America’s top leaders enjoyed a brief respite Thursday from Washington’s grim business of politics and war to salute the three Sacramento-area friends who brought down a gunman intent on killing dozens last month on a French train.
From the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue to the Pentagon across the Potomac, Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, Army National Guard Spc. Alek Skarlatos and student Anthony Sadler were hailed as conquering heroes for their concerted bravery Aug. 21 aboard a train bound for Paris from the Netherlands.
President Barack Obama smiled broadly as he welcomed the three young men to the Oval Office.
“Because of their courage, because of their quick thinking, because of their teamwork, it’s fair to say that a lot of people were saved and a real calamity was averted,” Obama said.
Obama said he’d spoken with the three by phone after their heroics last month, but he wanted to see them in person and tell them that they “represent the very best of America (and) American character.”
A few hours after the White House session, Defense Secretary Ash Carter led a celebratory ceremony in the outdoor courtyard of the Pentagon where about 3,000 military and civilian employees repeatedly leaped to their feet to cheer and deliver standing ovations as the three friends’ actions on the train were recounted.
On a sun-splashed late summer day, the Army Brass Quintet played the official hymns of each of the military services as soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in the audience sang along.
Carter described how Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler tackled and disarmed a Moroccan man who’d started shooting after coming out of a train bathroom with an AK-47, a Luger pistol and box-cutters.
“It’s an amazing story, right out of a movie, and Alek, Spencer and Anthony have been rightly celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic,” Carter said.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James pinned a Purple Heart on the chest of Stone, who last month with his two friends received the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, from President Francois Hollande.
At the Pentagon, Stone also received the Airman’s Medal, Skarlatos got the Soldier’s Medal and Sadler was given the Medal of Valor, an honor first bestowed posthumously on the agency’s civilian workers who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
After the French government classified the assault by Moroccan national Ayoub El Khazzani as a terrorist attack, James overruled an earlier Pentagon decision and awarded Stone the Purple Heart.
Chief Master Sgt. Tony Johnson, sitting in the crowd at the Pentagon, was among hundreds of Air Force members who wore their dress blues for the ceremony.
“I’ve very proud of them,” Johnson said of the three heroes. “They put their lives in danger to protect others. That’s what the military is all about. We fight to protect all lives.”
Johnson said that Stone, who had his thumb nearly severed and was stabbed in the neck on the train, deserved the Purple Heart.
“He was injured in a terrorist attack,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s considered for an even higher commendation because of all the lives he saved.”
When he joined the applause for his friends, Stone clapped his right hand against his left elbow because the hand remains heavily bandaged. After Stone returned to their ranks wearing the Purple Heart, Skarlatos peered at the medal closely and smiled.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, and Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkeley of Oregon attended the ceremony along with other lawmakers from the two states. They posed for photographs with the three friends and the Pentagon brass under red, white and blue bunting.
“These three local young men are an inspiration to Sacramento County and our country,” said Rep. Ami Bera, an Elk Grove, Calif., Democrat. “I’m glad to see their brave actions recognized today in Washington, D.C.”
While Carter honored Stone and Skarlatos as military men, he also extolled Sadler. Noting that he is starting classes at Sacramento State University, Carter quipped: “I’m sure he’ll have the best ‘what I did on summer vacation’ story of anybody.”
Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was among the senior military brass on hand.
“It is a privilege to share this stage with three young men who did something about evil,” Selva said.
Turning toward the three friends, he added: “Gentlemen, thank you for acting. Thank you for being people who cared enough to make a difference.”
All the pomp and circumstance left Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler a bit dazed.
“You can’t top meeting the president of the United States,” Stone told reporters after the ceremony, quickly adding that dining with former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had also been a thrill.
Skarlatos said of Obama: “He’s a very nice guy.”
Stone, who has been in Washington being feted at the national convention of the Air Force Association, said he was incredibly excited to watch Skarlatos’ debut performance earlier this week on “Dancing with the Stars.”
“I was in my hotel room going crazy for him,” Stone said.
Stone and Skarlatos are childhood pals who grew up next door to each other in Carmichael, Calif. Sadler met them in middle school, and the three became fast friends.
“I’m glad that all of this has bonded us forever,” Sadler said as the Pentagon crowd left the courtyard.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose