WASHINGTON — Police officers and firefighters who helped save lives in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing and the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin were honored with the Medal of Valor in a White House ceremony Wednesday.
Vice President Joe Biden draped the purple and yellow striped ribbons around the necks of 20 public safety officers, and presented medals to the families of two officers killed while responding to armed robberies. The two were off-duty at the time.
"You're a rare breed," Biden said. "You're all crazy. We love you for it. We need you. You are the best thing we have going for us."
Two people were dead on the ground outside the Sikh Temple in August 2012 when Lt. Brian Murphy and Officer Savan Lenda of the Oak Creek Police Department arrived on scene.
The suspected gunman was fleeing. Murphy pulled his gun, but the suspect fired first, hitting Murphy in his throat, legs and hand. When Lenda arrived on the scene and shot the suspect, the shooter crawled out of view and killed himself.
Lenda sent fellow officers to help Murphy, but the lieutenant waved them away and insisted they help those still inside the temple. The White House said the two officers' actions helped save the lives of many.
Boston and the surrounding area were in a state of panic in April 2013 because the suspects in the marathon bombing remained at large. The fateful night when Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev carjacked a vehicle before a dramatic confrontation with police is well known.
Less well known were the contributions of seven officers and firefighters from Watertown, Massachusetts, who received the medal from Biden.
Despite heavy weapon gunfire and reports the brothers were throwing explosives, officers and firefighters who responded helped protect the lives of those in uniform, the White House said. Tamerlan died as a result of the incident; Dzhokhar was apprehended 20 hours later.
Attorney General Eric Holder said this year's medals were particularly poignant at a moment when the country is grappling with "deep challenges" in the relationship between law enforcement and their communities.
"Beyond these honors, America owes you a debt that must be repaid not just with words but with actions," Holder said.
The Medal of Valor is the nation's highest honor for public safety officers who risk their own safety to save or protect others. This year's ceremony honored individuals who committed acts of valor between 2011 and 2013. A total of 95 medals have been handed out since Congress created the award in 2001.
Also receiving the medal:
—Five special agents from the FBI's Alabama-based hostage rescue team, who rescued a 5-year-old abducted from a school bus in 2013.
—Sgt. Daniel Hutchinson, Weber County, Utah, who was shot three times but still rescued two fellow sheriff's deputies in a shooting.
—Officer Michael Keith, Knoxville, Tennessee, who used his shirt to beat back flames from a car, then pulled a state trooper to safety just before the vehicle exploded.
—Former Fire Chief John Curly, Bellmore, New York, who broke a burning building's window with his bare hands to rescue an unconscious woman inside.
—Special Agent John Francis Capano, New York, who was killed while confronting a suspect during an attempted robbery attempt.
—Sgt. Bradley Alan Wick, Duluth, Minnesota, Police Department, who shot and killed a convicted felon after an armed robbery and car chase.
—Clifton P. Lewis, Chicago, who was off-duty when he was shot four times and killed while confronting two masked gunmen at a grocery store.
—Sgt. Michael Darrell Brown, Brevard County, Florida, who helped save a woman whose estranged boyfriend was attempting to stab her to death.
—Deputy Jenna Underwood-Nunez, Los Angeles, who was five months pregnant and off-duty when she rescued a teenager from drowning at the bottom of a muddy lake.