WASHINGTON — A former paratrooper who became the sole survivor of an Afghanistan outpost under heavy attack in 2008, choosing to fight on to the death with the bodies of six U.S. soldiers around him, survived to receive the Medal of Honor Monday in a White House ceremony.
"Against this onslaught, one American held the line, bloody but unbowed," President Barack Obama said Monday of Sgt. Ryan Pitts. The soldier, who was 22 at the time, exemplified the virtues of integrity, humility and courage, the president said.
"For me, this was a team effort," Pitts told the Army Times. "I'm going to receive it. But it's not going to be mine. We did it together. No one guy carried that day."
Pitts received a medical discharge from the Army in 2009 and lives with his wife, Amy, and 1-year-old son, Lucas, in Nashua, N.H., where he works for a computer software company.
His wife and son, with dozens of other current or former soldiers who fought with him, stood by in the East Room of the White House on Monday as Obama draped the medal around Pitts' neck. It was Pitts' second wedding anniversary.
He is the ninth living recipient of the award from either the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. Sixteen of the medals have been awarded in the conflicts for recipients living or dead.
Pitts is the second soldier from the small unit he served with in Afghanistan — Chosen Company — to receive the honor. A Medal of Honor went to Kyle White in April for heroism during an ambush Nov. 9, 2007, that left six Americans and three Afghan soldiers killed.
Pitts and his fellow paratroopers were only a few weeks or days from going home after a 15-month deployment when they fought on July 13, 2008, to defend a partially completed combat base adjacent to the village of Wanat in northeastern Afghanistan.
An estimated force of 200 to 300 Taliban fighters using machines guns, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire raked the compound defended by fewer than 50 Americans and a contingent of Afghan soldiers, according to an Army account.
The paratroopers had established an observation outpost on a ridge east of the base manned by Pitts, who was a sergeant at the time, and eight other soldiers.
The Taliban concentrated considerable fire on this location. Six men were killed in the action, including a platoon lieutenant and an Army specialist who had raced through enemy fire to reinforce the outpost. After other troops evacuated, Pitts found himself alone.
He fought on, denying enemy attackers the outpost position from where they could pour more fire directly into the base below.
"Pitts resigned himself to certain death, but remained determined to do as much damage as possible to the enemy before they overwhelmed the OP (observation post)," reads an Army account.
Obama called it one of the fiercest battles of the entire war in Afghanistan.
Enemy fighters were so close that other U.S. forces listening to Pitts communicating on the radio could hear their voices in the background, the account says.
"He (Pitts) whispered into the radio, 'I'm the only one left behind," Obama said.
The paratrooper "cooked off grenades" before lobbing them — meaning he held onto them after pulling the pin, allowing a fuse to burn down so that Taliban fighters would not be able to throw them back.
He also fired a rifle-mounted grenade launcher almost straight up in the air so the explosives would come down just a short distance away, where Taliban were concealed.
Ultimately, four other paratroopers from the combat base below reached him to help defend the outpost. Air support arrived and eventually ground reinforcements to drive back the Taliban. In all, nine paratroopers were killed that day and 27 wounded.