Tears glistening on his face, President Bush posthumously presented the Medal of Honor on Tuesday to a Navy SEAL from Garden Grove who saved the lives of American snipers in Iraq by throwing his body on top of an insurgent’s grenade.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor, 25, died during a firefight on Sept. 29, 2006, in an Al Qaeda-controlled section of Ramadi. During a solemn ceremony in the White House East Room, his parents, George and Sally, accepted the nation’s highest award for bravery on his behalf.
The presentation, which took place as Army Gen. David H. Petraeus offered an Iraq update on Capitol Hill, was a reminder of the very human cost of a war in which more than 4,000 American servicemen and -women have died since 2003.
Monsoor is the first sailor and first Californian to receive the Medal of Honor as a result of combat in Iraq.
“We will not let his life go in vain,” the president said, noting that the area where Monsoor was killed had been transformed into one of the safest places in the war-torn country.
As the citation was read, a choked-up Bush tried to stare stoically ahead, the tears on his cheeks shining under the light of the chandeliers. He glanced twice toward the family, making eye contact with Sally Monsoor.
Among the 250 guests at the ceremony was the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, along with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Reps. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and Ed Royce (R-Fullerton). Fellow SEALs and former Medal of Honor recipients also attended.
Born in Long Beach, Monsoor played tight end on the Garden Grove High School football team, and enlisted in the Navy in March 2001. Three years later, he completed the grueling process to become a member of an elite SEAL team.
He was a machine-gunner and communications specialist in a platoon that came under enemy fire on 75% of its missions in Iraq -- and “in most of these engagements, Mike was out front defending his brothers,” Bush said.
Monsoor also earned the Bronze Star for bravery in 11 operations between April and September 2006. Four months before his death, he was awarded the Silver Star for rushing to help a wounded SEAL in the middle of a street while enemy fire kicked up the concrete at his feet.
His comrades recalled Monsoor as modest and selfless. Bush noted that he had overcome severe asthma as a child to become a successful athlete.
On the day he died, his job was to provide cover for three SEALs and eight Iraqis. A grenade thrown at the rooftop position they had taken after being attacked earlier in the day hit Monsoor in the chest and bounced on the ground.
He was the only person who had an escape route, the president said, but he threw himself on the grenade without hesitation.
In addition to his parents, Monsoor is survived by two brothers and a sister.
Rear Adm. Robert F. Burt, the Navy’s top chaplain, said that Monsoor’s sacrifice was a testament to the strength of the latest generation of American war fighters.
“We know he loved . . . his brothers in arms to the point that, without hesitation, he sacrificed himself that they may live,” Burt said.
The Medal of Honor has been awarded to more than 3,400 recipients since it was established by Congress in 1862 to recognize exceptional service during the Civil War.
In recent combat, in addition to Monsoor, it has been presented to Marine Cpl. Jason L. Dunham and Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith for bravery in Iraq and to another Navy SEAL, Lt. Michael P. Murphy, for courage in Afghanistan.
“Under the glare of the desert sun,” Bush said of Monsoor, “he never lost his cool.”