Medal of Honor: Wounded and alone, 'one American held the line'

Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts was awarded America’s most revered military decoration, the Medal of Honor, for his remarkable valor in one of the bloodiest battles of the 13-year war in Afghanistan.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Obama bestows the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest decoration for battlefield valor, to Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts who fought off enemy fighters during one of the bloodiest battles of the Afghanistan war despite his own critical injuries, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, July 21, 2014.

With a commendation citing his remarkable valor in one of the bloodiest battles of the 13-year war in Afghanistan, Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts on Monday became only the ninth living recipient of America’s most revered military decoration, the Medal of Honor.

It was on the final mission of Chosen Company’s 14-month deployment to northeastern Afghanistan – a violent and volatile tour of duty for the soldiers who had consistently battled insurgents in the area throughout 2007 and 2008 – that Pitts’ bravery became a permanent part of American military lore. 

His “little post was on the verge of falling, giving the enemy a perch to devastate the base below,” President Obama noted while presenting the medal at the White House Monday afternoon. “Against that onslaught, one American held the line.” 

In the days before the now legendary 2008 battle, Pitts’ combat outpost, COP Bella, had been slated to close. There were a couple of reasons for this decision, according to an Army report, which cited in particular the “pervasive lack of cooperation from the traditional village leaders nearby.” 

Now the company was moving to Wanat, the site of a new district government center. Bringing more US troops into the town, US commanders hoped, “would foster relationships with the local government officials and improve goodwill with the local population.”

But first the soldiers had to get there. Intelligence analysts warned that they were receiving “reports of large enemy forces massing in the Waygal valley, who planned to attack COP Bella as forces withdrew.” 

Under the cover of darkness July 8, Chosen Company airlifted a platoon out of COP Bella to begin setting up a new base in Wanat. They called it vehicle patrol base (VPB) Kahler, in honor of Sgt. First Class Matthew Kahler, a former platoon sergeant who had been killed. 

VPB Kahler was roughly the size of a football field. On July 13, US troops were called to man their defensive positions in anticipation of an enemy attack at 4 a.m. – just before dawn being “the most likely time of attack.”

Sergeant Pitts, a forward observer, was positioned at “Topside,” an observation post for the small post that was built to observe enemy avenues of approach into Wanat. The problem was that “it had no direct lines of sight to the north, where the ground fell away into a tree-filled ravine” 10 yards past Topside. 

As a result, an Army report noted, Topside “had considerable dead space,” which in military parlance is an area that could not be seen by US troops. “Any enemy in this dead space could enter [a nearby] hotel complex undetected,” the report noted.

And this is precisely what happened at 4:20 a.m. on July 8, 2008, when “the valley erupted in enemy fire,” according to the Army report. “An estimated 200 enemy fighters launched a full-scale assault.” The insurgents had infiltrated Wanat, setting up firing positions and weapons caches in the town’s bazaar, mosque, homes, and the hotel complex.

All of the US paratroopers at Topside were wounded – and two were killed immediately – by the first volley of fire. Sergeant Pitts had been hit by grenade shrapnel in both legs and his left arm. Stunned by the blast, Pitts recovered and crawled to a wounded fellow soldier, who applied a tourniquet to Pitts’ right leg. 

Since the enemy was clearly in hand-grenade range – roughly 50 feet away – Pitts scrambled to Topside’s grenade storage area. “Despite the risk of running into a short fuse, Pitts started ‘cooking off’ grenades, letting them burn for several seconds before he threw them,” according to the report. “By using this tactic, Pitts put himself at risk, but ensured the blasts were concentrated towards the enemy.”

Even as he was throwing grenades, he was calling in a situation report to his company commander, informing him of casualties and enemy locations.

Unable to stand because of his injuries – and determining that he needed to conserve grenades – he began blind-firing a machine gun over waist-high sandbags. “With the machine gun to provide momentary cover, [Pitts] then propped himself up on his knees to fire over the wall.” 

He was all alone, without any other fellow troops to provide momentary cover. “Pitts repeatedly fired until the gun jammed, then cleared the malfunction, and loaded more ammunition.”

US troops had been scattered and were fighting for their lives, but Pitts realized just before 5 a.m. that he could no longer hear fire coming from within the outpost.

“Realizing he was probably alone, and not wanting to reveal his position to the enemy, Pitts crawled silently from his position to the southernmost edge of the perimeter, checking to see if anyone was still alive,” the report said.

He discovered that “all of the paratroopers still with him in the OP [outpost] were dead.” Some others had moved to the casualty collection point hoping to be evacuated. The reinforcing troops, as well as two others from his platoon, had been killed while setting up a defensive perimeter.

“Alone and losing blood,” Pitts radioed his company commander to tell him the news, only to be told that reinforcements were not available. “At this point,” the Army report notes, “the insurgents were in such close proximity to Pitts that soldiers at the command post, and those listening in on the channel, could hear enemy voices through the radio.” 

It was upon hearing this news that Pitts “resigned himself to certain death, but remained determined to do as much damage as possible to the enemy before they overwhelmed the OP [outpost].”

Pitts grabbed a grenade launcher and began firing it “almost directly overhead, straight up,” so that the grenades would detonate “just on the other side of the perimeter, where the insurgents had concealed themselves.”

He called over the radio for any US soldiers within listening distance to begin firing directly over the sandbags at his position. This placed his own life in mortal danger, but by doing this Pitts hoped to “knock the enemy back if they breached the wall,” so that enemy forces could not lay claim to having overrun a US outpost. One soldier answered the call, “and began laying down fire directly over Pitts.”

At last, four soldiers were able to reinforce Topside, and “found Pitts fighting for his life.” One soldier began administering first aid to Pitts just as another round of explosions rocked the outpost, mortally wounding one of these soldiers. While the remaining soldiers sought once again to secure the outpost’s perimeter despite their injuries, Pitts crawled to the mortally wounded soldier, comforting him while awaiting evacuation. 

At the same time, “despite being nearly unconscious, Pitts continued to communicate with headquarters, providing needed feedback [to headquarters] as he called in the first helicopter attack run.” This strike took place just over 30 yards from US troops, while other soldiers rushed in to begin clearing the town and adjacent hillsides.

Finally, at approximately 6:15 “after fighting for more than an hour while critically wounded,” Pitts was evacuated for medical attention. 

Were it not for his actions, “the enemy would have gained a foothold on high ground and inflicted significantly greater casualties,” the Army report notes, “and the enemy could have been in possession of seven fallen Americans.”

The reinforcements continued the battle for several more hours. “A few days later, Chosen Company left the village of Wanat,” the Army report notes. It had become clear to commanders that “the same elders who welcomed them had betrayed them.”

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