Brooke Army Medical Center

"I walked out of my house on April 2 and almost never walked back in," 1st Lt. John Arroyo tells PEOPLE

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April 06, 2015 06:15 PM

When 1st Lt. John Arroyo got out of his car in the parking lot at the medical brigade in Fort Hood, Texas, last April 2, he heard a strange sound – gunshots.

“I’m a Green Beret,” Arroyo, 37, who served two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, tells PEOPLE. “I know what shots fired sounds like. I knew what I heard – I shouldn’t have been hearing [it] where I was.”

Before he could figure out what was going on, a vehicle pulled up in front of him about 15 yards away.

“I didn’t focus on it,” he says. “I was still looking at the area where I heard shots fired.”

The next shot he heard was the one that hit him – in the throat.

“Most times people don’t live through being shot with a .45-caliber pistol,” he says. “People don’t ever live after being shot in the throat with a .45-caliber pistol.”

Arroyo not only lived, he managed to warn others about the shooter, his hands clasped to his throat as blood poured out.

“‘I’m shot. There’s a shooter,’ ” he yelled to three medics coming out of a building.

Minutes later, a military police officer fired at the shooter, Sgt. Ivan Lopez, 34, who responded by killing himself. Arroyo was one of 19 people Lopez shot – three of whom died.

But Arroyo’s supervisors say more people could have been hurt, had Arroyo not shouted out a warning.

On Monday – four days after the one-year anniversary of the shooting – he received the Soldier’s Medal for “heroism above and beyond the call of duty.” It’s the highest honor a soldier can receive in a non-combat situation.

“He was heroically involved in personal harm and danger, voluntarily risking his life to save the lives of fellow Soldiers,” the citation said.

Three of Arroyo’s first responders attended the ceremony.

Staff Sgt. Juan Morales said at the ceremony that he had been the first to reach Arroyo that day.

“When I got to him he whispered in my ear, ‘He’s in the brigade building,’ ” Morales said of Arroyo’s heroism.

Morales then called 911.

Though doctors told Arroyo he’d probably never speak again or regain the use of his right arm, which was damaged in the shooting, he refused to let the experience make him bitter.

Instead, he has been using his near-death experience to inspire others.

“So far I’ve spoken with prisoners, youth at high schools, wounded warriors, military personnel, several churches,” he says.

His message is simple – and not aimed at one specific group.

“I know wholeheartedly I was given a second chance,” he says, “so I share that with people.”

He’s also defied medical predictions – regaining his ability to speak a couple of months after the shooting and is slowly regaining the use of his right arm after months of physical therapy.

Stuart Campbell, program manager at Center for the Intrepid, Brooke Army Medical Center’s outpatient rehabilitation center, says the way he’s approached his recovery is inspiring as well.

“He has served as an example to others by committing fully to his own rehabilitation,” he says. “His work ethic and positive attitude are infectious. John has also been a voice for wounded warriors during a time of drawing down.”

Arroyo says he’s grateful to be alive and in physical therapy.

“I walked out of my house on April 2 and almost never walked back in,” he says. “I thought I had my whole life planned out. Well, I almost never made it to that plan.”

Now, he says, “I focus on today. There’s only one thing promised to us – the breath you’re taking now. If you’re taking a breath today, you’ve been given a second chance.”

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