On a bright, sunny morning this week, Marines and sailors at Camp Pendleton gathered to remember a day three years ago in Afghanistan filled with violence and death -- and bravery.
Navy Chief Petty Officer Justin Wilson, a corpsman, received the Navy Cross for risking his life and ignoring his own injuries to render aid to wounded Marines during an attack by enemy forces in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province.
Two Marines killed in the attack, Staff Sgt. Christopher Diaz, a dog handler, and Staff Sgt. Nicholas Sprovtsoff, an explosive ordnance technician, were awarded the Bronze Star posthumously.
Their families were at the ceremony to receive the medals from Maj. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commander of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command.
"Medals never meant much to Chris," Salvador Diaz said of his son. "But with our son killed in action, medals and citations are all we have left."
The family, he said, is dealing with "grief, a sense of emptiness but also a sense of pride." The family has adopted Dino, their son's working dog in Afghanistan.
Tasha Sprovtsoff joked that she was not surprised to learn that it took two enemy bombs to kill her husband. He always prided himself on being a "bad-ass" Marine, she said.
"I thought, it would take two bombs to get rid of Nick Sprovtsoff," she said.
Wilson, 36, on his third combat deployment to Afghanistan, was accompanying Marines on a mission to clear buried roadside bombs when the attack occurred on Sept. 28, 2011.
Wilson "didn't hesitate for a second to run to the sound of the problem, to the sound of the guns," Osterman said. Diaz and Sprovtsoff were "leading from the front," he said.
Even in the context of combat, where friendship between front-line troops is formed, the relationship between Marines and corpsmen is said to be remarkable.
"In battle, no bond is stronger than that which binds Marines and their corpsmen," said Scott McGaugh, author of "Battlefield Angels," a history of Navy corpsmen and Army medics.
"Corpsmen are their saviors, advancing side by side toward the enemy, and that reality is never lost on any Marine," McGaugh said.
Wilson, speaking to several hundred Marines, sailors and guests at the awards ceremony, said that while he's had "some bad days in the last three years," he has never felt alone because of the support of his wife, Robin, and his fellow sailors and Marines.
"People say I'm lucky to be alive," Wilson said, standing beside large pictures of Diaz and Sprovtsoff.
"But I was lucky to have served with them. They made me a better man."