WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama Thursday awarded a fearless US Marine, who five times defied a Taliban firestorm to save 36 ambushed men, with America's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.

Former marine sergeant Dakota Meyer, 23, and a comrade Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, defied orders and repeatedly drove into a village despite a blizzard of enemy fire, to rescue Afghan troops and their American trainers after a deadly ambush in northeastern Afghanistan.

"It was if the whole valley was exploding, Taliban fighters were unleashing a firestorm from the hills, from the stone houses, even from the local school," Obama said at a ceremony in the White House.

Obama told how Meyer, despite machine gun fire, bullets, grenades and mortars, loaded up injured and trapped Afghans into his vehicle and took them to safety, returning to the line of fire no less than five times.

On his last journey into the inferno in the battle in September 2009, he found four fallen US comrades.

"Bullets kicking up the dirt, he kept going until he found those four Americans laying together as one team," Obama said.

"Through all those bullets, all the smoke, all the chaos, he carried them out one by one."

"In Sergeant Dakota Meyer, we see the best of a generation that has served with distinction through a decade in war," Obama said.

Meyer, a corporal at the time of the action who was wounded in the arm by shrapnel, has said he was a failure as his four marine comrades were killed in the ambush.

But Obama looked the marine in the eye during the ceremony and said: "As your commander-in-chief and on behalf of everyone here today and all Americans, I want you to know it is quite the opposite."

"You did your duty. Above and beyond."

"Because of your honor, 36 men are alive today, because of your courage four fallen American heroes came home."

In all, Meyer saved 13 US marines and army soldiers and 23 Afghan soldiers.

In an interview with NBC News, Meyer, who now works on a construction site and is in the Marine Reserve, denied he was a hero.

"I'm the furthest thing from a hero," he said.

"Every man and woman who serves is a hero," Meyer said, adding that he would accept the award on behalf of his comrades who died.