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President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor today to a 28-year-old who performed heroically, and at times single-handedly, in a battle that wasn't only one of the deadliest of the Afghanistan war, but also, as it turned out, one of the most investigated.
Afghanistan's eastern provinces had long been the scene of fierce fighting with the Taliban, when in July 2008, the Army's 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, was assigned to set up a new outpost in the village of Wanat. Sergeant Ryan Pitts, then 22 years old, and nearing the end of his second tour in the country, had already seen a lot of combat when his team started the operation.
STAFF SGT. RYAN PITTS (RET.), U.S. Army: This was in the valley, very close to the village, basically kind of integrated among the village, somewhat by the river.
It wasn't the low ground, but there's always a balance between accessibility and security that we try to strike in terms of being able to support and reinforce and get supplies via ground.
Did you and your unit feel extra vulnerability because of where you were?
STAFF SGT. RYAN PITTS:
Our entire battalion had been facing enemy attacks all year long for that entire deployment, so I don't think — I certainly didn't feel any more vulnerable there than I did any other point in my deployment.
On a ridge to the east of the main base, Sergeant Pitts and others manned a surveillance system seen here in a photo taken on July 12. Just after 4:00 the next morning, their situation took a dramatic turn.
It started with a machine gun burst from the north, and they had moved in with approximately 200 fighters, had the high ground, element of surprise, had us surrounded, and initiated a large-scale attack on us.
We had about 48 Americans on the ground, as well as a platoon, 20 to 30 Afghan national army soldiers.
Grenade shrapnel hit Sergeant Pitts in both legs and his left arm, but he and his fellow soldiers fought on.
The valor was everywhere. I mean, it was incredible to see these guys. I mean, we were all young. And everybody just doing their jobs without anybody having to be told and just trusting one another that we would do our jobs.
For much of the next 90 minutes, Pitts alone lobbed hand grenades, fired a machine gun and grenade launcher, before being airlifted out by a medevac helicopter. Pitts also relayed vital information to headquarters throughout the attack, allowing reinforcements and airstrikes to come in.
Cameras on arriving helicopters captured the scene on the ground, burning structures dotting the landscape as pilots fired on enemy targets. The fighting raged on for several more hours before the area was finally secured.
In the end, nine soldiers were killed and 27 others wounded in the deadliest single fight yet of the Afghan war. An Army investigation followed, standard procedure with any battle. No wrongdoing was uncovered. But because of the high casualty count and pressure from family members of the fallen, in 2009, General David Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command, ordered a separate investigation.
In January 2010, Central Command concluded that commanders at the battalion, company and brigade level were neglectful and derelict in their duty in the planning and execution of the operation. Initially, the three officers were issued letters of reprimand, but, several months later, after appeals by members of the unit, including Sergeant Pitts, the Army announced the reprimands were withdrawn.
Throughout that process, Sergeant Pitts defended the actions of his superiors.
I think a lot of that attention came about from not all the facts coming out initially of understanding there's a lot that went into our battle space that led commanders to make the decisions that they did.
We had a certain amount of resources. We were trying to set up the next unit for success. I have complete confidence in my command teams. I would still serve with them. I would follow them anywhere.
Pitts, by now a staff sergeant, was medically discharged from the Army following his recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Today at the White House, he became the ninth living recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. President Obama praised Pitts' courage and referred to lessons learned at Wanat.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
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.
Ryan says, "I think we owe it to them to live lives worthy of their sacrifice."
And he's absolutely right.
As commander in chief, I believe one of the ways we can do that is by heeding the lessons of Wanat. When this nation sends our troops into harm's way, they deserve a sound strategy and a well-defined mission, and they deserve the forces and support to get the job done. And that's what we owe soldiers like Ryan and all of the comrades that were lost.
Do you think all this changed you as a person? What has it meant to you, I think, as — in terms of how you live your life?
The biggest change is not necessarily in me as a person, but the appreciation that I have for life.
You know, a lot of men sacrificed a lot that day, so the rest of us could come home, Specialist Sergio Abad, Corporeal Jonathan Ayers, Corporal Jason Bogar, 1st Lieutenant Jonathan Brostrom, Sergeant Israel Garcia, Corporal Jason Hovater, Corporal Matthew Phillips, Corporal Pruitt Rainey, Corporal Gunnar Zwilling.
They made the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us could come home. And they gave us all a second chance. And I have an appreciation of life that I didn't have before. And I'm not going to waste it.
Pitts graduated from college, now works for the Oracle Corporation, and lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, with his wife, Amy, and their young son, Lucas.
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