WASHINGTON — Years from now, his son will want to know.
Perhaps the question will arise after a grade school friend repeats something a parent said. Or maybe young Lucas Pitts will see the medal and wonder what it’s for.
If former Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts decides the boy, who’s now just a year old, is ready to hear the story, he’ll sit him down and tell about one bloody morning in eastern Afghanistan. That day, July 13, 2008, hundreds of Taliban fighters launched a dawn attack on outnumbered U.S. soldiers and Afghan government troops on an isolated outpost in the Kunar province.
Nine Americans died fighting off the attack, and 27 more were wounded. Pitts, meanwhile, fought his way into an exclusive fraternity of U.S. troops awarded the nation’s top honor for combat valor.
Pitts, 28, of Nashua, N.H., receives the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on Monday in a White House ceremony.
But in the story the former paratrooper plans to tell his son, he’s not the action hero whose daring deeds elevated him above the men he fought alongside.
“Do I think I did something beyond what they did?” he said in a recent interview with Stars and Stripes. “There were guys who didn’t stop fighting until their last breath. There’s nothing you can do that goes beyond that.”
Instead of a story about himself, Pitts will recount to his son the names and actions of his comrades in arms, dead and alive. Their collective heroism and sacrifice resulted in his survival, he said.
“When the time comes to tell him about that day … I’m going to make sure he knows I’m alive and he’s here because of what a lot of other men did,” Pitts said.
The attack came just as the dawn was breaking. Silence was followed by a roaring wave of machine gun and RPG fire that smashed against Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler and a nearby observation post called Topside, manned by Pitts and eight other soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.
Two men were immediately killed, and the other seven, including Pitts, were injured. Despite serious shrapnel wounds, Pitts kept fighting as the men around him fell one by one. Realizing Taliban insurgents were just outside the perimeter after a thrown grenade killed a soldier, Pitts began “cooking” grenades — allowing timers to tick down — before throwing them into a concealed area nearby. Then, with grenades running low, he grabbed a machine gun and began spraying fire over the top of sandbags at insurgents he couldn’t see.
Struggling with wounds to his legs and left arm, he stayed in radio contact with his commander at the larger base as well. When he was the only soldier left at the OP still able to fight, and had been told there were no reinforcements available, he attacked insurgents concealed just beyond the perimeter by firing grenades almost vertically, dropping them down into a draw where attackers were taking cover.
The Taliban never overran the observation post. Reinforcements arrived, attack helicopters showed up, and a weakened Pitts was finally medevac’d to safety nearly two hours after the firefight began.
Pitts says he remembers flashes of anger at the attackers and moments of horror when buddies fell, but mostly, the firefight went by in a blur.
But there are mental images of brave comrades he said will stay with him as long as he lives—like Cpl. Jason Bogar cinching down a tourniquet as the air filled with bullets and grenades.
“After I was wounded, I remember crawling to the southern fighting position and looking up and seeing Bogar returning fire to the southwest,” “He stopped to treat me … and if he was scared I never saw it in his face. He was calm, and quickly treated us and then went back to fighting.”
As Pitts joined the defense, he remembers a young machine gunner who — like storied heroes from earlier wars — refused to leave his gun in the face of almost certain death.
“Cpl. Jonathan Ayers took a round to the helmet, and then continued to man the machine gun … and I’m sure after that he knew there was a good chance they might kill him,” Pitts said.
Both Bogar and Ayers were soon killed by Taliban fire. So were 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom and Cpl. Jason Hovator, who sprinted nearly 100 meters from the main base early in the battle, and fell soon afterwards defending the observation post.
“Nobody told them to come — they came because they knew we needed it and wanted to reinforce the OP,” Pitts said. “So they ran right past enemy positions, and it’s probably a miracle they even made it to us.”
Later, after Pitts discovered he was alone and began launching grenades straight into the air, four more soldiers — Sgt. Israel Garcia, Spc. Michael Denton, Staff Sgt. Sean Samaroo and Spc. Jacob Sones — volunteered to reinforce the position. Soon another volley of RPG fire devastated the OP, killing Garcia.
“He died trying to save me,” Pitts said. Denton was in bad shape, but that didn’t stop him.
“He was hit in his legs and his hands … and the bone was sticking out of his hand,” Pitts said. “He was right hand dominant, but I remember looking up and his right hand was all mangled, so he switched arms so he could return fire and pull security.”
Pitts reeled off dozens of names of soldiers who died, were wounded, or walked away unscathed — all of whom he said contributed to an ultimate victory that day, costly though it may have been.
“There were so many, countless names I haven’t gotten to — guys who I know were doing valorous things,” he said, noting the dozens of valor medals resulted from the battle. “I don’t even know who some of them are. It was everywhere that day.”
Pitts was medically discharged in 2009 after six years of service and today lives with his wife Amy and son Lucas in Nashua, where he works in business development for Oracle Corp. He still deals with the effects of wounds, but says they’re so insignificant compared to many veterans he doesn’t want to discuss them.
More significant to him is the lingering pain he feels daily when he thinks of the brothers he lost in battle. It’s a bittersweet pain he says he treasures, and which he’ll be feeling when Obama places the Medal of Honor around his neck Monday.
“This is ours, not mine,” he said. “It belongs to them and their loved ones just as much as it belongs to me. Those guys saved my life and a lot of other people’s lives that day. For me, it’s an individual award for a collective effort.”