President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor Tuesday to former Army Sgt. Kyle J. White, an Afghanistan war veteran celebrated by the president as “a soldier who embodies the courage of his generation.”
“Today our troops are coming home,” Obama said at a White House ceremony, held in the East Room in front of White’s parents and girlfriend, as well as relatives of those who died beside him in battle more than six years ago.
“By the end of this year, our war in Afghanistan will be over,” Obama continued, “and we’ll welcome home this generation, the 9/11 generation, that has proven to be one of America’s greatest.”
White was awarded the nation’s highest military honor for action in Afghanistan’s Nuristan Province, a remote, lightly populated region in the country’s northeast. The battle took place Nov. 9, 2007, a year before Obama was elected president with a pledge to retool and better resource U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
Now 27, White was a high school freshman at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and originally aspired to enlist in the Marines. His father, Curt, an Army special forces veteran, helped persuade his son to rethink his service branch of choice.
White has since left the Army, graduated from college, and started work as an investment analyst in Charlotte. U.S. troops long ago abandoned Nuristan, the site of three of the deadliest battles for American soldiers in the long Afghan war.
“I can close my eyes at any moment and still go back to certain experiences that day,” White said this week in a roundtable with reporters. “I can still feel the temperature of the air, the smell of the gunpowder.”
White and 13 other U.S. troops with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, accompanied by a contingent of Afghan soldiers, were moving along a narrow ridgeline after a meeting with tribal elders, when the Taliban attacked from three directions.
The soldiers in front of White had nowhere to go, so they threw themselves off the trail and rolled more than 50 meters down steep rocky cliff. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded near White’s head, knocking him unconscious.
He woke to find Marine Sgt. Phillip Bocks, lying in the open, and badly wounded. Another soldier, Spec. Kain Schilling, was bleeding from bullet wounds to his shoulder and his leg. White tied tourniquets onto Schilling’s wounds and tried to drag Bocks to safety.
“The rounds were coming in and I could feel them go by my face, just the pressure from the bullets,” said White, whose face and hands were peppered with small bullet fragments.
He carried Bocks a few feet and then, when the fire grew too intense, sprinted back to Schilling, drawing the enemy fire with him. Bocks was conscious, but dying. “The only words he ever said to me was I don’t think I’m going to make it through this,” said White, who worked to keep him alive. “I can talk about the day with . . . other people I served with,” White said. “But I could never sit down and talk about it with my parents. I don’t know why, but that was always the hardest thing to do.”
Shortly after the battle, White called his parents, who had been told that he had been wounded. “My mom picked up the phone and just instantly burst into tears,” he said. “I couldn’t even talk to her.” He told them a little about the battle about a year after he returned and a little more about it last year, as his medal of honor nomination slowly passed up the military chain of command and then to the White House.
White decided to leave the Army after the battle. “For me . . . it was never the same after that day,” he said. “I made the decision to get out because I felt like I didn’t have my head completely into it and I wasn’t passionate about what I was doing.”
He spent the day prior to the White House ceremony with Schilling, who left the Army in 2008 and has a security job with an energy company in Palo, Iowa. “I am here because of Kyle’s actions,” Schilling said.
The Medal of Honor award, White said, gives him a chance to tell the story of the five soldiers and one Marine who died in a largely unknown battle in one of the most isolated places on earth.
On Tuesday, Obama recited their names: Sgt. Phillip A. Bocks; Capt. Matthew C. Ferrara; Spc. Joseph M. Lancour; Sgt. Jeffery S. Mersman; Corporal Lester G. Roque; and, Corporal Sean K.A. Langevin, who was White’s best friend.
Some of their family members were in the audience. Obama asked them to stand, and they did so to lengthy applause.
“Finally our story can be told and recognized,” White said. “It was just a number at the bottom of the ticker on a news channel. But these guys were the best of us. I’ll always say that because that’s what I believe. It is important their names are known.”