In Bloody Battle, Medal Of Honor Recipient Held His Post Alone
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
At the White House today, President Obama awarded the nation's highest award for combat bravery. He presented the Medal of Honor to former Sergeant Ryan Pitts. In 2008, Pitts fought off a large Taliban force at an Afghan outpost. He did this for a time alone and wounded until the Americans could turn the tide of the battle.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As one of his teammates said, had it not been for Ryan Pitts, that post almost certainly would've been overrun.
SIEGEL: Today, Pitts is married with a young son and lives in New Hampshire. NPR's Tom Bowman talked with some of the soldiers who fought alongside him on that July morning.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The soldiers from Chosen Company were setting up a makeshift base at a village not far from the Pakistan border. Off in the distance, they spotted a line of men moving up in the hills - unusual for that time of morning.
MATT MYER: The first thing I heard was a single shot and then machine gun fire, you know, volleys of RPG's and we realized that the enemy was close range. It was definitely the most intense firefight that I've ever been in.
BOWMAN: Matt Myer was Chosen Company commander. He saw rocket propelled grenades slam into the base at a separate observation post where Ryan Pitts and others fought back.
MIKE DENTON: It seemed like there was no place that there wasn't fire. It just seemed like it was completely 360.
BOWMAN: Mike Denton was among those firing back. The Taliban filmed it all and later put together a recruitment video about this bloody engagement - the battle of Wanat.
DENTON: Everything was extremely loud. Of course your adrenaline immediately kicks in. You're trying to talk to the guys next to you, you're trying - everyone's trying to scramble to figure out exactly what's going on.
BOWMAN: What was going on was a full-scale Taliban attack, much of it at the hillside observation post, or OP, where Ryan Pitts was located.
DENTON: I saw a kind of explosions from up there - a bunch of dust and smoke and knew that whatever was happening up there was - was probably not good.
BOWMAN: It was not good. All the soldiers at the OP were either killed or wounded. Matt Myer got a call from Ryan Pitts, who was hit in the leg by shrapnel.
MYER: You know, I remember very specifically him saying - you know hey, they're really close. We need help up here.
BOWMAN: Ryan Pitts could only crawl because of his wounds. But he tossed grenades and you could hear Taliban voices just over a sandbag wall.
MYER: And he was actually whispering over the radio. There was a few minutes - probably five to ten minutes - where Ryan was by himself on the OP.
BOWMAN: By himself because two soldiers sent to help him were killed. So another team of soldiers was sent. Among them, Mike Denton.
DENTON: When we knew that Ryan was still up there by himself and that there were a - kind of KIA's out there on our side - it turned from fear to more so anger and wanting to get there and help him.
BOWMAN: Denton and the others scrambled up the hill. Meanwhile, Ryan Pitts kept fighting and helping Myer guide the Apache attack helicopters against the Taliban, who were creeping toward him.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO TRANSMISSION)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey battle nine chosen nine. I need a better clarification as far as target.
BOWMAN: That's a radio transmission from an Apache that morning.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO TRANSMISSION)
MAN: One more. All right. (Shooting) We're on the west part of the structure looking for bodies.
BOWMAN: Myers said that Pitts, from his perch on the hill, was able to help the Apaches find targets and turn the tide of the battle.
MYER: You know, he did all those things for over an hour while losing blood.
BOWMAN: But not alone. Denton and the other soldiers reached Pitts, one of them, Sergeant Israel Garcia, was soon mortally wounded. Pitts held his hand.
DENTON: I remember Garcia, you know, talking about - of course, tell his wife and family that he loved them. And, you know, Ryan was just telling him that everything was going to be OK and that - yeah.
BOWMAN: The families of those killed were at the White House today along with Myer and Denton, who calls Pitts his closest friend and his hero for holding the OP that day.
DENTON: Had the Taliban gotten inside the OP, and gained that high ground on us - the immediate high ground on us - it would have been a lot worse and we would've probably suffered more KIA's.
BOWMAN: As it turned out, the battle of Wanat was one of the worst - nine Americans killed, 27 wounded. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.