Former Army Staff Sgt. Ryan M. Pitts departed Tuesday from the unwritten but strict terminology surrounding the Medal of Honor in paying tribute to the soldiers who fought alongside him in Afghanistan.
Those who earn the nation's highest award for valor are invariably called "recipients," and never "winners." However, Pitts said "I will never view myself as a recipient, but always a caretaker" of the Medal of Honor.
"It is ours, not mine," Pitts said of the Medal. "We did it together" in beating back an attack on their remote outpost in Afghanistan's Kunar province, Pitts said.
"There is a responsibility that comes with this award," Pitts said at a packed ceremony in the Pentagon's auditorium at which he was inducted into the military's "Hall of Heroes."
The responsibility was to the memory of those who fought the "Battle of Wanat" on July 13, 2008, and especially to the nine soldiers who were killed and 27 others who were wounded, Pitts said.
"They fought to their last breath," he said.
There was an "absolute duty to be your brother's keeper," Pitts said of the troops in 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade. Each soldier's commitment was to the code that "I will die before I let harm come to him," Pitts said.
Pitts had maintained a poker-face demeanor through the awards ceremonies at the White House on Monday and at the Pentagon on Tuesday, but his voice cracked slightly with emotion as he spoke of his "brothers."
"To every man who fought that day, it has been an honor," Pitts said. "I owe you a debt I can never repay."
At the Pentagon ceremony, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, said that Pitts had joined a "rare fraternity" in receiving the Medal of Honor.
Army Secretary John McHugh listed the names of those who fell in the Battle of Wanat: Spec. Sergio Abad, Corp. Jonathan Ayeers, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, Sgt. Israel Garcia, Corp. Jason Hovater, Corp. Matthew Phillips, Corp. Pruitt Rainey, and Corp. Gunnar Zwilling.
McHugh quoted from the James Michener novel "The Bridges at Toko Ri" in asking: "Where do we find such men?"
They are found, as always, in the towns of America such as Clinton, Tenn., Morganfield, Ky., and Nashua, N.H., McHugh said, citing the hometowns of some of those who fought at Wanat.
In the battle, Pitts was a forward observer for a unit of 48 troops who faced an attack by more than 200 insurgents.
As President Obama said Monday, Pitts' "little post was on the verge of falling, giving the enemy a perch from which to devastate the base below."
"Against that onslaught, one American held the line -- just 22 years old, nearly surrounded, bloodied but unbowed -- the soldier we recognize today with our nation's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, Staff Sergeant Ryan M. Pitts."
In his own remarks Tuesday, Pitts again deflected the honor to those who fell in the battle.
"I have seen so much valor displayed by my brothers that I can't even begin to scratch the surface," Pitts said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org