Ryan Pitts, Army veteran, to receive Medal of Honor for holding off enemy assault

Then-Sgt. Ryan Pitts waits for a flight at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2008. Pitts, now a former active-duty staff sergeant, will receive the Medal of Honor for heroism in Afghanistan, the White House announced Monday. (Photo courtesy the U.S. Army)
Then-Sgt. Ryan Pitts waits for a flight at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2008. Pitts, now a former active-duty staff sergeant, will receive the Medal of Honor for heroism in Afghanistan, the White House announced Monday. (Photo courtesy the U.S. Army)

It was sometime just before dawn in northeastern Afghanistan when U.S. soldiers on the edge of Wanat village in Nuristan province found themselves in the fight of their lives.

Shortly after 4 a.m. on July 13, 2008, at least 100 insurgents opened fire on a new patrol base and nearby U.S. observation post, each manned by U.S. soldiers. The attack was jarring, powerful and surprising — soldiers had spotted insurgents on a hillside west of the village, but were unable to put together a call for indirect fire before all hell broke loose. The attack began with a volley of machine-gun fire from a two-story building on a terraced hill to the north, but it quickly swelled into an all-out assault with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.

In the middle of it all was Sgt. Ryan J. Pitts. Already wounded by grenade shrapnel, he crawled from position to position in the observation post, refusing to give up the high ground there even after fellow U.S. soldiers were killed. Pitts’s wounds were bad enough that a tourniquet had been applied, according to an Army summary of action. Still, he stayed in the fight, repeatedly tossing hand grenades at oncoming insurgents and manning an M-240B machine gun under a hail of enemy fire until other soldiers could respond.

The battle killed nine U.S. soldiers, wounded 27 more service members and spurred a series of investigations to determine how things could have gone so wrong. Now, four years later, President Obama will award Pitts the Medal of Honor, the White House announced Monday. Now 28, he medically retired from the Army as a staff sergeant in 2009 and will receive the nation’s highest award for combat valor in a ceremony July 21.

Pitts now lives in Nashua, N.H., where he works in business development for a computer software company. In an interview with the Army Times published Monday, he said he will accept it on behalf of all of the soldiers who were in Wanat that day.

“For me, this was a team effort,” he said. “I’m going to receive it, but it’s not going to be mine. We did it together. No one guy carried that day. I don’t think I did anything more than anyone else, and I think this award represents everything we did as a collective effort that day. And for me, it’s also a memorial to the guys who didn’t come home…. I guess I take comfort in thinking about the award as though I’m going to be its caretaker. It’s not mine, but I will hold onto it for the guys and look after it. But it’s certainly not mine alone.”

At one point in the battle, Pitts realized he was alone when he couldn’t hear any other outgoing gunfire from his observation post. Not wanting to reveal his position and while wounded, he crawled to the southern side of the outpost and found that seven other soldiers fighting with him against the assault were dead. Pitts began firing a grenade launcher almost overhead to kill fighters on the opposite side of the base’s wall, and he called on soldiers in the main base nearby to open fire on his position to prevent them from breaching the base, the Army summary of action says.

Four soldiers — Staff Sgt. Sean Samaroo, Sgt. Israel Garcia, Spc. Michael Denton and Spc. Jacon Sones — eventually rushed from the main base to Pitts’s position and found him fighting for his life while losing blood, according to the Army’s summary of action. One of them, Garcia, 24, was killed in the process.

Other soldiers killed in the battle include 1st Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom, 24; Cpl. Jonathan A. Ayers, 24; Cpl. Jason M. Bogar, 24; Cpl. Jason D. Hovater, 24; Cpl. Matthew B. Phillips, 27; Cpl. Pruitt A. Rainey, 22; Cpl. Gunnar W. Zwilling, 20; and Spc. Sergio S. Abad, 21.

The Battle of Wanat became one of the most controversial of the entire Afghanistan War. As outlined in investigative reports by The Washington Post, Army Times, Foreign Policy and other publications, the soldiers were building the new bases with limited construction materials and water and despite numerous reports that enemy fighters in the region were preparing a massive attack.

Family members lobbied repeatedly for senior officers overseeing the unit to be held accountable for leaving them vulnerable to the attack. That led retired Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the commander of U.S. Central Command, to call in September 2009 for an additional examination of the facts outlined in the Army’s initial investigation report.

Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski led the reexamination of the case and concluded that the officers overseeing Pitts’s company, battalion and brigade had overextended their force and not provided enough support, leaving them vulnerable to the attack. Petraeus, one of the most influential generals of his generation, approved Natonski’s findings, but the Army general with responsibility for writing the officers’ reprimands, Gen. Charles C. Campbell, decided not to take action against the officers.

A Defense Department inspector general report issued June 24, 2010, concluded that Natonski had established the facts that the officers were “derelict in the performance of their duties through neglect or culpable inefficiency.”

UPDATE: A previous version of this post incorrectly spelled the name of Cpl. Jason M. Bogar.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · June 23