Former Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts received the Medal of Honor on Monday for his heroism during the Battle of Wanat in 2008, one of deadliest clashes of the Afghanistan War.
As President Obama draped the nation’s highest award for valor around Pitts’ neck at a White House ceremony, the former infantryman said his mind was on his nine “brothers” who fought beside him and died in that battle.
“Standing there, I thought of these incredible men, and those present here today, especially our brothers who fell,” Pitts said in a brief statement after the ceremony. “Valor was everywhere that day, and the real heroes are those who made the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us could return home.”
During the ceremony, Obama recounted the events of July 13, 2008, when Pitts and his fellow paratroopers from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, fought off a force of more than 200 enemy fighters that had attacked Observation Post Topside and Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler.
At the time, Obama said, U.S. forces across Afghanistan were stretched thin and only a handful of fortified positions protected Pitts’ base. Among its vulnerabilities was that it was closely surrounded by mountains, and aerial surveillance assigned to protect it had been diverted elsewhere.
Obama said Pitts, a forward observer, was hit by shrapnel in his arms and legs severe enough that he was sure he would die, even as he lobbed grenade after grenade — and then somehow pulled himself to his knees to man a machine gun against approaching insurgents.
“That little post was on the verge of falling, giving the enemy a perch to devastate the base below,” Obama said. “Against that onslaught, one American held the line.”
Bolstered by four soldiers who braved gunfire to help hold the position, Pitts called for air support that helped repel the attack and prevented the enemy from taking the remains of his fellow soldiers who had been killed.
Dressed in his formal Army Service Uniform, Pitts, 28, of Nashua, New Hampshire, was accompanied to the ceremony by his wife Amy and young son Lucas. Several dozen veterans of the Battle of Wanat also were present, including Medal of Honor recipient former Army Sgt. Kyle White, who was honored in May for his actions in the battle.
Obama separately acknowledged the Wanat veterans, and the family members of the fallen soldiers, each of whom stood to sustained applause.
Obama also offered a personal tribute to each man who died as said each of their names:
■1st Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom, 24.
■Sgt. Israel Garcia, 24.
■Cpl. Jonathan R. Ayers, 24.
■Cpl. Jason M. Bogar, 25.
■Cpl. Jason D. Hovater, 24.
■Cpl. Matthew B. Phillips, 27.
■Cpl. Pruitt A. Rainey, 22.
■Cpl. Gunnar W. Zwilling, 20.
■Spc. Sergio S. Abad, 21.
Obama said one of the most fitting ways to honor the sacrifice of the soldiers who fell at Wanat was to remember the battle’s hard lessons.
“When this nation sends our troops into harm’s way, they deserve sound strategy and a well defined mission, and they deserve the forces to get the job done,” Obama said. “That’s how we can truly honor all those who gave their lives that day, that’s how we as a nation can remember their sacrifice. I know that’s a view that’s shared by our secretary of defense, by our Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the leadership here. They’re hard lessons, but they are deeply ingrained in our hearts.”
Striking a lighter note during the otherwise solemn ceremony, Obama observed that Pitts and his wife were marking their second anniversary and called the reception afterward their “big anniversary party.”
In an Army Times interview weeks earlier, then-Capt. Matthew Myer, the company commander who was at VPB Kahler that day, said Pitts, who continued to fight and radio in information despite his injuries, was the “linchpin that held that ground.”
An Army statement lauds Pitts’ “incredible toughness, determination, and ability to communicate with leadership while under fire” for allowing “U.S. forces to hold the observation post and turn the tide of the battle.”
Pitts separated from the Army on October 27, 2009, from Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He has since begun work in business development for the computer software industry.
He is the ninth living service member to receive the nation’s highest award for valor for actions in Afghanistan or Iraq. Seven troops have received the medal posthumously for their actions in those wars.
Pitts is also the third soldier from 2/503 to receive the MoH for actions during the unit’s 2007-2008 deployment to Afghanistan.
Former Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta was the first living service member to be honored for his actions in Iraq or Afghanistan; before Pitts, White had been the most recent, in May. All three men deployed together in the same battalion in May 2007 for a 15-month tour in some of the toughest parts of eastern Afghanistan.
Staff writer Michelle Tan contributed to this report.