When the history books are written, the Battle of Wanat will undoubtedly go down as one of the most controversial of the Afghanistan war.
Nine U.S. soldiers died in the battle and 27 others were wounded. Subsequent investigations into how it could have happened laid blame at least in part on senior commanders for sending the troops to set up a new outpost in the closing days of a long deployment. The unit did not have enough construction materials or water, investigators found, despite numerous reports that enemy fighters in the region were preparing for a massive attack.
That is not the focus of Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts, who received the Medal of Honor this week for his actions in the battle. In numerous public appearances, the soldier, who left active duty in 2009, has focused on the sacrifice of his fellow service members, the Gold Star families who lost soldiers in the July 13, 2008, battle, and the brotherhood he shared with the the other men of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.
“I think about it every day,” Pitts said of what happened. “I think about the guys, more often. Most of the time, I just think about what we did together, and I’m always awestruck. And I use that a lot, but it is awe-inspiring. I mean, I was there and I saw what some of these guys did, and it’s still unbelievable to me.”
Pitts spoke during a gathering with a handful of reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday after being inducted into the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes. The event was carefully planned and managed by Army officials, but a few little-known details did emerge.
For one, Pitts was initially recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest honor for combat valor. That’s an interesting twist, considering the military has faced criticism for downgrading too many Medal of Honor nominations. In Pitts’ case, the opposite was true.
Pitts said that he and Army Sgt. Kyle White, who received the Medal of Honor in May, have talked several times about the responsibility that goes with the Medal of Honor. In fact, it’s White who first let Pitts know that a call from the White House was coming to formally let him know he would receive the award.
“More or less, it was rumors for a long time that it had been upgraded to a Medal of Honor,” Pitts said. “And it was when Kyle White was going through his preparations that I received a phone call from the Pentagon. Kyle texted me and said, ‘What’s your number? They’re going to be calling you soon.’ ”
Pitts said he is still getting a handle on what life will be like under the spotlight. Speaking with other recent recipients, he said, he has determined that while there is a lot of responsibility that goes with the award, he controls his own future.
“It’s kind of hard to judge right now,” he said of what causes he may champion or roles he may take on. “I’m taking it a day at a time, and I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew. For me, my family comes first, and this responsibility is very important to me. I want to have a professional life, but it is a mix of the two.”
Regardless, all of the soldiers feel the need to remember those lost in the battle: Sgt. Israel Garcia, 24; 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.
In a separate phone interview, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Benton, another Wanat survivor, said many of the veterans of the battle drifted apart afterward, but have come together this week while visiting Washington.
“I think a lot of us kind of took a break, and guys are finally reaching the point where we can reach out and establish contact again,” he said. “To see them come out of it okay on the other side has been amazing.”