Americans often toss around such words too freely, the president said.
"But do we really grasp the meaning of these values? Do we truly understand the nature of these virtues, to serve and to sacrifice?" Obama asked. "Jared Monti knew.The Monti family knows. And they know that the actions we honor today were not a passing moment of courage. They were the culmination of a life of character and commitment."
The award came as the administration is wrestling with its next move in Afghanistan. Obama has held off sending more troops to the country where the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were launched. He already has sent 17,000 additional combat troops to Afghanistan and is weighing sending even more to stabilize that nation.
Democrats, however, want specific benchmarks there before Obama goes forward with more combat troops for the region. For his part, Obama stayed away from the Washington debate and instead kept his focus on the story of what happened on June 21, 2006, when the 30-year-old Monti died during a firefight with the Taliban in Gowardesh, Afghanistan,
"Bullets and heavy machine gunfire ricocheting across the rocks. Rocket-propelled grenades raining down. Fire so intense that weapons were shot right out of their hands," Obama said, explaining the battle to a packed White House event. "Within minutes, one soldier was killed; another was wounded. Everyone dove for cover, behind a tree, a rock, a stone wall."
Monti's 16-man patrol had been scouting ahead of a larger offensive against the Taliban along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A helicopter deployed to resupply the patrol blew their cover; Taliban fighters converged, and Monti called for backup.
One of his men, Pvt. Brian Bradbury, of St. Joseph, Mo., was shot during the encounter. Monti, who enlisted at age 17, twice left cover and ran into the open under intense enemy fire to retrieve the wounded soldier.
"Jared Monti did something no amount of training can instill. His patrol leader said he'd go, but Jared said, 'No, he is my soldier, I'm going to get him,"' Obama recounted.
On Monti's third attempt, he was struck by a grenade and died on the field. Three others, including Bradbury, also died during the fight.
"The actions we honor today were not a passing moment of courage," Obama said. "They were the culmination of a life of character and commitment."
Obama said the sacrifice of Monti and other brave members of the military should inspire all Americans to aspire to be better citizens.
"What can we do to be worthy of such service and such sacrifice?" Obama said.
Monti previously was awarded a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, five Army Commendation Medals, four Army Achievement Medals and three National Defense Service Medals.
The Medals of Honor are the highest award for military valor, typically reserved for members of the military who risk their lives with gallantry beyond the call of duty.