Friday, August 1, 2014
When I asked the nation's newest Medal of Honor recipient why he enlisted less than two years after 9/11, his answer was unequivocal.
"I had always wanted to serve from the time I was very young," former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts said.
As a 17-year-old high school student in Nashua, New Hampshire, the future war hero volunteered for the Army as one conflict raged in Afghanistan and another was about to erupt in Iraq.
"It had drifted from my mind somewhat in high school as I just focused on being a teenage boy," Pitts admitted. "But as my senior year drew to a close and I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my future ... I just thought what better way to spend my time than serving my country."
As Pitts spoke during a July 22 media roundtable, I tried to imagine the whirlwind that this 28-year-old veteran was experiencing. Less than 24 hours earlier, the president had placed the Medal of Honor around his neck at the White House. By coincidence, July 21 also marked the second wedding anniversary for Ryan and his wife, Amy.
"I'm taking it one day at a time," Pitts said.
Pitts simultaneously made clear that to him, the ceremonies and pageantry associated with the nation's highest military award were not about celebrating his achievements.
"It's been great this week — at this event — to have all the Gold Star families come in," he said.
"To have the president recognize them, and to be able to talk to all of them, and for them to be able to talk to the people who knew their soldiers. That's really the story of this week."
Nine U.S. paratroopers were killed in the July 13, 2008, Battle of Wanat, which Staff Sgt. Pitts survived. He knew the fallen soldiers, served alongside them, and still mourns them.
"I think about it every day," the Afghanistan war veteran said.
At every turn during the 45-minute discussion, Pitts shifted attention back to his fallen brothers.
"I was there, and I saw some of these guys do what they did, and it's still unbelievable to me," the Medal of Honor recipient said. "It's been uncomfortable being highlighted and recognized."
As President Obama explained at the previous day's White House ceremony, the courage displayed by Pitts and his teammates — while taking fire from 200 insurgents — is astounding.
"The enemy was so close, Ryan could hear their voices," the president said. "He whispered into the radio (that) 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.'
"And then he prepared to make a last stand," President Obama continued. "Bleeding and barely conscious, Ryan threw his last grenades. He grabbed a grenade launcher and fired nearly straight up, so the grenade 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 his teammates said, had it not been for Ryan Pitts, that post 'almost certainly would have been overrun.'"
Pitts, who credited the preparation of his fellow paratroopers for saving lives, also acknowledged that despite his reluctance in accepting an award, he has a unique opportunity to speak on behalf of his fallen Army brothers.
"I absolutely feel a responsibility," he said. "First, to the guys ... the guys who didn't come home ... the guys who can't tell their story."
While his wife, young son and post-military career are huge priorities, Pitts is equally committed to saluting this generation of heroes.
"This is a brotherhood that we've all been a part of," he said. "We think it's incredibly important to remember the guys who didn't make it home, and we're using this time to say their names as much as we can."
Their names are 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, Sgt. Israel Garcia, Cpl. Jonathan Ayers, Cpl. Jason Bogar, Cpl. Jason Hovater, Cpl. Matthew Phillips, Cpl. Pruitt Rainey, Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling and Spc. Sergio Abad.
The name of another American hero, who is dedicating his Medal of Honor to sharing their stories of sacrifice, is Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts.
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BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER is available now. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.