Medal of Honor for 'uncommon valor' high in the Hindu Kush

Sgt. Kyle White will be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in November 2007. After his platoon was ambushed, he risked his life to rescue and comfort the wounded and dying and radioed for the help that saved his comrades.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
President Obama speaks during a Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room of the White House on March 18, 2014, in Washington. Sgt. Kyle White will receive the Medal of Honor, for his actions in November 2007, in a White House ceremony in May.

In the hours before a vicious ambush in which Sgt. Kyle White’s heroic actions would earn him the Medal of Honor, a platoon of US soldiers from Chosen Company, 173rd Airborne, were on their way to a meeting with the elders of a small village in a violent border region of far eastern Afghanistan. 

The village, Aranas, high in the Hindu Kush mountains, was suspected of helping to plot what the US military described as a “major attack” months earlier on a US combat outpost (COP) that had resulted in 11 wounded troops and the closure of the small US base.

Sergeant White’s platoon was traveling under cover of darkness, accompanied by a squad of Afghan soldiers, from its own COP to the village. The fighters bunked for the night at an American-built school on the outskirts of Aranas before their planned meeting with the elders.

It would be shortly afterward that the US soldiers would be deceived by the villagers, prompting the battle that cost the lives of six Americans and three Afghan soldiers and for which White is being recognized for his “uncommon valor and perseverance” that November day in 2007.

The villagers that morning seemed to be behaving strangely, and the turnout for the meeting with the elders was unusually large. At first, the US soldiers were heartened by the level of interest that the townspeople seemed to be taking in the meeting, according to US military documents.

But then the platoon’s interpreter tipped off the soldiers that there was alarming chatter about a coming attack and advised the platoon leader, 1st Lt. Matthew Ferrara, that the US soldiers should “leave immediately.”

That’s what the soldiers did, but as they trekked up the mountains back to their COP, they were followed by “several villagers,” and, shortly afterward, ambushed by insurgent fighters in a three-pronged attack: The platoon marching up the mountainside was hit, as were the scouts providing over-watch on the ridge above. The unit’s COP was also attacked at the same time.

As the bursts of rifle fire echoed through the mountains, then-Specialist White began to return fire, but he was promptly knocked unconscious by a rocket-propelled grenade that detonated beside him. 

White regained consciousness as the firefight continued to rage around him, only to have an enemy round hit a rock and fragment near his head, sending shrapnel into his face.

During the time he was unconscious, the rest of the patrol had slid down a cliff 50 meters below seeking cover. White, along with Lieutenant Ferrara; Spc. Kain Schilling, the forward observer; and a Marine trainer embedded with the unit, Sgt. Phillip Bocks, were cut off from the rest of the platoon.

White saw that Specialist Schilling had been shot in his arm and applied a tourniquet. Sergeant Bocks, too, was badly wounded and was lying in an open, exposed field, but he was too badly hurt to move. 

And so White sprinted across the field, “with enemy rounds ricocheting around his feet and snapping past his head,” according to the Army report. 

He tried to drag Schilling toward the loose canopy formed by a single tree that offered some small protection for the soldiers. But as enemy fire zeroed in on White and his comrade, he was forced to stop dragging Schilling and run back to the small tree “momentarily to draw their fire away from Bocks.” 

After the enemy fire dwindled, “White moved back to Bocks, dragged him a little further – until the enemy fire was too concentrated – and then moved back to the relative concealment of the tree. He did the sprint and drag several times.”

When he finally moved Bocks to the tree, he applied a tourniquet to the Marine’s leg, comforting Bocks until he died of his wounds.

“No sooner did White realize that his Marine battle buddy was dead, did he look back to see Schilling get hit again by small arms fire, this time in the leg.” 

White was out of tourniquets, so he took off his belt and tied it around Schilling’s leg. As Schilling’s bleeding began to subside, White noticed that his platoon leader, Ferrara, was lying face down on a trail nearby. 

White crawled to Ferrara under enemy fire, only to discover that he was dead. He moved back to Schilling, and attempted to radio for help. But both of the soldiers’ radios had been destroyed by gunfire. 

White then checked Bocks’ radio, which was still operational, and began relaying instructions “that enabled his company and battalion to understand the enemy and friendly situation well enough to begin bringing mortars, artillery, air strikes, and helicopter gun runs into the fight,” according to the Army report. “This helped prevent the enemy from massing on the friendly positions.” 

As the US military mortars began coming in, White was blasted again – this time by a friendly 120 millimeter mortar round that exploded on the cliff just below him. He suffered another concussion as night fell, but continued to give orders, this time to his interpreter to relay instructions to Afghan soldiers to establish a security perimeter.

During this time, “the enemy was still conducting recon by fire – shooting blindly into the darkness in hopes of having Americans return fire and reveal their location,” the Army report notes.

While White waited for medical evacuation, he reassured Schilling and “consolidated the sensitive items – radios and weapons – in a central location, ensuring that no equipment was lost to the enemy.”

But the effects of the multiple concussions “were weighing on White,” the Army report says. “As he felt his physical condition deteriorating, he decided to request immediate evacuation of Schilling.”

White was concerned that “if he passed out, the helicopters wouldn’t be able to find them,” and Schilling – as well as the wounded Afghan soldiers – could die.

As the helicopters arrived, White exposed himself again to mark a landing zone, and carried wounded troops to the helicopter. “Only after all wounded were off the trail did White allow himself to be evacuated.”

The enemy ambush lasted more than four hours, with six Americans ultimately killed “and many wounded,” the report says. During this time, “White exhibited extraordinary personal bravery distinguishing himself above his comrades.”

For this, US officials announced Tuesday that White – who retired from the Army in 2011 and is now working as an investment analyst in Charlotte, N.C. – will receive the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony on May 13th. He will be the seventh living Medal of Honor recipient, and 14th overall, for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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