More than 50 years after his extraordinary heroism during the Vietnam War, Sergeant Major (Ret.) John Canley was awarded the Medal of Honor Wednesday at the White House.
Canley, who served in the Marines for 28 years after using his brother's paperwork to enlist at the age of 15, was honored for his actions during the Battle of Hue in 1968.
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"While serving as Company Gunnery Sergeant, he fought off multiple enemy attacks as his company moved along a highway toward Hue City to relieve friendly forces who were surrounded. On several occasions, despite his own wounds, he rushed across fire-swept terrain to carry wounded Marines to safety. When his commanding officer was severely wounded, he took command and led his company into Hue City," an announcement of the honor from the Marine Corps read.
"While in command of the company for three days, he led attacks against multiple enemy-fortified positions while exposing himself to enemy fire to carry wounded Marines to safety," the announcement continued. "On February 6, at a hospital compound, he twice scaled a wall in full view of the enemy to aid wounded Marines and carry them to safety."
On Wednesday afternoon, Canley received raucous applause and hearty "oorahs" from the audience in the White House East Room, which included his children, grandchildren, friends, many of his fellow Marines and five previous Medal of Honor recipients.
"This is always one of my favorite events. I like brave people, we meet them right here," said President Donald Trump, praising Canley's "unmatched bravery."
Through his "unrelenting combat," Trump said, Canley "saved the lives of more than 20 Marines."
Fellow servicemember Pat Fraleigh said in a statement he would have died if not for Canley.
"I spent nine months in the St. Alban hospital, required numerous surgeries and am disabled, but, I would have died if (Canley) had not risked his life for mine," Fraleigh said. "This was not the first time I saw Gunny Canley act heroically. At Cen Thien he not only carried Marines to safety, but also exposed himself to enemy fire."
"He was always leading and attacking the enemy and always standing up and encouraging us," Fraleigh said.
Fraleigh was present to honor Canley, now 80 years old, at the White House and was recognized by the President, along with 30 Marines who fought under his lead in the Battle of Hue.
"John, it is because of your extraordinary personality and being and whatever it takes that really do something really special for our country," Trump said.
"America is the greatest force for peace, justice and freedom the world has ever known because of you and people like you," he said. "There are very few, very few. Great people, but very, very few like you, John."
In 2014, one of Canley's fellow servicemembers contacted Rep. Julia Brownley, the California Democrat who represents Canley's home district, to request that Canley's Navy Cross, two Bronze Stars and Purple Heart be upgraded to the nations' highest military honor.
Brownley told CNN she read testimonials from many of his fellow Marines.
"I was very, very moved by it all and we went to work and didn't give up and I'm delighted that we did," she said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
That set in motion a multi-year process with the Marine Corps and the Defense Department that ultimately required the House of Representatives to pass legislation to waive the five-year time limit on awarding the Medal of Honor on Canley's behalf. The bill passed in January with bipartisan support.
"Sergeant Major Canley and his heroism brought Congress together in a way that we don't always see in these hyper-partisan times," Brownley said. "It does represent the best of all of us -- the best of our country and our patriotism."
Brownley credits Canley's fellow servicemembers with their persistence in helping the honor come to fruition. But Canley, she said, would "say it's not about him, but it is about the Marines that he served with."
"We all know there's a somewhat dark place in our history when men and women returned from Vietnam. They returned to an ungrateful nation. And I think Sergeant Major Canley will say this award is so important because the Marines I served with are so deserving of this recognition," she said. "This will go down in the history books and hopefully correct a piece of that."
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