A former Army staff sergeant whose only goal during a bloody battle in Afghanistan six years ago was to kill as many enemy fighters as possible before he was himself killed was awarded the Medal of Honor Monday at the White House.
Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts of New Hampshire was presented the medal Monday by President Obama in the White House as family members, friends from his former unit and other Medal of Honor recipients watched.
The July 2008 battle pitted 48 soldiers of 173rd Airborne Brigade against about 200 enemy fighters who attacked their small base near the village of Wanat in Afghanistan.
"My goal, my personal goal, was just to try and kill as many as I could before they got me," Pitts told the Army in a video interview made after he learned that he would be receiving the Medal of Honor.
At the White House on Monday it was not the enemy he recalled, but the men with whom he served and fought.
"Standing there [in the East Room] I thought of these incredible men, especially our brothers who fell. Valor was everywhere that day," he said.
Pitts said the real heroes "are the nine men who made the ultimate sacrifice so that the rest of us could return home."
At the time of the fight, Pitts did not expect to make it out alive, according to the Army's report. Suffering shrapnel wounds after the enemy opened up on the small base with machine gun and rocket-propelled grade fire, Pitts crawled from position to position at his observation post. He fired back with his rifle and grenades.
The enemy onslaught took its fatal toll on the post, until the men around him lay dead and the insurgents got ever closer.
Obama related how Pitts pulled pins from his grenades and tossed them at the enemy only seconds before they exploded to make sure there was no time for the Taliban fighters to toss them back.
"Against this onslaught, one American held the line," Obama said. The president told the crowd how Pitts was successful in keeping the enemy back until more soldiers arrived.
When the shooting ended more than an hour later, nine of his fellow soldiers were dead and another 27 wounded, making the Wanat fight one of the most costly in American lives in a single battle in Afghanistan.
"I would tell soldiers that if you are dedicated to the team in your unit that, and they're your brothers, that they'll be dedicated to you, and if the time comes, they'll risk their lives for you if will do it for them," he said in the Army interview.
Pitts became the ninth living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Another seven were awarded posthumously.
He served two deployments in Afghanistan, the first for one year beginning in 2005 and the second lasting 15 months, ending after he was wounded at Wanat.
He separated from the Army in 2009.
Families of the soldiers killed in the battle claimed that the troops were not given the proper support by their chain of command. A subsequent investigation led to recommendations of reprimands for three officers, though these were later dropped on appeal.
Pitts, in a later interview with the Military Times, dismissed the controversy.
"When you understand the battle space, every commander in Afghanistan was dealing with limited resources," Pitts told Military Times. "At every level, we were trying to do the best we could with what we had. Everybody fought for each other that day, and we held our ground."
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