By Lisa Ferdinando
Army News Service
WASHINGTON, July 22, 2014 - President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to former Army Staff Sgt. Ryan M. Pitts during a White House ceremony yesterday.
Pitts -- the ninth living recipient to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan – received the honor for his courageous actions on July 13, 2008, during operations at Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler, near the village of Wanat in Afghanistan’s Kunar province.
Obama explained the "extraordinary circumstances" in which Ryan and his team served.
At the time of attack, Kahler was still being built, Obama said. Wanat had "significant vulnerabilities," due to the higher elevation of surrounding mountains, lack of heavy equipment to help in building defenses, and an insufficient water supply in the 100-degree heat, the president said.
"For our forces in Afghanistan, the Battle of Wanat was one of the fiercest of this entire war," he said. Forty-eight Americans, along with their Afghan partners, faced upwards of 200 insurgents.
Pitts, with 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, was manning the observation post just outside the base when potential insurgents were observed in the predawn darkness. Before a request for indirect-fire support could be put through to the main base, "the entire valley erupted," Obama said.
Soon after the initial wave of enemy fire, everyone at the observation post was wounded or killed. The situation down at the base was no less dire, with one soldier describing it as "hell on Earth," Obama continued.
Pitts, with shrapnel in his arm and both legs, was bleeding badly. Despite these severe injuries, he threw grenades toward the insurgents, but only after pulling the pin and holding the live grenade long enough that the insurgents closing in would have no time to throw the grenade back.
Pitts held his ground against the insurgents, who by then were inside the post, pulling himself onto his knees to man a machine gun.
"The enemy was so close Ryan could hear their voices," Obama recounted.
Pitts informed the main base that he was "the only one left and running out of ammo." At this point, he accepted the fact that he would die defending the post and remembers that he "made my peace with it." Barely conscious, Pitts continued to fight, throwing his last grenades before picking up a grenade launcher, the president said.
After reinforcements arrived at the post, Pitts helped to target the airstrikes that were hitting "danger-close," yards away from the soldiers. These strikes marked the turning point in the battle and, finally, the insurgents fell back.
One of Pitts' teammates attested to how crucial his actions were to the outcome of the battle. The teammate said the post "almost certainly would have been overrun," leaving the enemy a vantage point from which to inflict devastating damage on the base, the president said.
"Against that onslaught, one American held the line," Obama said, noting that Pitts was "just 22 years old, nearly surrounded, bloodied but unbowed."
Obama observed that in Pitts "you see the humility and the loyalty that define America's men and women in uniform."
Obama described some of the countless acts of valor that occurred that day.
"Shielding their wounded buddies with their own bodies. Picking up unexploded missiles with their hands and carrying them away. Running through gunfire to reinforce that post. Fighting through their injuries and never giving up. Helicopter pilots and medevac crews who came in under heavy fire," Obama said.
The ceremony also honored the nine soldiers who did not come home from Wanat.
Obama said Pitts considers his medal "a memorial for the guys who didn't come home." He shared Pitts' sentiment that the sacrifices made by military men and women must never be forgotten.
"This is the story Ryan wants us to remember -- soldiers who loved each other like brothers and who fought for each other, and families who have made a sacrifice that our nation must never forget," Obama said.
"Valor was everywhere that day," Pitts told reporters at the White House following the ceremony.
"And the real heroes are the nine men who made the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us could return home,” he added. “It is their names, not mine, that I want people to know."
Pitts, as Obama had in his remarks, named each of the fallen soldiers:
Spc. Sergio Abad, Cpl. Jonathan Ayers, Cpl. Jason Bogar, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, Sgt. Israel Garcia, Cpl. Jason Hovater, Cpl. Matthew Phillips, Cpl. Pruitt Rainey, and Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling.
“The chosen few," Pitts said.