Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts Receives the Medal of Honor Last Monday

“I want you to try and imagine the extraordinary circumstances in which Ryan and his team served.  This was the summer of 2008, and this was a time when our forces in Afghanistan were stretched thin and our troops were deployed to isolated outposts.  They had just arrived in Wanat just days before and they were still building their very small base — a handful of armored vehicles and fighting positions and foxholes and sandbags.

Wanat, one report later concluded, had “significant vulnerabilities.”  Parts of the village sat on higher ground.  On every side, mountains soared 10,000 feet into the sky.  Heavy equipment to help build their defenses was delayed.  In the 100-degree heat the soldiers ran low on water.  And the aerial surveillance they were counting on was diverted away to other missions.

Early that morning, in the pre-dawn darkness, they spotted several men up the mountains.  But before Ryan and his team could take action, the entire valley erupted.  Machine gun fire and mortar and rocket-propelled grenades poured down from every direction.  And those 200 insurgents were firing from ridges and from the village and from trees.  Down at the base, a vehicle exploded —- scattering its missiles, back at our soldiers.  It was, said a soldier, “hell on Earth.” 

Up at their tiny post, Ryan and his team were being pounded.  Almost instantly, every one of them was wounded.  Ryan was hit by shrapnel in the arm and both legs and was bleeding badly.  Already, three American soldiers in that valley had fallen.  And then a fourth.

As the insurgents moved in, Ryan picked up a grenade, pulled the pin, and held that live grenade — for a moment, then another, then another — finally hurling it so they couldn’t throw it back.  And he did that again.  And he did it again. 

Unable to stand, Ryan pulled himself up on his knees and manned a machine gun.  Soldiers from the base below made a daring run, dodging bullets and explosions, and joined the defense.  But now the enemy was inside the post — so close they were throwing rocks at the Americans, so close they came right up to the sandbags.  Eight American soldiers had now fallen.  And Ryan Pitts was the only living soldier at that post.    

The enemy was so close Ryan could hear their voices.  He whispered into the radio he was the only one left and was running out of ammo.  “I was going to die,” he remembers, “and made my peace with it.”  And then he prepared to make a last stand.  Bleeding and barely conscious, Ryan threw his last grenades.  He grabbed a grenade launcher and fired nearly straight up, so the grenade came back down on the enemy just yards away.  One insurgent was now right on top of the post, shooting down until another team of Americans showed up and drove him back.  As one of his teammates said, had it not been for Ryan Pitts, that post “almost certainly would have been overrun.” 

Even with reinforcements, the battle was not over.  Another wave of rocket-propelled grenades slammed into the post.  Nine American soldiers were now gone.  And still, the fighting raged. Ryan worked the radio, helping target the air strikes that were hitting “danger-close” — just yards away.  And with those strikes the tide of the battle began to turn.  Eventually, the insurgents fell back.  Ryan and his fellow soldiers had held their ground. 

This medal, Ryan says, is an opportunity to tell “our” story.  “There was valor everywhere,” according to Ryan.  And so today we also pay tribute to all who served with such valor that day.  Shielding their wounded buddies with their own bodies.  Picking up unexploded missiles with their hands and carrying them away.  Running through the gunfire to reinforce that post. Fighting through their injuries and never giving up.  Helicopter pilots and MEDEVAC crews who came in under heavy fire.  Said one soldier, “Never in my career have I seen such bravery and sacrifice.” 

And so I would ask all those who served at Wanat — on the ground and in the air — to please stand, those of you who are here today.  (Applause.)

Most of all, Ryan says he considers this medal “a memorial for the guys who didn’t come home.”  So today, we honor nine American soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for us all.” -President Barack Obama, 7/21/14

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