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Retired CSM receives Medal of Honor for grueling 38-hour struggle in jungle

By DAVID VERGUN, Army News Service &
NICK DUKE, Fort Benning Bayonet & Saber

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins and Spc. 4 Donald P. Sloat were awarded Medals of Honor by President Barack Obama yesterday during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. Adkins was present to receive his medal and Sloat’s was awarded posthumously. Dr. Bill Sloat, Donald’s brother, accepted it on his behalf.

“Normally, the Medal of Honor must be awarded within a few years of the action. But sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the fog of war or the passage of time,” Obama said. “Yet, when new evidence comes to light, certain actions can be reconsidered for this honor, and it is entirely right and proper that we have done so.”

President Barack Obama bestows the Medal of Honor to retired Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins in the East Room of the White House, Sept. 15, 2014. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller)
President Barack Obama bestows the Medal of Honor to retired Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins in the East Room of the White House, Sept. 15, 2014. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller)

The nation’s highest award for valor in combat was presented for Adkins’ actions during 38 hours of close-combat fighting against enemy forces March 9–12, 1966, near Camp A Shau, Vietnam.

Adkins, now 80 and a resident of Opelika, Ala., said it was not just his actions that were valorous during that time, but also the actions of his fellow Soldiers.

“What I attribute this to is not my actions, but the actions of the other 16 Americans who were with us in the battle at Camp A Shau, and especially the five who paid the ultimate price,” Adkins said. “All of the 17 Americans who were present in this battle were awarded some type of recognition for valor. Valor was something that was just there with us. All of those 17 American Special Forces Soldiers were wounded, most of us multiple times.”

 

‘So many acts of bravery we actually don’t have time to talk about all of them’

Adkins was drafted into the Army in December 1956, and eventually volunteered for Special Forces in 1961.

“I had an assignment in a garrison-type unit, and I found out that was not for me,” he said. “I wanted something in the field, and I wanted to be in one of the elite units. At that period in time, it seemed that the Special Forces was the most elite unit. I was not satisfied until I had become a member of that organization.”

Adkins went on to serve three tours in Vietnam. His second tour, from September 1965 to September 1966, saw Adkins serve at Camp A Shau.

According to the battle narrative, Adkins was serving as an intelligence sergeant with Detachment A-102, 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces, when a large North Vietnamese force attacked Camp A Shau, in the early morning hours of March 9. Adkins and his comrades were bombarded with mortars and white phosphorus, Obama related during the ceremony.

“It was nearly impossible to move without being wounded or killed,” Obama said. “But Bennie ran into enemy fire again and again to retrieve supplies and ammo, to carry the wounded to safety, to man the mortar pit — holding off wave after wave of enemy assaults. Three times, explosions blasted him out of that mortar pit, and three times, he returned.

“I have to be honest. In a battle and daring escape that lasted four days, Bennie performed so many acts of bravery we actually don’t have time to talk about all of them,” Obama said.

On the first day, Bennie was helping load a wounded American onto a helicopter. An enemy soldier jumped in the helicopter and aimed his weapon directly at the wounded soldier, preparing to shoot. “Bennie stepped in, shielded his comrade, placing himself directly in the line of fire, helping to save his wounded comrade,” Obama said.

Adkins receives the Purple Heart during his tour in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)
Adkins receives the Purple Heart during his tour in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

At another point in the battle, Adkins and a few other soldiers were trapped in a mortar pit, “covered in shrapnel and smoking debris,” Obama said. Their only exit was blocked by enemy machine-gun fire. “So, Bennie thought fast,” the president said. “He dug a hole out of the pit and snuck out the other side. As another American escaped through that hole, he was shot in the leg. An enemy soldier charged him, hoping to capture a live POW, and Bennie fired, taking out that enemy and pulling his fellow American to safety.”

“It was just not my time that day,” Adkins said in an interview before the ceremony. “I was blown from the mortar pit on several occasions, and I was fortunate enough to go outside the camp amongst the enemy and get one of our wounded medevaced out. I also made a trip into the minefield to recover some supplies that were air dropped to us. The bottom line is that it was just not my day to go.”

By the third day of battle, Adkins and a few others had managed to escape into the jungle. “He had cuts and wounds all over his body, but he refused to be evacuated,” Obama said. “When a rescue helicopter arrived, Bennie insisted that others go instead. And so, on the third night, Bennie, wounded and bleeding, found himself with his men up on that jungle hill, exhausted and surrounded, with the enemy closing in. And after all they had been through, as if it weren’t enough, there was something more — you can’t make this up — there in the jungle, they heard the growls of a tiger.”

“It was too late and too high of an altitude for another helicopter, so we had to evade the enemy,” Adkins said. “This was the night that it looked like they had run us down. The North Vietnamese soldiers had us surrounded on a little hilltop, and everything started getting kind of quiet. We could look around and all at once, all we could see were eyes going around us. It was a tiger that stalked us that night. We were all bloody and in this jungle, the tiger stalked us, and the North Vietnamese soldiers were more afraid of the tiger than they were of us. So, they backed off some and we were (able to escape).”

“It turns out that tiger might have been the best thing that happened to Bennie,” Obama said during the ceremony.

Adkins’ wife of 59 years, Mary, said she heard stories of the battle the next day.

“I had two little boys who were just starting school,” she said. “I got up one morning to get them ready for school and when I got up, I turned the TV on. They were telling about a battle on the national news and about Soldiers going through the jungle with a tiger in the middle of them and the Vietnamese, and I don’t know what it was, but something just told me that it was him. I think it was about two days later that I got the telegram saying that he was lost and they hadn’t found him. About a day or two later, I got another telegram saying that he was found, but they didn’t know what condition he was in. The next one I got said that he was in this hospital and he was doing fine.”

 

‘It is not a faint memory’

During the 38-hour battle and subsequent 48 hours of escape and evasion, Adkins fought with mortars, machine guns, recoilless rifles, small arms and hand grenades, killing an estimated 135–175 of the enemy, and suffering 18 different wounds.

Despite the 48 years that have passed, Adkins said the memories of what happened in the jungles of Vietnam are still vivid.

“It is not a faint memory,” he said. “I can tell you every man who was there and the five who lost their lives. I can tell you how that happened. It diminishes, but it does not go away. I really feel that most of the Soldiers today experience some degree of [post-traumatic stress]. We have ways of treating this, and my way of treating this was more work, more family and talking about it.”

Adkins, who says he’s a “young 80” now, said the reality of receiving the Medal of Honor has not yet set in.

“It’s something hard to grasp and realize that, during this period of time from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s been somewhere between 28 and 30 million who have served in the military,” he said. “To date, we have 79 living recipients of the Medal of Honor. If I can make it … I’ll be number 80.”

After his military career, Adkins went on to establish Adkins Accounting Service in Auburn, Ala., and served as CEO for 22 years. He also taught night classes at Southern Union Junior College and Auburn University, all of which he attributed to lessons learned during his Army career.

“The military teaches a competency and a desire to do the best you can at whatever you do, and I carried that on in my teaching and the businesses I operated,” he said. “Whether (Soldiers are) a one-time Soldier or a career Soldier, they should absolutely do the best they can and accomplish the most that they desire to accomplish.”

NCO to be awarded the Medal of Honor: ‘There was valor everywhere’

By LISA FERDINANDO,
Army News Service

Facing almost certain death during an enemy assault in Afghanistan, a gravely injured Ryan Pitts, then a sergeant, fiercely fought on, keeping an observation post and fallen Soldiers around him from ending up in enemy hands.

For his incredible bravery in Wanat, Afghanistan, on July 13, 2008, Pitts will receive the nation’s highest military honor for valor, the Medal of Honor, at the White House on July 21.

Then-Sgt. Ryan Pitts (left) and Sgt. Israel Garcia patrol the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in 2008. Garcia was among the nine Soldiers killed in the battle at Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler on July 13, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts)
Then-Sgt. Ryan Pitts (left) and Sgt. Israel Garcia patrol the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in 2008. Garcia was among the nine Soldiers killed in the battle at Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler on July 13, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts)

During that attack in Afghanistan at Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler and Observation Post Topside, nine of Pitts’ teammates were killed. He said his honor is theirs as well.

“This award isn’t about what I did; it’s about what we did as a team,” Pitts said. “It belongs to everybody who was there that day.”

Though he had suffered severe shrapnel wounds and was unable to use his legs, Pitts is credited with preventing the enemy from inflicting further casualties and from gaining possession of the fallen Soldiers.

“The fight was intense everywhere,” said Pitts, who now lives in Nashua, N.H.

At one point in the battle, Pitts heard no sounds coming out of the observation post where he was positioned. The then-22-year-old forward observer came to a startling realization: He was alone; all the Soldiers around him were dead or gone.

He radioed the command post, only to be told that there was no one to send. The fighting raged with Soldiers locked elsewhere in intense battle.

“I wasn’t angry,” Pitts recalled. “I’m not angry about it now.”

The enemy was so close that Pitts could hear them talking. In fact, the Soldiers listening to Pitts’ communications could hear the enemy. This was the end, Pitts thought.

He put the hand mike down.

“I basically reconciled that I was going to die, and made my peace with it,” he said. “My personal goal was to just to try and take as many of them with me, before they got me.”

The attack began just before dawn, at around 4:20 a.m., with a burst of machine-gun fire. It then opened up into a full-scale assault that targeted the base’s key defensive weapons systems and positions.

“It’s hard to feel good about anything that day,” said Pitts, who at the time was serving with “Chosen” Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, out of Vicenza, Italy. Their unit was nicknamed the “Chosen Few.”

“We lost nine family members,” he said during an at-times emotional interview. His wife Amy listened nearby, sometimes in tears.

The fallen were brothers to him, he said, naming each one: Spc. Sergio Abad, Cpl. Jonathan Ayers, Cpl. Jason Bogar, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, Sgt. Israel Garcia, Cpl. Jason Hovater, Cpl. Matthew Phillips, Cpl. Pruitt Rainey, and Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling.

‘I was going. I had my mind set.’

In his home in Nashua, N.H., on May 3, 2014, Pitts, who is to receive the Medal of Honor for combat actions in Afghanistan, holds the flag that his grandfather flew every day while Pitts served in the Army. (Photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
In his home in Nashua, N.H., on May 3, 2014, Pitts, who is to receive the Medal of Honor for combat actions in Afghanistan, holds the flag that his grandfather flew every day while Pitts served in the Army. (Photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Pitts, who is from New Hampshire, recalled how as a kindergartener he drew a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up: a Soldier.

He enlisted in January 2003, even before he had graduated high school.

“I wanted to do something meaningful, and I wanted to serve my country. So I decided to join the Army,” he said. “Everybody supported me but nobody really liked the decision. It was just me. But I was going. I had my mind set.”

Family and friends were “unbelievably supportive,” he said. They wrote, sent care packages, and kept in touch while he was deployed and made time to see him when he was home on leave.

“My grandfather did his own thing. He put a flag up when I joined the Army, and he flew it until the day I was out. He never took it down,” Pitts said.

Pitts, who went on to get a business degree and lives in a quiet neighborhood with his wife and their one-year-old-son Lucas, keeps the neatly folded, worn flag on display at home.

Service and sacrifice

Receiving the Medal of Honor is a heavy burden; every Soldier that day fought with all they had, some to the death, Pitts said.

“They were great men. But there are service members everywhere, men and women, who would do the same thing that we all did that day,” he said.

From left, Sgt. Matthew Gobble, Pitts, then-Sgt. Adam Delaney, Sgt. Dylan Meyer, Sgt. Brian Hissong, Sgt. Mike Santiago and Sgt. Israel Garcia, all of 2nd Platoon, "Chosen" Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, pause for a photo before going out on patrol at Forward Operating Base Blessing, Nangalam, Afghanistan, in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts)
From left, Sgt. Matthew Gobble, Pitts, then-Sgt. Adam Delaney, Sgt. Dylan Meyer, Sgt. Brian Hissong, Sgt. Mike Santiago and Sgt. Israel Garcia, all of 2nd Platoon, “Chosen” Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, pause for a photo before going out on patrol at Forward Operating Base Blessing, Nangalam, Afghanistan, in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts)

The nine fallen Soldiers “fought until their last breath because they cared more about their friends than themselves,” he said.

Pitts, who married Amy two years ago and had a son last year, said he wouldn’t have his family if it weren’t for the service and sacrifice of the Soldiers who fought that day in Wanat. He is alive today because of them, he said. The Soldiers trained and served together, lived together, shared stories, and laughed and joked together. They were like brothers, Pitts said.

“We were a family. We had become a family over the course of 14 months in combat. We trained for a year before that,” he said.

“That day was a bad day for all of us,” Pitts said. He was on his second combat tour of Afghanistan the time of the attack.

Pitts wants his son and the world to know about the men who made the ultimate sacrifice that day — the fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers; the heroes.

Pitts thinks of the lost Soldiers every day, he said. Their names and the names of other fallen Soldiers are inscribed on a memorial table at his home.

“Rest in peace my Brothers, you have not been forgotten,” the table reads.

American troops arrive in Wanat

U.S. forces had arrived days earlier to establish the vehicle patrol base in Wanat, a remote village in Afghanistan’s rugged northeast near the border with Pakistan. Under the cover of darkness, July 8–9, Chosen Company airlifted its 1st Platoon out of the nearby Combat Outpost Bella. The 2nd Platoon left Forward Operating Base Blessing, the main base for their battalion in the area.

For Pitts and his team, the mission was expected to be their last before returning home — they’d already been in Afghanistan for 14 months. The location was selected so Soldiers could be near the people to build relations and foster goodwill, instead of being in a location farther from the village that would also be harder to supply, Pitts said.

From left, Spc. William Hewitt, Cpl. Jonathan R. Ayers and Spc. Chris McKaig pull security at Observation Post 1 near Combat Outpost Bella, Afghanistan, in the spring of 2008. (Photo courtesy Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts)
From left, Spc. William Hewitt, Cpl. Jonathan R. Ayers and Spc. Chris McKaig pull security at Observation Post 1 near Combat Outpost Bella, Afghanistan, in the spring of 2008. (Photo courtesy Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts)

“I think our commanders’ intent was to be close to the local populace where we could hopefully help protect them and make an impact and better their lives,” he said.

The location was on a plateau where two valleys met and had considerable dead space, or areas that could not be observed from the base. Roughly the size of a football field, the base was named in honor of Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Kahler of 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Kahler, a platoon sergeant, died Jan. 26, 2008, after being shot by an Afghan guard in Waygul, Afghanistan. It was a huge loss for the Soldiers, said Pitts, who was wearing a KIA bracelet in memory of Kahler the day of the attack in Wanat. Pockmarks from shrapnel are visible on the bracelet.

Kahler was a great leader who loved his Soldiers, Pitts said.

“We would have followed him anywhere,” Pitts said. “He was one of those leaders, he didn’t tell us to do things. He asked. You wanted to do it, whatever it was, for him.”

Soldiers worked in the scorching heat in Wanat to establish the new base, which they hoped would become Combat Outpost Kahler. However, that never happened as the Army left Wanat shortly after the attack. The Combined Joint Task Force-101 commander determined that coalition forces could no longer achieve their counterinsurgency objectives there due to complicity in the attack by local government officials, civilians, and Afghan National Police.

The valley erupts in fire

The view from the northern fighting position of Observation Post Topside, facing to the north and northeast. Shown here is the “dead space” where the enemy attacked just below the terraces. The building in the distance was used as an enemy fighting position during the Battle for Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler on July 14, 2008. (Photo courtesy Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts)
The view from the northern fighting position of Observation Post Topside, facing to the north and northeast. Shown here is the “dead space” where the enemy attacked just below the terraces. The building in the distance was used as an enemy fighting position during the Battle for Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler on July 14, 2008. (Photo courtesy Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts)

The morning of the attack, Pitts was at Observation Post Topside, a lookout and defensive position to the east of the main base, with eight other paratroopers: Ayers, Bogar, Sgt. Matthew Gobble, Pfc. Chris McKaig, Phillips, Rainey, Spc. Tyler Stafford and Zwilling.

Up before dawn, they noticed suspicious activity in the mountains to the west. Pitts and Gobble were preparing a request for indirect fire (mortar or artillery support), but before they could finish, the “valley erupted,” Pitts said.

“The battle started with a burst of machine gun fire from the north. Then it just opened up,” he said.

An estimated 200 insurgents launched a full-scale assault against the base, targeting the mortar-firing position, the vehicles with the TOW (tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided) missile system, and the observation post.

“RPGs on top of RPGs — rocket-propelled grenades — hand grenades, every position was assaulted pretty heavily,” Pitts said.

The paratroopers at the observation post were hit with small arms fire, RPGs and hand grenades thrown at close range by insurgents. Everyone in the observation post was wounded — several were killed — in the first volley of fire. Pitts suffered grenade shrapnel wounds in both legs and his left arm.

Pitts, who was unable to use his legs and bleeding profusely, crawled into positions and used hand grenades, a machine gun, a grenade launcher — any weapon available — to keep the enemy at bay. He fought alongside members of his unit who were defending or reinforcing the observation post.

The enemy was close enough to toss grenades at the Soldiers. Pitts started “cooking off” grenades, letting them burn for a few seconds before tossing them, putting himself in danger but not allowing the enemy time to toss them back.

With the remaining paratroopers at the observation post fighting for their lives, Pitts was the only contact between the command post and the observation post — the only person left capable of controlling indirect fire support.

The southern battle position within OP Topside, established as a casualty collection point because it was the area most secure from enemy fire. (Photo courtesy of Sgt. Ryan Pitts)
The southern battle position within OP Topside, established as a casualty collection point because it was the area most secure from enemy fire. (Photo courtesy of Sgt. Ryan Pitts)

Brostrom and Hovater maneuvered through direct enemy fire from the vehicle patrol base’s main perimeter to reinforce the observation post. Then there was silence from inside the post; suddenly, Pitts realized he was alone. While some Soldiers had moved to other locations, those who remained at the observation post or had come to reinforce the post had all been killed.

Pitts crawled from position to position, seeing fallen comrades all around him.

“I crawled back to the northern position and I’m trying to figure out what to do. It was probably just a couple of seconds, but it felt like forever,” he said.

When he called the company commander at the command post, Capt. Matthew Myer, for reinforcements, Pitts was told there was no one to send.

“And I said, ‘OK, well, you either send people or this position is going to fall.’ And then I just put the hand mike down,” Pitts said, noting at that point he made peace with the fact that he might just die there.

Then he used an M-203 grenade launcher and fired almost directly overhead, so the grenades would detonate just on the other side of the perimeter where the enemy was concealed.

Pitts called on the radio for any Soldier with a sight line of the observation post to begin firing over the sandbag wall at his position, to knock the enemy back if they breached the wall. Sgt. Brian Hissong answered that call, laying down fire directly over Pitts.

Then, four Soldiers — Garcia, Spc. Michael Denton, Staff Sgt. Sean Samaroo, and Spc. Jacob Sones — came from the casualty collect point and the traffic-control point to reinforce the observation post. They found Pitts fighting for his life.

“I heard them and probably [had] never been more relieved in my life then when I heard those guys,” Pitts said.

Pitts holds a bracelet he wears that commemorates the late Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Kahler, a former platoon sergeant of 2nd platoon, which is taped over another bracelet (not visible) that commemorates the fallen of 1st Platoon, "Chosen" Company, who were killed in a Nov. 9, 2007, ambush. The bracelets prevented shrapnel from penetrating Pitts' wrist. (Photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
Pitts holds a bracelet he wears that commemorates the late Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Kahler, a former platoon sergeant of 2nd platoon, which is taped over another bracelet (not visible) that commemorates the fallen of 1st Platoon, “Chosen” Company, who were killed in a Nov. 9, 2007, ambush. The bracelets prevented shrapnel from penetrating Pitts’ wrist. (Photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Sones was initially able to treat Pitts before another round of explosions rocked the observation post, mortally wounding Garcia.

Pitts crawled to Garcia to comfort him.

“Garcia was lying in the area between the north and south position; he was hurt real bad. I think that was the first time that I really just didn’t know what to do,” Pitts said. “So I just talked to him. We didn’t talk a lot. I held his hand, he wanted to try and sit up.

“He said to me that he just wanted me to tell his family and his wife that he loved them. I told him that I would, and I did when we got back,” Pitts recalled. “I don’t know how long we sat there, maybe a couple of minutes, maybe not, might have been 30 seconds.”

Soon after, attack helicopters arrived to provide close air support.

Despite being nearly unconscious, Pitts continued to communicate with headquarters, providing needed feedback to Myer as he called in the first helicopter attack run that engaged insurgents north of the observation post. That strike took pressure off the Soldiers at the main base, allowing a third group of reinforcements from the vehicle patrol base to secure the observation post.

Now, reinforcements from Forward Operating Base Blessing began arriving and clearing enemy positions within the town and hillsides.

Throughout the battle, despite the loss of blood and severity of his wounds, Pitts’ incredible toughness, determination and ability to communicate with leadership while under fire allowed U.S. forces to hold the observation post and turn the tide of the battle.

Without his ability to stay alert and fight while critically wounded, the enemy would have gained a foothold on high ground, inflicted significantly greater causalities onto the vehicle patrol base and could have gained possession of the fallen Soldiers at the observation post.

At approximately 6:15 a.m., about two hours after the assault began, Pitts was medically evacuated, beginning the recovery that soon took him back to the United States.

Feeling he could no longer do what he wanted to do, which was fight, he chose to leave the Army and was medically discharged in 2009 with the rank of staff sergeant.

From the Soldiers he fought beside to the medical evacuation pilots who landed right after the observation post was hit by an RPG — “I honestly don’t understand how that helicopter wasn’t hit,” he said — everyone that day gave everything they had in the fight, Pitts said.

“I’m in awe of everything they did that day — everything that everybody did, not just the guys who were killed,” he said. “There was valor everywhere.”

NCO to receive Medal of Honor in July for combat actions in Afghanistan

By ARMY NEWS SERVICE

The White House announced today that former Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts will receive the Medal of Honor for his combat actions during an enemy engagement in Wanat in the Waygal Valley of northeastern Afghanistan on July 13, 2008.

Then-Sgt. Ryan Pitts of "Chosen Company," 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, takes a break from building a traffic control point northeast of Combat Outpost Bella, Afghanistan, in the spring of 2008. The traffic control point was on the road from COP Bella to Aranas, Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)
Then-Sgt. Ryan Pitts of “Chosen Company,” 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, takes a break from building a traffic control point northeast of Combat Outpost Bella, Afghanistan, in the spring of 2008. The traffic control point was on the road from COP Bella to Aranas, Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

President Barack Obama will present the Medal of Honor to Pitts during a ceremony at the White House on July 21, 2014.

Pitts will be the ninth living recipient to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. The White House says Pitts and his family will join the president at the White House to commemorate his example of selfless service.

Pitts served with 2nd Platoon, “Chosen” Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade.

The White House notes that Pitts’ personal awards include the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device, Purple Heart Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal with three Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters, Army Achievement Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal with Bronze Clasp and two Loops, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with two Campaign Stars, Global War on Terrorism Medal, Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development Ribbon, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon with numeral “4”, NATO Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, Valorous Unit Award, Combat Action Badge, Pathfinder Badge and Parachutist Badge.

In the summer of 2008, Pitts, then a sergeant, and his team were part of Operation “Rock Move,” meant to transfer remaining forces and capability from Combat Outpost Bella to a new location on the outskirts of Wanat village. The new position was Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler; COP Bella was to be closed.

The mission was expected to be the last for the Soldiers before returning home — they’d been in Afghanistan for 14 months.

On the morning of July 13, at about 4 a.m., Pitts was manning Observation Post Topside, which was positioned east of the main base, and east of a bazaar and hotel complex in Wanat.

Shortly after, Soldiers conducting surveillance identified potential insurgents. They put together a request for fire. But before that could happen, at about 4:20 a.m, Soldiers heard machine-gun fire from the north. After that, the valley erupted in enemy fire.

Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts
Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts

Soldiers at OP Topside were hit with small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades. Pitts and six other paratroopers at OP Topside were injured in the initial volley of enemy fire, and two paratroopers were killed. Pitts took grenade shrapnel in both legs and his left arm.

For more than an hour after, Pitts continued to fight and defend his position and his teammates, despite his injuries.

Throughout the battle, despite the loss of blood and severity of his wounds, Pitts’ incredible toughness, determination and ability to communicate with leadership while under fire allowed U.S. forces to hold the observation post and turn the tide of the battle.

Without his ability to stay alert and fight while critically wounded, the enemy would have gained a foothold on high ground and inflicted significantly greater causalities onto the vehicle patrol base, and the enemy could have been in possession of the fallen Soldiers at the observation post.

Nine Soldiers — Spc. Sergio Abad, Cpl. Jonathan Ayers, Cpl. Jason Bogar, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, Sgt. Israel Garcia, Cpl. Jason Hovater, Cpl. Matthew Phillips, Cpl. Pruitt Rainey, and Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling — were killed in the battle.

 

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This Month in NCO History: Battle at COP Keating — Oct. 3, 2009

For Soldiers stationed at Combat Outpost Keating in the fall of 2009, it was immediately evident that this particular Saturday would be unlike any other.

In the predawn hours of Oct. 3, 2009, a hail of gunfire descended on the outpost, which sat in a narrow valley surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains in the eastern Afghanistan province of Nuristan near the border with Pakistan. A force of about 400 Taliban fighters began assaulting the compound from five vantage points in the mountains.

COP Keating was defended by 50 American Soldiers, an Afghan National Army unit and its two Latvian Army trainers. The American Soldiers, assigned to B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, had been at the outpost since May of that year. Having faced enemy fire almost daily in the difficult-to-defend complex, the Army had planned its closure. The all-out attack Oct. 3 hastened those plans.

As insurgents targeted the outpost’s mortar pit with a barrage of bullets, others nearly overwhelmed every other spot within the football-field sized compound from their positions in the mountains. A simultaneous attack was carried out on nearby Observation Post Fritsche, which cut off support to COP Keating for most of the day. Taliban forces would breach COP Keating and inflict casualties within an hour of the start of the attack. They wouldn’t be completely driven back until late in the afternoon.

The American Soldiers fought fiercely, killing an estimated 150 Taliban fighters en route to retaking COP Keating. Later in the day, OP Fritsche was secured and able to provide indirect support. Overhead, two U.S. Air Force F-15E fighter bombers helped coordinate airstrikes. Eventually, COP Keating was secured.

Eight of the 50 U.S. Soldiers defending the outpost were killed in the battle, which lasted 12 hours. An additional 27 were wounded.

The daylong firefight was vaulted into the spotlight this year after two NCOs — Staff Sgt. Ty M. Carter and Staff Sgt. Clinton L. Romesha — were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the battle.

Carter, a specialist at the time of the attack, received the medal in August. He displayed bravery in traversing a wide-open expanse of the compound three times to provide ammunition to a group of Soldiers pinned down behind a humvee. Carter also exposed himself to enemy fire to rescue a fellow Soldier, Spc. Stephan Mace. Carter then retrieved a radio that belonged to a fallen Soldier that helped him and Sgt. Bradley Larson flee their pinned-down position and get Mace to safety. Mace eventually died from his wounds after being airlifted from the outpost.

Romesha was awarded the medal in February. Though wounded early in the battle, he continued fighting. Romesha was instrumental in leading a group of Soldiers who reclaimed the outpost’s ammunition depot and repelling insurgents who had breached COP Keating near its entry control point. He also directed air support and led Soldiers in laying down suppressive fire, which allowed Carter and Larson to move Mace to safety.

The honors mark the first time two living Americans were awarded the nation’s highest military honor for the same battle since the Battle of Ap Pac in South Vietnam in 1963. Nine other Soldiers were decorated with the Silver Star for their actions during the fight. COP Keating was evacuated two days later.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa