Millions of men and women have served in the U.S. military.

Millions of service medals have been awarded for bravery in combat and sacrifice of life and limb.

But one service medal stands above the rest, the most distinguished, prestigious award a servicemember can receive – the Medal of Honor.

The Medal of Honor is given to those servicemembers whose actions in combat have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Their actions are defined by uncommon valor, gallantry and prioritization of the lives of others over their own.

While millions have served with courage and bravery, only around 3,500 servicemembers have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

One of those 3,500 stories started in the air above the South Pacific.

Capt. Joe Foss was a Marine aviator. Having joined the Marine Corps Reserve before the United States entered World War II, Foss was ready to jump in the pilot’s seat and ship off to combat. He served as executive officer of Marine Fighting Squadron 121, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing at Guadalcanal, where he would soon make history.

Between October 1942 and February 1943, Capt. Foss shot down 26 Japanese planes and damaged countless others – while being laid up with malaria for part of that time. After a few weeks of rest, he was back in his plane, fighting the enemy.

Capt. Foss’ Medal of Honor citation reveals just how relentless his warrior spirit was:

Boldly searching out an approaching enemy force on 25 January, Capt. Foss led his 8 F-4F Marine planes and 4 Army P-38’s into action and, undaunted by tremendously superior numbers, intercepted and struck with such force that 4 Japanese fighters were shot down and the bombers were turned back without releasing a single bomb.

Capt. Foss’ “remarkable flying skill, inspiring leadership, and indomitable fighting spirit” are credited as having a dramatic effect on American operations on Guadalcanal.

Like so many of his generation, Capt. Foss was not satisfied to leave his service and dedication to the country behind him in the South Pacific. He would go on to help organize the South Dakota National Guard, serve during the Korean War and direct the Air Force Academy.

He brought his leadership skills to the South Dakota state legislature and the governor’s office, where he served two terms each. He contributed as a businessman, serving as the first commissioner of the American Football League. He also helped build charitable coalitions to help those with disabilities.

Capt. Foss was an all-around American hero – a courageous pilot, a principled lawmaker and a generous visionary. His willingness to sacrifice for his country in combat and in civilian life continues to inspire.

Want to hear another story or actions above and beyond the call of duty? Read SSG Edward Carter, Jr.’s Medal of Honor story.