Good morning everyone. Secretary McHugh, General Odierno, General Sullivan, Sergeant Major Chandler, distinguished Members of Congress, Gold Star families, members of the Medal of Honor society, our veterans, the men and women who serve our country today in uniform, our civilian employees, and in particular our very special guests here this morning.
On behalf of Secretary Hagel, I want to welcome and thank you all for being here today to honor the exceptional heroism of Staff Sergeant Ryan Pitts. I must say, I’ve been fortunate in the first two months as Deputy Secretary of Defense to be able to participate in three Medal of Honor ceremonies. I must say this is one of the most awesome thing that I do. Both SSgt Pitts and Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sergeant Kyle White, served in the same company, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade – and who is also here with us today. Not bad airborne, not bad at all. To all the members of Chosen Company, past and present, who here today, welcome, you truly are an impressive bunch of soldiers.
I want to offer a special welcome to Ryan’s family, his wife Amy, and their young son Lucas. And also his extended family who have joined us, welcome. Thank you all for the love and support you have provided Ryan over the years and for helping to mold this extremely impressive soldier we honor today. I know the daunting challenges all, military families grapple with day-in and day-out – I was born into a military family. For more than a decade, our military families have had to grapple with being unsure that their loved ones would return safe from a deployment, and often, repeat deployments. The courage and resilience they have displayed – that you have displayed – represents the finest values of our military and our country.
Much has been said about the battle that compelled Ryan Pitts to act above and beyond the call of duty. It is an account that is as old as the American military – a combat outpost holding out against a fierce attack – a handful of American troops, facing down tough odds. American infantrymen, Army paratroopers, surrounded, and outnumbered. And all of you in the army know that the airborne is trained in this very mission, to drop behind enemy lines, to be surrounded, to be cut off, and to rely only on each other.
But this soldier takes his place in our Hall of Heroes because his actions that day exemplify the finest qualities of the American soldier – steadfast devotion to duty, tenacity in a fight, and love and respect for each other. As has been recounted here today by General Odierno, Secretary McHugh, and yesterday by the President at the White House, there were a lot of heroes that day, and Ryan Pitts was among the most storied of them.
Combat Outpost Kahler was an isolated outpost. OP Topside, where Ryan Pitts fought – and where he held – was even more isolated. For most American troops who fought in this country’s longest war the insurgents have been a shadowy for. Their signature weapon is the IED, firing mortar rounds, or sniping from a distance.
But that wasn’t the case at Wanat. There, it was close quarters combat against an enemy aggressively pushing home its attack. They wanted to overwhelm the outpost with sheer numbers and volume of fire. And they came very close to doing so. At one point during the firefight an American soldier shouted the warning, “they’re inside the wire.” You could actually hear the enemy talking over the radios. The fighting was so close that at times the soldiers were looking directly into their enemy’s faces. This really is a battle of wills. And our soldiers met the enemy’s ferocity with their own. And just like their ancestors on Pennsylvania farmland, on Pacific beaches and jungles, in the Ardennes forest, and in the highlands of Vietnam, our soldiers prevailed.
Wounded multiple times, alternating between throwing grenades, firing his weapon, calling in fire support, and radioing for reinforcements, Ryan continued to fight for his brothers who lay dead and wounded around him. They truly are a close-knit band of brothers. And because of what Ryan did that day, the bodies of his paratrooper brethren were saved from enemy hands. If it hadn’t been for his bravery and determination, the position almost certainly would have been overrun. That personal commitment to bring our soldiers home, be they living or dead, goes to the very spirit of America’s fighting men and women.
Ryan’s former company commander, Matthew Myer, spoke to him after the battle. Ryan told him that he thought he was going to die, but he was going to do everything he could to keep the enemy away from the bodies of his comrades. As Myer emphatically recounted, when all looked lost, Ryan’s actions saved the day, “He did not give up.”
As we honor this fine American, we also recognize and honor the service and sacrifice of those who fought at Wanat and who fell in battle that bloody day. As Ryan said with his customary modesty, “I didn’t earn the Medal of Honor, we earned it.” We also honor the millions of Americans who have served and continue to serve over the past 12 plus years of war, the longest period of prolonged combat in our nation’s history. I had the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan recently and see some of these outstanding young Americans who are putting their lives on the line every day to protect our nation.
I see in this fine soldier – and in his brothers and sisters in arms – past and present members of the most amazing fighting force this world has ever seen. Their dedication to duty, regardless of personal safety, embodies the very best traditions of the American military. Thisgeneration of American fighting men and women have demonstrated by their actions that they are, in fact, a truly great generation. They stepped forward and volunteered in a time of war knowing – often hoping – they would be sent overseas to combat, to take the fight to the enemy. All they asked for was the honor of fighting for their country – and they gave us all they had in return, their blood, their sweat, and sometimes, tragically, their lives.
The price paid by our service members in lives and wounds in this long war has been steep. They have inspired in the hearts of our countrymen a deep sense of pride and patriotism. As Douglas MacArthur so memorably told the West Point cadets in his famous farewell speech, “From one end of the world to the other [the American soldier] has drained deep the chalice of courage.”
Now, as these wars draw to an end, millions of veterans will follow the example of Ryan Pitts, Kyle White, and all the many men and women who have served overseas, return to civilian life, lead meaningful lives, and contribute to their communities. Having served their country on the field of battle, this generation of service members will continue to work hard to change our country for the better whether they are in-or-out of uniform.
Ryan, you have brought great honor upon yourself, your family, the United States Army, and the entire nation. Out of the millions who have served in uniform less than 4,000 have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Ryan, I can’t tell you how proud I am of you, how proud Secretary Hagel, the President, all Americans are of you. Today, the entire Department of Defense is as proud of you as we are grateful – for your bravery, your service, and your sacrifice. Thank you, Ryan, to all of those who stood by you that day, to those that lost their lives, to all of those serving around the globe who support our nation, may god bless you all.