RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Today at the White House, President Obama will present the nation's highest award for valor to the family of Sergeant 1st Class Jared Monti. It's only the second Medal of Honor awarded for Afghanistan in the nearly eight years of fighting there. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman tells us the story of what happened on a June night three years ago when Sergeant Monti died trying to save the life of one of his men.
TOM BOWMAN: They hiked for two days, 16 soldiers from the Army's 10th Mountain Division, climbing over loose shale to reach a barren ridgeline in Afghanistan, hard against the Pakistan border. They were setting up an observation post, laying the groundwork for a sweeping Army incursion into an area controlled by the Taliban.
Staff Sergeant John Hawes remembers the smell of mountain sage, and trudging along with his friend Sergeant Jared Monti, a bull of a man who was easy to talk to.
Staff Sergeant JOHN HAWES (United States Army): One of the most cherished memories I have of him is the entire two-day climb up, that was all our conversations. And he talked about his girlfriend back home. He had talked about fishing off the coast in Massachusetts
BOWMAN: Sergeant Monti was not so easygoing when it came to his soldiers' welfare, says Hawes, and not afraid to step on toes.
Sergeant HAWES: He had no problem going head to head with, you know, an officer.
BOWMAN: Going head to head when his soldiers were caught up in minor trouble or being ordered to do what Monti called something stupid.
Sergeant HAWES: Going out on patrol or taking unnecessary risk. If somebody was showing a lack of common sense, he'd put them in their place.
BOWMAN: But on that June day there seemed to be little risk and few problems. That is until they saw a man in the valley below, looking up at them through binoculars. Up on the ridge, the soldiers hunkered down as darkness fell in an area studded with rocks and bushes. They heard a noise in the pine trees in front of them. Suddenly, recalls Sergeant Chris Cunningham, and eruption of grenades, machine gun and rifle fire.
Staff Sergeant CHRIS CUNNINGHAM (United States Army): Branches and leaves and everything just started falling all around us from all the explosions. Everyone kind of knew we need to return fire.
BOWMAN: But the attack was so intense, says Cunningham, most soldiers couldn't lift their heads above the rocks. He says it was like standing next to a speeding freight train.
Sergeant CUNNINGHAM: Constant violence just coming at you, coming all around you, you know, enveloping you.
BOWMAN: The soldiers fired at the silhouettes in the trees, just 30 yards away. Other Taliban were higher up the slope, raining down grenades on the Americans. Cunningham says Monti grabbed his radio and calmly called for more fire power.
Sergeant CUNNINGHAM: Break, break, break. And everybody got off the radio. And then he immediately started working indirect fires or mortars.
BOWMAN: But those American mortars fell far behind the Taliban force, exploding harmlessly. That's when other Taliban fighters crept toward them.
Sergeant CUNNINGHAM: They got close enough where you could hear them whispering.
BOWMAN: Within minutes, one American soldier was wounded, another dead, a third was missing - Private First Class Brian Bradbury.
Sergeant HAWES: And we started hollering for Bradbury.
BOWMAN: Again, Sergeant Hawes.
Sergeant HAWES: And Bradbury answered us from the far end of our position nearest the enemy.
BOWMAN: Cunningham, from behind a tree stump, yelled he would go get Bradbury. Sergeant Monti said no.
Sergeant CUNNINGHAM: He's my guy. I'm going to get him.
BOWMAN: Cunningham saw Monti dash from behind the safety of the rocks toward Bradbury, just 20 feet away. The other soldiers laid down covering fire.
Sergeant CUNNINGHAM: He was hunched, trying to run. He moved pretty fast.
BOWMAN: Monti only got about halfway, says Hawes.
Sergeant HAWES: The enemy fire had picked up so much that it drove him back a little bit.
BOWMAN: Back behind a stone wall.
Sergeant HAWES: Tried making another attempt and was just drove back.
BOWMAN: Sergeant Monti rose a third time, recalls Cunningham, but soon disappeared in a cloud.
Sergeant CUNNINGHAM: All I saw was the explosion from behind him.
BOWMAN: Hawes and Cunningham could see Monti crawling back toward them.
Sergeant HAWES: He screamed out that he'd been hit.
Sergeant CUNNINGHAM: You know, he kept on saying, Cunny, come get me, come get me. And it really wasn't that long at all.
BOWMAN: Cunningham couldn't get his friend only a few feet away. The Taliban fire was still too intense, he says. Monti grew more serene.
Sergeant CUNNINGHAM: I just remember he said in a clear voice, very calm: Tell my family I'm good with God and that I love them.
BOWMAN: Soon, American warplanes dropped bombs, the Taliban retreated. The battle was over. It had been one long hour.
They wrapped Sergeant Jared Monti in a poncho, and Cunningham stood over him and said the Lord's Prayer. A helicopter came to pick up the wounded and the dead, including Private Bradbury, the man they tried to save. And just before dawn, the surviving soldiers made their way back down the mountain.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.