At 6-foot-4, Fort Carson Sgt. Ricky Beckles is a tower of chiseled muscle who looks like he could stop a tank with his pinkie finger.

But receiving the Bronze Star Medal for valor Wednesday briefly turned Beckles to Jello.

"I'm grateful and I'm thankful," Beckles said with a quaking voice after a general pinned the medal to his uniform. "But we lost somebody that day."

Beckles earned the medal for the lives he saved on Aug. 16. But his thoughts kept returning to Utah National Guard Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler, who died in an ambush that day after insurgents detonated a bomb inside a building where American and Afghanistan forces were holding a meeting.

"The last words he said to me were he was hungry and he wanted a Pop-Tart," Beckles recalled through tears.

Beckles, who is preparing to head to Afghanistan with Fort Carson's 1st Brigade Combat Team, was serving last summer alongside troops from the 19th Special Forces Group, which includes Guard soldiers from Colorado and Utah.

Colorado Guard boss Maj. Gen. Mike Loh said Beckles, then on his first combat deployment, impressed the Green Berets he served with.

"His bravery will always live with those who fought with him," Loh said.

That big sergeant with tears in his eyes once shrugged off an enemy bullet that ricocheted off his helmet, and kept firing a grenade launcher. He was the guy who seemed to walk through enemy fire like raindrops amid the frequent gunbattles of the Afghan "fighting season," Loh said.

When that bomb went off Aug. 16, Beckles reacted in typical form - exposing himself to vicious enemy small arms fire so he could take out the Taliban positions with shoulder-fired missiles.

Beckles then grabbed a machine gun and poured bullets onto the attackers while "deliberately exposing himself to enemy fire," his medal citation reads.

A four-year Army veteran from Brooklyn who wants to be a lawyer someday, Beckles said his actions that day were nothing special.

"I didn't know this was such a big deal," he said.

But from the looks of awe on the faces of his fellow 1st Brigade troops, you could see that Beckles demonstrated uncommon bravery.

His battalion commander, Lt. Col. David Uthlaut, said having Beckles around will make his troops safer as they head to Afghanistan this spring.

"There's no substitute for combat experience," Uthlaut said. "And he's seen the darker side of combat."

Beckles recalled his rage after the surprise attack that killed Butler. He rallied the remaining troops to level enemy firing positions while others cared for the 13 who were wounded that day.

"I made sure every gunner was destroying everything," he said.

There was fire in the sergeant's eyes when he warned his comrades what they'll face in an enemy ambush. There's no room for complacency or pity.

"Shoot everything in sight," he warned.

Now wearing the nation's fourth-highest medal for combat valor, Beckles is watching out for those young troops who may face that awful reality on an Afghanistan battlefield.

"They can't slack. They have to do their job 100 percent," he said.

His eyes dry and cold, he said they'll do just fine if they have listened to his warnings - 1st Brigade will be headed overseas within weeks.

"I think they're ready," Beckles said.

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

Senior Military Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's senior military editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom covers seven military installations in Colorado, including five in the Pikes Peak region. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.