Private Emmanuel Mensah went off to serve in the Army National Guard, but it was back home where he made the ultimate sacrifice.
Mensah died trying to rescue people from his burning apartment building last month in the Bronx, New York, in the city's deadliest fire in more than 25 years, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
Mensah, 28, had immigrated from Ghana in Africa and was a permanent legal resident in the US. His story has taken on new meaning in the wake of President Donald Trump's reported vulgar comments about immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti and some African countries.
"Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?" Trump told senators in the Oval Office, a source briefed on the meeting told CNN.
Trump denied using that language in a tweet Friday morning.
As Mensah's father tells it, Mensah went back into the burning building twice on December 28 to rescue neighbors. But he did not make it out alive.
"Private Emmanuel Mensah was a first-generation immigrant, a soldier and a New Yorker. He gave his life rescuing his neighbors in the Bronx fire. His heroism exemplifies the best of our city. Rest in peace," de Blasio said.
Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper approved the posthumous award of The Soldier's Medal for Mensah. The medal is the Army's highest award for heroism that occurs outside of combat, according to the National Guard.
"Private 1st Class Mensah's heroic actions are in keeping with the highest traditions of military heroism and selfless service and reflect great credit upon himself, the New York Army National Guard and the United States Army," the award citation says.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved the award of the New York State Medal for Valor on Mensah on January 2. That award also represents New York state's highest military award for acts of heroism on and off the battlefield, the National Guard said.
"His courageous and selfless act in the face of unimaginable conditions are consistent with the highest traditions of uniformed service and deserving of the highest possible recognition," Mensah's citation says.
Staff Sgt. Ruben Martinez-Ortiz, who recruited him, praised Mensah in a statement to the New York National Guard.
"I knew from the moment I met him his heart was as big as our National Guard family," Martinez-Ortiz said. "He was ready to serve our nation and community. Pfc. Mensah was the embodiment of what our Army values stand for."
Mensah, 28, was stationed in Virginia, his father said.
A private first class in the New York National Guard, he had just graduated from boot camp after starting basic training in the fall, spokesman Eric Durr said. He was slated to go to advanced individual training in 2018. He was training to be a military police officer, a role that offers a variety of potential responsibilities, from garrison law enforcement to security in the field.
Fire starts in kitchen
Mensah's visit was his first back to the Bronx in the year since he enlisted in the National Guard, his father said. He was in the building when the fire broke out.
A 3-year-old boy's screams alerted his mother that a fire had erupted in their apartment in the building's first floor. The boy was playing with the burners on the kitchen stove, officials said. As his mother fled the burning apartment with him and his sibling, she left the apartment door open, a move that would prove fatal.
Each time someone opened a window, oxygen rushed into the building, fanning the flames. The apartment's stairway acted like a chimney as the fire burst from the apartment, feeding the flames and allowing them to spread throughout the building, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.
Anchor tears up over story
CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota became emotional Friday on air while recounting Mensah's story.
As part of a panel, Camerota pulled up a tweet from conservative commentator Bill Kristol, who had cited Mensah's story. The tweet went viral and was even retweeted by Hillary Clinton.
Camerota had to stop for a moment as she began to read the tweet.
"I don't know why this one makes me so emotional, but it does," Camerota said.
The tweet stated that Mensah was from a country Trump "apparently thinks produces very subpar immigrants."
'God is in control'
Kwabena Mensah learned from others that his son helped others to safety. He went out and back twice, but "on the third time he couldn't find his way out," he said.
"I thought as a military man he may have gotten out already," he said Friday. "But like I said, God is in control."
It came as little surprise to Mensah's father that he came to the aid of others. "That's his nature: He wants to help people out," Kwabena Mensah told CNN. At the time, his son's death had not been confirmed, but he had little hope for his survival.
"As a father, you always have to feel sad when you get such news about your son, and I thought maybe he's coming back," Mensah said. "But unfortunately it turns out the other way."