WASHINGTON, D.C. — The newest Medal of Honor winner, former Army Staff Sgt. Ryan M. Pitts, said he wanted the nation not to remember his name, but those of the nine men who were killed in one of the fiercest fights of the war in Afghanistan.
“Valor was everywhere that day and the real heroes are the nine men who made the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us could come home,” Pitts told reporters in a short statement after receiving the nation’s highest award for valor in combat.
President Barack Obama awarded Pitts the medal on Monday in a White House ceremony, saying the former Army sergeant represented the best of America’s military.
Pitts, severely wounded while serving as a forward observer six years ago in a fierce battle in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, is the the ninth person to receive for actions during wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.
“In Ryan Pitts, you see the humility and the loyalty that define America’s men and women in uniform,” Obama said.
In the predawn hours of July 13, 2008, Pitts, who was wounded in one arm and both legs and near death, lobbed grenades at militants so close he could hear them talking, and he fired a machine gun at the enemy.
He tossed grenade after grenade under a hail of enemy gunfire as comrades fell. He also asked other soldiers to fire at his position to prevent the enemy from gaining ground, according to the Army’s account of events.
By the time fellow soldiers reached his position, Pitts was bleeding profusely yet firing furiously as he struggled to defend his post.
“It just seemed like the only option,” Pitts told CNN before the ceremony. “Stay and fight. For whatever reason.”
Nine soldiers died in the battle. Pitts read their names: 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.
“Thank you, chosen few,” he said.
Twenty-seven others were injured.
The chaotic Battle of Wanat was later the subject of a military investigation.
The President paid tribute those who died, mentioning them by name.
“It is remarkable that we have young men and women serving in our military who day in and day out are able to perform with so much integrity, so much humility and so much courage,” Obama said. “Ryan represents the very best of that tradition. And we are very, very proud of him.”
Pitts has since retired from the military and lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, where he works for the computer software industry and is the father of a 1-year-old son. Monday was his second wedding anniversary.
For Pitts, who has “always wanted to serve” since age 17, the award also recognizes the efforts of his fallen comrades.
“They were incredible soldiers. I mean they were warriors that day,” Pitts said. “But they were also great people.”
He remembers how Zwilling, Phillips and Rainey all “loved to play poker.”
“They were all pretty good at it. Rainey was probably the best. He had won quite a bit of money playing poker in Afghanistan.”
Bogar “was very introspective and reflective on our time there. Probably more so than the rest of us,” he recalled. Abad was deployed before he could wed so “he married his wife over the phone in Afghanistan.”
Brostrom was a father who loved to surf and who adored his alma mater, the University of Hawaii, he said.
Hovater “was probably the funniest guy in the platoon. Great sense of humor. He’d make fun of himself just as much as he’d make fun of anybody else. Nobody was safe,” Pitts said.
“We were like family,” he said.
Garcia “loved his wife, his family. He was a happy guy. A very infectious smile.”
Pitts remembers holding Garcia’s hand as he died and promising him that he would tell his wife and mother that he loved them.
“There wasn’t a whole lot that I could do for him, so I just held his hand and — I couldn’t tell you much of what we talked about or even if we talked that much. I just know that he told me to tell his wife and mom that he loved them,” Pitts said.
After his deployment, Pitts kept his promise.
“I went back to Italy and his mom — Mary Cruz and his wife, Leslie, (were) there. So I was able to sit down — (Spc. Michael Denton) came with me. We were both able to sit down and told them.”
Pitts said he wouldn’t do anything differently because a brotherhood was forged through battle.
“The term brother is the best to describe our relationship — but it almost … seems to fall short of, you know, how we feel about each other and the people I’ve met,” he said clearing his throat. “The impact they had on my life — personally and professionally, the experiences that I went through with them — I wouldn’t trade anything for it.”