Medal of Honor recipient Richard Pittman, who traded his rifle for a machine gun to save many of his fellow Marines, has died at the age of 71.

"We mourn the loss of an American hero," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said on Tuesday. "Master Gunnery Sergeant Richard Pittman's commitment to the country and his fellow Marines serves as an example for all of those who wear the uniform.  Our thoughts are with his family as we honor his courage and legacy of service."

On July 24, 1966, Pittman was a lance corporal with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines when his company came under attack near the Demilitarized Zone in South Vietnam.

When his fellow Marines called for more firepower, Pittman grabbed a machine gun along with several belts of ammunition and "unhesitatingly rushed forward to aid his comrades," according to his award citation.

The enemy fired at Pittman at point-blank range yet he wiped out all enemy positions in his path and "braved a withering hail of enemy mortar and small-arms fire" to protect wounded Marines, the citation reads.

"As he reached the position where the leading Marines had fallen, he was suddenly confronted with a bold frontal attack by 30 to 40 enemy," the citation says. "Totally disregarding his safety, he calmly established a position in the middle of the trail and raked the advancing enemy with devastating machine gun fire."

When his machine gun stopped working, Pittman kept fighting with an enemy submachine gun and a pistol from a fallen Marine until the enemy withdrew. He then threw a grenade at the enemy and rejoined his platoon.

Pittman was a sergeant when he received the nation’s highest military award for bravery.

"Sergeant Pittman's daring initiative, bold fighting spirit and selfless devotion to duty inflicted many enemy casualties, disrupted the enemy attack and saved the lives of many of his wounded comrades. His personal valor at grave risk to himself reflects the highest credit upon himself, the Marine Corps, and the United States Naval Service," his citation says.

He died on Oct. 13 in Stockton, California, according to media reports. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society confirmed his death on Tuesday.

After Pittman left the Marine Corps, he dedicated his life to helping other veterans, said retired Navy Capt. Tom Kelley, president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

"He was always reach out a helping hand to those who needed it," said Kelley, a fellow Medal of Honor recipient. "He put others before himself, just like he did in the Marine Corps. He’s a role model for not only the young people of America but also for the peers of his generation – if we could only live our lives like he did, we’d all be better off."

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