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Medal of Honor Monday: Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts

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Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts was one of several men responsible for setting up a new post in a volatile region of Afghanistan in 2008. The operation turned into a disaster for U.S. forces, but Pitts' actions in guarding the post from insurgents earned him the Medal of Honor. 

A soldier stands at attention.
Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts
Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts, July 21, 2014.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 140721-A-ZZ999-014

Pitts was born on Oct. 1, 1985, and grew up on a farm in Nashua, New Hampshire. By his own admission, he was an uncoordinated child who wasn't good at sports and wasn't sure what he wanted to do after high school. So, instead of burdening his family with the cost of college, he decided to enlist in the Army's delayed entry program in January 2003 when he was just 17.

Pitts spent several years headquartered in Camp Ederle, Italy. He deployed twice to Afghanistan: for a year in 2005 and again for 15 months beginning in 2007 with the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. It was during that second deployment that all hell broke loose in the Waygal Valley region of Kunar Province, where his unit, 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, was responsible for security.

A platoon of soldiers pose near a gate in the desert.
Chosen Company
Army Sgt. Ryan Pitts is pictured top right with 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, at Forward Operating Base Blessing, Nangalam, Afghanistan.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 140721-A-ZZ999-008C

In mid-July 2008, the company was involved in Operation Rock Move, the final mission of their deployment. Pitts' unit, a few Marine Corps mentors and some Afghan soldiers were supposed to reposition forces from Combat Outpost Bella to a new post nicknamed Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler. It was on the outskirts of tiny Wanat village, which initially welcomed the troops. The goal: disrupt militant trafficking in the valley and set the stage for effective regional economic and security improvements.

Early on July 13, then-Sgt. Pitts and eight other paratroopers were at the new post providing perimeter security at Observation Post Topside, an area of higher ground that could watch over the village and serve as the post's eyes and ears. In the predawn darkness, they noticed potential insurgents not too far away. 

A small town sits in a valley between mountains.
Mountain Village
The village of Wanat, Afghanistan, in Nuristan Province, looking southward, July 2008.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 140721-A-ZZ999-037C

As a fire support specialist, Pitts was about to request indirect fire support from VPB Kahler when, suddenly, more than 200 insurgents started firing rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and small arms. They had infiltrated the town and set up firing positions and weapons caches all around the main base. The 48 U.S. service members at the post were outnumbered.

Some of the insurgents, who were hiding in a brush-filled creek bed just to the north of where Pitts and his crew were, began lobbing grenades at them in an effort to isolate Topside from the main base. All of the men on Topside were killed or injured, including Pitts, who suffered serious shrapnel wounds. Another soldier had to help him staunch the bleeding from a leg wound with a tourniquet. 

Two soldiers sit on sandbags. Mountains are in the background.
Patrol Post
The northern fighting position of Observation Post Topside at Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler, July 2008. Army Sgt. Ryan Pitts, Cpl. Matthew Phillips and Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling were in charge of manning the Long-Range Advanced Scout Surveillance System, which is covered by camouflage net here. The system helps detect, identify and geo-locate distant targets.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 140721-A-ZZ999-026C
Dilapidated rock buildings sit atop a hillside in between mountains.
Observation Post
This photo is taken from the northern fighting position of Observation Post Topside, facing to the north and northeast. Depicted here is the “dead space” where the enemy attacked just below the terraces, approximately 5 meters from the northern position. The building in the distance was used as an enemy fighting position during the battle for Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler, July 14, 2008.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 080714-A-ZZ999-012C

Pitts had lost a lot of blood and couldn't stand, but he knew they couldn't give up Topside to the insurgents. He took control and fired back as the enemy moved closer. Pulling pins in grenades, he would wait until the last second to throw the explosives so they would detonate immediately and couldn't be tossed back. He also continued to fire a machine gun until two soldiers from the main base down the hill came to his aid.

Pitts traded them his machine gun for an M4 with a mounted grenade launcher and continued his counterassault. But soon, he realized he was all alone on Topside — everyone else had died or been forced to move off the hill.

Pitts crawled to Topside's northern radio position and described what was happening to commanders. The insurgents were just on the other side of a sandbag wall from him — so close that the men on the other end of the line could hear their voices. But Pitts kept firing grenades and whispering information to the command post, which they could use to help him with indirect fire support.

Two soldiers kneel in front of a memorial for a fallen comrade.
Paying Respects
Army Staff Sgt. Lucas Gonzalez and Sgt. Ryan Pitts pay their respects to former platoon sergeant Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Kahler during a memorial ceremony at Combat Outpost Bella, Afghanistan, January 2008. Kahler was killed during a patrol to visit guard stations near COP Bella.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 140721-A-ZZ999-033C

Four more men tried to come to Pitts' rescue, but all were wounded and one died. Soon after that, U.S. forces sent in air strikes, turning the tide of the battle. The close-air support knocked out the insurgents assaulting Topside long enough for more soldiers to get there and secure it.

Eventually, other reinforcements made it to the town and began clearing enemy positions. Pitts and the other wounded men were flown out as the remaining troops continued fighting for several more hours until Topside and VPB Kahler were once again secure. 

Seven soldiers pose near a tank beside a mountain.
Army Platoon
(Left to right) Army Sgt. Matthew Gobble, Sgt. Ryan Pitts, Sgt. Adam Delaney, Sgt. Dylan Meyer, Sgt. Brian Hissong, Sgt. Mike Santiago and Sgt. Israel Garcia, with 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, pause for a photo before going out on patrol at Forward Operating Base Blessing, Nangalam, Afghanistan, during the spring/summer of 2007.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 140721-A-ZZ999-237C

Pitts' courage and commitment kept the insurgents from overrunning the observation post, which would have given them a vantage point to inflict major damage on the main base and capture any soldiers within it. 

Unfortunately, his unit paid a heavy price. Nine soldiers died during the battle: Spc. Sergio Abad, Cpl. Jonathan Ayers, Cpl. Jason Bogar, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, Sgt. Israel Garcia, Cpl. Jason Hovater, Cpl. Matthew Phillips, Cpl. Pruitt Rainey, and Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling.

After the fight, it was clear to mission leaders that the villagers in Wanat, who had initially welcomed them, had betrayed their trust. Within a few days, Chosen Company moved out. 

A soldier in a seated crowd puts his hand on his small son’s chest.
Pitts and Son
Medal of Honor recipient former Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts plays with his son, Lucas, at the Hall of Heroes induction ceremony at the Pentagon, July 22, 2014. Pitts was awarded with the medal for his courageous actions during combat operations at Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler in the vicinity of Wanat Village in Kunar province, Afghanistan, on July 13, 2008.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Mikki Sprenkle
VIRIN: 140722-A-KH856-027
A man fastens a medal around a soldier’s neck.
Honored Award
President Barack Obama awards former Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C., July 21, 2014.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Laura Buchta
VIRIN: 140721-A-VS818-309

Pitts left the Army in 2009 and got his bachelor's degree from the University of New Hampshire at Manchester. He moved back to his hometown, where he works in business development and lives with his wife and son.

On July 24, 2014, Pitts received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony. He is one of 13 living recipients to have fought in Afghanistan. 

A man in uniform addresses a crowd of soldiers.
Resiliency Talk
Medal of Honor recipient and former Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts, talks about resiliency with the soldiers of his former unit, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, during an open discussion Aug. 1, 2014, in Vicenza, Italy.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Opal Vaughn
VIRIN: 140801-A-MM054-138C

"Against that onslaught, one American held the line," Obama said during the ceremony, noting that Pitts was "just 22-years old, nearly surrounded, bloodied but unbowed."

"Valor was everywhere that day," Pitts told reporters after the ceremony. "And the real heroes are the nine men who made the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us could return home. It is their names, not mine, that I want people to know."

Since earning the Medal of Honor, Pitts has rung the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange, returned to Italy to visit paratroopers in his former unit and he's spoken at length to various groups about his experiences in Afghanistan. 

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.

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