By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. airman who helped disarm a gunman on a Paris-bound train last month will receive a Purple Heart medal, the U.S. Air Force leader said on Monday, in an unusual award of the honor to a serviceman wounded while not in a combat zone.
Spencer Stone, 23, will receive the medal, which is given to troops wounded or killed in action against a U.S. enemy, U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah James said in remarks at the Air Force Association Conference.
Stone, National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, a civilian, were vacationing in Europe last month when they saw a gunman on board a train from Amsterdam to Paris armed with a box cutter, a pistol, and a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle.
They have said they had no choice but to intervene when the gunman cocked the rifle. Stone, whose thumb was almost severed by the attacker, has been credited with saving the life of another passenger who had been shot.
France awarded the three Americans and a Briton with the country's highest honor, the Legion d'honneur, for helping to disarm the man. [ID:nL1N10Y0LF]
Authorities have identified the gunman as suspected Islamist militant Ayoub el Khazzani, 26, of Morocco. The man's lawyer said he only intended to rob people on board the train because he was hungry. The top Paris prosecutor said last month that he had opened an investigation into "attempted murder with terrorist intent." [ID:L1N111039]
The decision to award Stone the Purple Heart is unusual because his wounds were received in a non-combat setting, although such awards are not unprecedented.
In past years Purple Hearts have been awarded to wounded survivors and relatives of those killed in the 2009 shooting rampage by an Army psychiatrist at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas, and to those wounded in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Congress inserted language into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 expanding the eligibility for the Purple Heart by stating it should cover an attack if the perpetrator was in communication with foreign terrorists or inspired by one.
Skarlatos will receive the Soldiers Medal, the U.S. Army's highest non-combat medal, while Sadler will receive the Secretary of Defense Medal for Valor, awarded to civilians, Captain Jeff Davis said on Monday.
In addition to the Purple Heart, Stone will receive the Airman's Medal, the Air Force's highest non-combat award for bravery. The medals will be awarded at a ceremony at the Pentagon this week.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Andrew Hay)