Ryan Pitts on the Medal of Honor: The ‘real heroes’ are the nine men who died

President Obama awarded Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts with the Medal of Honor at the White House on Monday. Pitts held off an ambush on his platoon's post during one of the bloodiest battles of the Afghanistan war despite his own injuries. He is the 16th service member to receive the award for service in Iraq or Afghanistan. (Associated Press)

The ceremony was over and former Staff Sgt. Ryan M. Pitts, the nation’s newest Medal of Honor recipient, walked toward the microphones set up in front of the West Wing, his pants bloused over his black boots and the nation’s highest award for combat valor draped over his chest.

“The real heroes are the nine men who made the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us could return home,” Pitts said quietly, a reference to the nine soldiers who died defending Observation Post Topside beside him in the summer of 2008 in Wanat, Afghanistan.

“It is their names, not mine that I want people to know.”

“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,” he read, and in an homage to Chosen company of the 503rd parachute infantry regiment, added:  “Thank you. The Chosen few.”

Pitts did not take any questions Monday, and as he walked away, a reporter inquired, “Is that it?” For Pitts, 28, of Nashua, N.H., it was.

A half-hour earlier Pitts was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama for his actions on July 13, 2008, when he single-handedly defended his observation post from an attack by more than 200 Taliban militants. The citation recounts his courage under withering enemy fire, during which he threw grenade after grenade as he slowly bled from shrapnel wounds he sustained from the explosion of rocket-propelled grenades.

On one side of the room were the families of those who died during the battle, and on the other were Pitts’s comrades-in arms who fought beside him at Wanat, a smattering of suits and Army dress blues laden with Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts.

The battle, which started in earnest at 4 a.m. with a combined attack from mortars, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, was focused on a nearby vehicle patrol base but Pitts’s outpost to the east bore the brunt of the attack.

Outposts such as Topside, exist for that reason: to provide access to key terrain for friendly forces as well as to act as a buffer between larger bases and attacking enemy forces.

In the first half-hour of the battle, most of the soldiers defending Topside were incapacitated, yet Pitts fought on, alternating between manning a machine gun and “cooking off” grenades, or holding them long enough so when thrown, the enemy couldn’t throw them back before they detonated.

“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.”

As Obama read the names of those who died in the fight, he recounted anecdotes about each of the nine soldiers who gave their lives during the Battle of Wanat.

“The boy who dominated the soccer fields and fell in love with motorcycles,” he said of one. “The father who loved surfing with his son,” he said of another.

As the men of Chosen company’s eyes swelled, Pitts stared ahead, his hands at parade rest, his face unflinching.

“This is the story that Ryan wants us to remember,” Obama said. “Soldiers who loved each other like brothers and fought for each other, families that made a sacrifice that our nation must never forget.”

“I think we owe it to them to live lives worthy of their sacrifice,” Obama recounted Pitts as saying.

Pitts is the ninth living service member to receive the award for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a staff writer and a former Marine infantryman.

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