At a ceremony at the White House this afternoon, President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to Staff Sergeant Ryan M. Pitts for his unwavering courage in one of the fiercest battles of the Afghanistan war.
In the summer of 2008, when our forces in Afghanistan were stretched thin across isolated outposts, Ryan was serving alongside 48 American soldiers charged with using little resources to defend a post with significant vulnerabilities. Mountains stood sky-high on every side of the village of Wanat, diverting aerial surveillance and delaying the heavy equipment they needed for their defense.
In the pre-dawn darkness of one fateful July morning, while manning this small, unfinished base, Ryan and his fellow soldiers were attacked by 200 assailants who were determined to take their post. “Those 200 insurgents were firing from ridges and from the village and from trees,” President Obama said. “Down at the base, a vehicle exploded—scattering its missiles, back at our soldiers. It was, said a soldier, ‘hell on earth.’”
Pounded by the relentless attack, every soldier was wounded almost instantaneously. Bleeding from the arm and both his legs, Ryan, at 22 years old, was the last man standing between the insurgents and his base. In his remarks, President Obama described how Ryan’s heroic acts helped not only prevent the fall of his post but save lives of his fellow soldiers:
As the insurgents moved in, Ryan picked up a grenade, pulled the pin, and held that live grenade—for a moment, then another, then another—finally hurling it so they couldn’t throw it back. Then he did it again. And again. Unable to stand, Ryan pulled himself up on his knees and manned a machine gun. Soldiers from the base below made a daring run—dodging bullets and explosions—and joined the defense. But now the enemy was inside the post—so close they were throwing rocks at the Americans; so close they came right up to the sandbags. Eight American soldiers had now fallen. And Ryan Pitts was the only living soldier at that post.
Soon, the enemy was so close Ryan could hear their voices. He whispered into the radio—he was the only one left and was running out of ammo. “I was going to die,” he remembers, “and made my peace with it.” The he prepared to make a last stand. Bleeding, barely conscious, Ryan threw his last grenades. He grabbed a grenade launcher and fired—nearly straight up, so the grenades came back down on the enemy just yards away. One insurgent was now right on top of the post, shooting down—until another team of Americans showed up and drove him back. As one of his teammates said, had it not been for Ryan Pitts, that post “almost certainly would have been overrun.”
But even with those reinforcements, the battle was not over. Another wave of rocket-propelled grenades slammed into the post. Nine American soldiers were now gone. Still, the fighting raged. Ryan worked the radio, helping target the air strikes that were hitting “danger-close”—just yards away. And with those strikes the tide of the battle began to turn. Eventually, the insurgents fell back. Ryan and his fellow soldiers had held their ground.
Ryan’s steadfast bravery and selfless dedication to his brothers-in-arms exemplifies the quintessential strength of America’s servicemen and women. To Ryan, the Medal does not belong to him alone but serves as a tribute to all who fought with valor that day and as “a memorial for the guys who didn’t come home.” Today, the President honored the nine men who made the ultimate sacrifice for us all that day in Wanat:
The son who “absorbed love like a sponge”; the expectant father whose dream would later come true: a beautiful baby girl—Specialist Sergio Abad.
The boy who dominated the soccer field, fell in love with motorcycles, and there in that remote outpost took a direct hit in the helmet and kept on fighting—Corporal Jonathan Ayers.
The photographer whose pictures captured the spirit of the Afghan people, and who wrote to his family: “Afghanistan is exactly [where]…I wanted to be”—Corporal Jason Bogar.
The father who loved surfing with his son; the platoon leader who led a dash through the gunfire to that post to reinforce his men—1st Lieutenant Jonathan Brostrom.
An immigrant from Mexico who became a proud American soldier, on his third tour, whose final thoughts were of his family and his beloved wife Lesly—Sergeant Israel Garcia.
A young man of deep faith, who served God and country, who could always get a laugh with his impersonations of his commander—Corporal Jason Hovater.
The husband who couldn’t wait to become an uncle; the adventurous spirit who in every photo from Afghanistan had a big smile on his face—Corporal Matthew Phillips.
The big guy with an even bigger heart; the prankster whose best play was cleaning up at the poker table with his buddies and his dad—Corporal Pruitt Rainey.
And the youngest, just 20 years old, the “little brother” of the platoon, who loved to play guitar, and who, says his dad, did everything in life with passion—Corporal Gunnar Zwilling.
“Their legacy lives on in the hearts of all who love them still, especially their families,” the President said. “Mothers. Fathers. Wives. Brothers and sisters. Sons and daughters.” For Ryan, who is celebrating his two-year anniversary today with his wife Amy and his one-year-old son Lucas, that is the story he wants people to remember: “Soldiers who loved each other like brothers and who fought for each other; families who have made a sacrifice that our nation must never forget. ‘I think we owe it to them,’ he says, to ‘live lives worthy of their sacrifice.’”
The President reflected on the lessons we learned from Ryan and those who fought in the battle of Wanat:
When this nation sends our troops into harm’s way, they deserve a sound strategy and a well-defined mission. They deserve the forces and support to get the job done. That is what we owe soldiers like Ryan and all the comrades that were lost. That is how we can truly honor all those who gave their lives that day. That is how, as a nation, we can remain worthy of their sacrifice. I know that’s a view that’s shared by our Secretary of Defense, our Joint Chiefs of Staff, and all the leadership here. They’re hard lessons, but they’re ones that are deeply engrained in our hearts.
It is remarkable that we have young men and women serving in our military who, day in and day out, are able to perform with so much integrity, so much ability, so much courage. Ryan represents the very best of that tradition and we are very, very proud of him as we are of all of you.
So God bless you, Ryan. God bless all who serve in our name. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.