WASHINGTON — Bleeding from both legs and his arm, Ryan Pitts kept firing at about 200 Taliban fighters, even holding onto his grenades an extra moment to ensure the enemy couldn’t heave them back.
On July 21, President Barack Obama draped the Medal of Honor around his neck, in a White House ceremony that also paid tribute to his nine platoon comrades who died that summer day in Afghanistan.
Pitts, a 28-year-old former U.S. Army staff sergeant is the ninth living veteran of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to receive the nation’s highest decoration for battlefield valor.
In a somber White House ceremony, Obama praised Pitts for holding the line as his comrades fell in one of the bloodiest battles of the Afghan war.
“It is remarkable that we have young men and women serving in our military who, day in and day out, perform with so much integrity, so much humility and so much courage,” the President said. “Ryan represents the very best of that tradition.”
Pitts’ mission that day in June 2008 was supposed to be his last before returning home from his second tour of Afghanistan. After all, Pitts and his team had been in the country for 14 months, the Army said, battling frequently with enemy forces in northeastern Afghanistan’s mountainous Waygal Valley.
The goal was to move troops and equipment out of Combat Outpost Bella, a remote post roughly 10 miles from the nearest base, to a new site nearby. Accessible only by helicopter for supplies and reinforcements, Outpost Bella was slated to be closed.
At 4 a.m., Pitts was manning his observation post. On the horizon, could see the blue-roofed buildings and protective stone walls of the town of Wanat: A one-story mosque, a hotel and cafe, some homes and a local bazaar.
What Pitts couldn’t know was that all of those buildings were concealing enemy fighters. Some 200 of them soon launched a full-scale assault on the outpost, their machine-gun fire puncturing the early morning silence.
A cascade of rocket-fired grenades, gunfire and hand grenades fell on the troops, quickly killing two paratroopers. Shrapnel from grenades struck Pitts in both legs and his left arm. Unable to walk, he crawled to a comrade, who put a tourniquet on his leg.
For more than an hour, Pitts fought to protect the remaining troops and defend the post, the Army said. Propping himself up on his knees, he blindly fired a machine gun over a wall of sandbags, loading more bullets into his weapon despite his loss of blood.
He radioed back that he was alone, his teammates having all relocated or been killed. Enemy forces were so close to Pitts that those listening on the other end of the radio could hear them.
That’s when Pitts accepted he was going to die, Obama said. But he decided to keep fighting anyway.
“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.”
More than an hour after the attack started, Pitts was evacuated, and eventually made a full recovery. The Army said but for his determination to fight while wounded, the enemy would have gained ground and killed more American troops.
Pitts stood stoically and humbly in the East Room of the White House, silent as Obama recalled his valor at a ceremony attended by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
But in brief remarks later outside the West Wing, Pitts read the names of his fallen comrades, one by one, an uneasy silence hanging in the air in between each name.
“Valor was everywhere that day, and the real heroes are the nine men who made the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us could return home,” Pitts said. “It is their names — not mine — that I want people to know.”
By Josh Lederman. AP writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.