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Obama To Award 13 Medals Of Valor To Public Safety Officers


President Obama, this morning, presents a group of law enforcement officers with the Public Safety Medal Of Valor. For public safety officers, that's the equivalent of the military's Medal of Honor. Thirteen, in all, are being recognized for showing exceptional courage despite threats to their personal safety. Here's NPR's Eyder Peralta with some of their stories.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Officer Mario Gutierrez's story starts at a gas station in Miami, Fla. He sees a guy trying to light one of the fuel tanks on fire. In a video released by the Florida Sheriffs Association, he says he felt fear right then. But he also saw the emergency shutoff button.


MARIO GUTIERREZ: And I knew I needed to act fast. So I hit that button. I shut everything down, and then I moved in on them.

PERALTA: What happened afterward is a long and bloody struggle. Captured by surveillance tape, it shows the man stabbing Gutierrez multiple times until Gutierrez is able to get a hold of his gun and shoot the man. Bleeding and in pain, Gutierrez still radios for help.


GUTIERREZ: Three-fifteen. I've been knifed, and I've shot the subject. I need help.

PERALTA: The White House says it is awarding Gutierrez the medal of valor for, quote, "bravery and composure while enduring a violent attack." But Gutierrez says he was driven by something more basic.


GUTIERREZ: I didn't want to die, so I fought. I fought as hard as I could. (Sighing) Sorry.

PERALTA: His colleagues have said that Gutierrez saved countless lives that day. In some ways, the list of 13 honorees is full of brave officers who reject the hero label, who say they took on dangerous situations because it was their job. Police Sgt. Robert Wilson III was killed last year when he stumbled upon an armed robbery at a video game store. The prosecutor who saw surveillance tape said Wilson took on two armed men to protect the civilians in the store. During a memorial service at city hall, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter remembered Wilson as a, quote, "true American hero."


MICHAEL NUTTER: Well, I think it's pretty clear that Sgt. Wilson fought a tremendous fight. He was doing his duty.

PERALTA: Another one of the recipients, Los Angeles Police Department Officer Donald Thompson wasn't even on duty the day he saved a man from a burning car. Dashcam video from a passerby shows smoke billowing from a vehicle. Officer Thompson stops his car, crosses two freeway dividers and pulls a 70-year-old man to safety.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's a person. Oh, my God. Oh, my gosh.

PERALTA: Officer Thompson says he was scared and he was brave, but he's never felt like a hero. Here's what he said when he received the Red Cross's citizen hero award.


DONALD THOMPSON: I think the act should be acknowledged, not the person because kindness and caring for people is something that we all should possess and have and demonstrate to each other.

PERALTA: The Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor has been awarded since 2001. Nominations from across the country are reviewed by a board appointed by the president. Eyder Peralta, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.