.
"He picked the children up in his Humvee and drove them to school," she said. "He had so much compassion."
Embattled U.S. troops in northeastern Afghanistan also paid homage to Monti Thursday by officially rededicating their isolated outpost in the Hindu Kush Mountains in his name.
Thursday’s ceremony in Afghanistan, at Combat Operations Post Monti in Kunar province, was attended by about 50 soldiers not on duty. It was preceded by artillery fire on nearby mountain ridges to ward off Taliban gunmen who mortar and rocket the post.
“Most of us didn’t know him personally and most of us will know him only by his citation,” Maj. Pete Granger, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, said before a large plaque was unveiled in Monti's honor.
“We honor his memory by continuing to fight for the same things he believed in: his soldiers, his family, his friends and his country.”
Nuristan Province, like Kunar province, earned a reputation as the “cradle of Jihad” in the 1980s’ mujahideen war against Soviet occupation forces. And the reputation sticks. Taliban insurgents use the rugged regions close to the Pakistani border as transit areas to and from central Afghanistan.
“He was a real hard-nosed NCO (non-commissioned officer),” Staff Sgt. Matthew Wolfanger, who was a member of Monti’s unit, told FOXNews.com. “He really demanded a lot out of his guys … but in the end we loved him for it because he took us from soldiers who were kinda just going through the motions doing our jobs to guys who were passionate about what we were doing.
“He brought the best out of us. We wanted to be the best because of him. He absolutely loved what he did, and he loved us, his soldiers.”
Wolfanger, 25, the keynote speaker at Thursday's Afghanistan ceremony, said he wasn’t tasked to go on Monti’s fatal mission, but he and others listened in on the radio traffic.
“I knew it was bad from what they were saying, but it didn’t really go through my mind that my friends were out there and could actually be hurt. But at the end of it, when they said they had wounded and a KIA (killed in action) … you know … and they gave the roster numbers (of casualties) ….”
Wolfanger never finished the sentence.
The Medal of Honor, he said in prepared remarks, is “final confirmation of something that he had been to his soldiers all along, a hero.”