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Army staff sergeant will receive Medal of Honor for valor at Wanat

Jun. 23, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  

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Medal of Honor nominee Ryan Pitts: At Wanat, valor...: Pitts, the third Medal of Honor nominee from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, discusses the significance of receiving the Medal for his actions during the controversial battle.

Nine soldiers were killed July 13, 2008, during the Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan. The soldiers belonged to C Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Many of the soldiers were promoted posthumously.
The nine killed were:
1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, 24, of Hawaii.
Sgt. Israel Garcia, 24, of Long Beach, California.
Cpl. Jonathan Ayers, 24, of Snellville, Georgia.
Cpl. Jason Bogar, 25, of Seattle.
Cpl. Jason Hovater, 24, of Clinton, Tennessee.
Cpl. Matthew Phillips, 27, of Jasper, Georgia.
Cpl. Pruitt Rainey, 22, of Haw River, North Carolina.
Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling, 20, of Florissant, Missouri.
Spc. Sergio Abad, 21, of Morganfield, Kentucky.

It was the last bit of darkness before sunrise. A single burst of machine-gun fire rang out across the valley just as a volley of rocket-propelled grenades slammed into Observation Post Topside.

Then the valley erupted in chaos.

For the next 90 minutes, Sgt. Ryan Pitts and his fellow paratroopers from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, would fight off a force of more than 200 enemy fighters.

Nine paratroopers gave their lives and 27 were wounded July 13, 2008, in Wanat, Afghanistan, as the men fought to keep the enemy from overrunning OP Topside and Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler.

The Battle of Wanat was one of the deadliest of the war.

Pitts, now a former staff sergeant, is credited with enabling U.S. forces to hold the OP, turning the tide of the battle and protecting fallen Americans from enemy hands.

For his actions, Pitts will receive the Medal of Honor, the White House announced Monday.

Pitts, 28, will be the ninth living service member to receive the nation’s highest award for valor for actions in Afghanistan or Iraq. Seven troops have been posthumously awarded the medal for their actions in those wars.

He also will be the third soldier from 2nd Battalion to receive the MoH for actions during the unit’s 2007-2008 deployment to Afghanistan — a deployment that has also yielded a Presidential Unit Citation, a Valorous Unit Award, two Distinguished Service Crosses, 26 Silver Stars, 93 Bronze Stars with V device and 169 Purple Hearts.

Former Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta was the first living service member to be honored for his actions in these wars, and former Sgt. Kyle White was honored in May. All three men deployed together in the same battalion in May 2007 for a 15-month deployment to some of the toughest parts of eastern Afghanistan.

Pitts who was medically discharged from the Army in 2009, refused any credit for his actions. He views the MoH as a memorial to the nine soldiers who gave their lives in Wanat.

“I feel a responsibility to tell our story, because there are nine guys that can’t,” he said.

Battle of Wanat

On July 8, 2008, five days before the battle, 29 paratroopers from 2nd Battalion’s Chosen Company, five combat engineers, a two-man Marine Corps embedded training team and 24 Afghan soldiers moved to the Waygal Valley to set up a base in the outskirts of the village named Wanat, according to the narrative accompanying Pitts’ award.

Six mortar men and a three-man TOW missile team joined the troops.

The new post was to be called Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler, after Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Kahler, 2nd Platoon’s fallen platoon sergeant.

OP Topside was built on a ridge to the east of VPB Kahler, about 100 meters up an incline of terraces.

At 4 a.m. July 13, 2008, the soldiers of 2nd Platoon conducted a stand-to, which had them in full gear manning their defensive positions in preparation for a potential enemy attack.

During this time, the soldiers identified what looked like insurgents on the western high ground above Wanat, according to the narrative.

Pitts, the forward observer, and Sgt. Matthew Gobble began to put together a request for indirect fire from the OP. But before they could complete the call, at about 4:20 a.m., the first burst of machine-gun fire ripped through the air.

The enemy had infiltrated Wanat, setting up firing positions and weapons caches in the town’s bazaar, hotel complex, homes and mosque as they launched a full-scale assault, focusing their fires on VPB Kahler’s key defensive weapon systems and positions.

Within minutes, the enemy had destroyed the TOW system and injured the soldiers manning the 120mm mortar firing pit, setting it on fire, according to the narrative.

At the same time, the men at OP Topside were hit with small-arms fire, RPGs and hand grenades thrown by insurgents hiding in the draw to the north of the OP.

All of the men on the OP were wounded, and several killed, in the first volley of fire.

“I got knocked out of the center position into one of our northern fighting positions,” Pitts said. “Spc. [Tyler] Stafford was also wounded, Sgt. Gobble was wounded. It was in those opening moments that Spc. Matt Phillips started to return fire — he threw a hand grenade and was killed by the RPG that came in. [Spc.] Gunnar Zwilling was killed. It was just a barrage of RPGs, and it was very disorienting.”

Pitts was peppered with shrapnel, with a deep wound to his right thigh.

As he fought to regain his bearings, Pitts crawled to the southern fighting position, where Spc. Jason Bogar was firing a machine gun. Bogar stopped to treat Pitts, throwing a tourniquet on his right leg to stop the bleeding.

“I couldn’t really use my legs,” Pitts said, so he crawled to the northern fighting position and started throwing grenades at the enemy.

“I cooked the grenades off for three to four seconds, meaning I let the fuse burn for that time because I didn’t want to give them the opportunity to throw them back at us,” Pitts said.

Pitts then got on the radio and relayed situation reports and updates to then-Capt. Matthew Myer, the company commander who was at VPB Kahler. He also began firing the M240B machine gun.

“I couldn’t exactly stand, so I would pull myself up to my knees and physically pull my leg up to a kneeling position and start firing,” Pitts said. “I’d blind fire, spraying along the rock, and once I thought I had laid down enough suppressive fire, I’d pop up and try to take out whatever I could.”

As the battle unfolded, Pitts, who was the only contact between the command post and the OP, maintained contact with Myer, directing artillery fires from nearby Combat Outpost Blessing onto pre-planned targets around the OP.

At about 4:45 a.m., 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, the platoon leader, and Spc. Jason Hovater showed up at the OP.

“After hearing reports from the OP, [Brostrom] told Capt. Myer he was going to reinforce the OP, and he picked up Spc. Hovater on the way,” Pitts said. “They ended up running across the center of Wanat, past enemy positions, to the OP. I don’t know how they made it.”

Pitts gave Brostrom an update and described the enemy’s locations before handing off the M240B to Spc. Pruitt Rainey and receiving an M4 with an M203 grenade launcher in return.

At this point, Pitts’ memory is fuzzy.

“The next sequence of events I remember was all of a sudden it seemed really quiet,” Pitts said. “It didn’t seem like there was any fire coming from the OP.”

Pitts said he didn’t want to yell out, in case the enemy was nearby, so he crawled around looking for his fellow soldiers. He saw casualties on the terraces and in the crow’s nest, and the southern fighting position was empty.

“At that point, I realized I was by myself,” Pitts said. “I crawled back to the southern fighting position and tried to figure out what to do next. I don’t know what was going through my mind at the time other than, ‘I’m alone, this is going to be bad.’ ”

Alone and bleeding, Pitts got on the radio, calling for anyone who would answer. Myer did.

“I told him everybody at the OP was either dead or gone, and I was there by myself,” Pitts said. “He told me there wasn’t anybody to send, that they were in a fight down there, too. I just responded, ‘You either send more people or this position is going to fall.’ ”

The enemy was so close that soldiers at the command post and those listening in on the channel could hear enemy voices through the radio, according to the narrative.

Pitts got off the radio, and “at that point I just tried to think of the next thing I could do to impact the battle,” he said.

He began firing the M203, lobbing 40mm grenades “almost straight up in the air. I don’t know how many I shot,” he said.

When he started getting low on ammo, Pitts crawled. “I couldn’t stand, I wasn’t mobile at all,” he said. He got to a working radio and called down to 1st Squad, which was manning a traffic control point along a north-south road near the OP.

When Sgt. Brian Hissong answered, Pitts called for them to shoot over the tops of the sandbags to stop any enemy fighters from trying to overrun the OP.

“We looked up the hill and the OP was in a haze of dust,” said Hissong, who received a Bronze Star with V for his actions that day.

The soldiers at the TCP could hear Pitts shooting back at the enemy as they scanned the tops of the sandbags. They also worked to put together a team to reinforce the OP.

That team — Staff Sgt. Sean Samaroo, Sgt. Israel Garcia, Spc. Jacob Sones and Spc. Michael Denton, — scrambled up the terraces to reach the OP.

“I didn’t know they were coming,” Pitts said.

Sones started treating Pitts’ wounds while Garcia pulled security, and Samaroo and Denton began checking on the casualties.

The scene at the OP “wasn’t good,” said Denton, who would earn the Silver Star for his actions that day. “I found my best bud Hovater laying up there. I took ammo from Hovater’s body, told him I loved him.”

He then went into the crow’s nest, where he found Ayers slumped over the M240B. Denton gently moved Ayers and began manning the machine gun.

Suddenly, he saw an orange burst over to his left.

That’s when another barrage of RPGs tore into the OP, wounding all five men. Garcia was mortally wounded.

“I crawled into the center, but there wasn’t really anything I could do for Garcia,” Pitts said. “I just laid there and held his hand. We just talked for a while. He told me he wanted me to tell his mom and wife that he loved them. I don’t know how long I stayed there for.”

Hissong, who left the Army in 2009, remembers feeling helpless as they heard over the radio what was happening at the OP.

“They were all wounded, they were in trouble, but we were kind of helpless for a while because we couldn’t leave our position,” he said.

The paratroopers at the OP eventually huddled up in the southern fighting position, while Denton, who was wounded but still able to stand, tried to pull security.

“I cleared a double feed [on a rifle] and I realized how bad my right hand was,” Denton said. “The bone was sticking out of my hand.”

He then gathered up rifles and ammunition and distributed them to the surviving soldiers.

As the men sought cover, AH-64 Apaches, bombers and fighter jets arrived on the scene along with a quick-reaction force, Pitts said.

Despite being nearly unconscious, Pitts continued to communicate with Myer, provided critical feedback as he called in the first helicopter attack run, according to the narrative.

The medical evacuation helicopters began arriving as well, Pitts said.

“I’m thinking they’re going to evacuate us down at the vehicle patrol base where there are more defenses, it’s more secure,” Pitts said. “But they popped smoke between us and the enemy, and the medevac comes in and lands right there. There were a lot of valorous things guys did that day. That was one of the craziest things I saw.”

At about 6:15 a.m., after fighting for more than an hour while critically wounded, Pitts was medically evacuated along with Samaroo, Sones and Denton.

'They're my heroes'

Pitts’ actions during the battle were “decisive,” said Col. Bill Ostlund, the battalion commander at the time.

“He prevented the enemy from overrunning the OP and thus saved lives and prevented the loss or capture of fallen and wounded paratroopers,” he said.

Denton, now a former sergeant, said his friend deserves the MoH.

“It could have easily been a lot worse than it was. Ryan’s one of the best guys I served with. I’d go to hell and back with him, he’s that good of a guy. All the guys were.”

Without Pitts, Myer, as the senior officer on the ground, said he wouldn’t have known what was going on at the OP.

“Ryan was the lynchpin that held the ground before others could get to him,” Myer said. “He was the only person that began the fight on the OP and stayed on the OP for the firefight until he was [evacuated].”

Myer credits his men for “acting on instincts,” and credited Pitts for continuing to fight despite his wounds.

“I know his injuries,” Myer said. “He’s still, to this day, peppered with shrapnel.”

Hissong also credits Pitts preventing the position from being overrun.

“Even though he damn near got himself killed, he managed to keep his composure and keep fighting and do what he was supposed to do,” he said about Pitts. “His weapon would go down and he’d get another one and continue to fight. He was throwing grenades at [the enemy] and throwing rocks at them to get them to jump out from behind cover.”

Pitts credits his fellow soldiers.

“Valor was everywhere,” he said. “Everybody just did what they needed to do, and a lot of it was because of the relationships we had. We were very close.”

Pitts cited the soldiers who manned the weapons systems in the gun trucks at VPB Kahler under heavy enemy fire. He also described a soldier who was shot through both legs while trying to pull a mortally wounded Pfc. Sergio Abad to safety.

He lauded Brostrom and Hovater for running through a “hail of fire” to reinforce the OP, and Ayers for continuing to man the M240B even after being hit in the helmet.

“After that, I can imagine he knew there was a very good chance it would kill him if he stayed on that gun, but he did it because he knew we needed it,” Pitts said.

Garcia, Sones, Denton and Samaroo braved fire to get to the OP.

“Nobody told them to come, but they came anyway,” he said.

And Denton, who fought on despite a wound so serious that bone tore through the flesh in his right hand, searched the remains of the fallen soldiers, including that of his best friend Hovater, for much needed ammunition.

“I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have to search your best friend and then continue to fight,” Pitts said. “He did it, and, after he was wounded, he stands up and continues to try and fight.”

Six years later, Pitts lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, with his wife, Amy, and his young son Lucas. The former staff sergeant now wears a suit and works in business development.

As he prepares to receive the Medal of Honor, Pitts said he’s taking things one day at a time.

“Everybody sacrificed a lot that day,” he said. “I try to think about the guys we lost and try to do my best to honor them and the gift they gave me. I hate the word ‘hero.’ But I feel very fortunate when I look at the guys I served with. They’re my heroes. It was the honor of my lifetime to serve with them.”

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