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Pitts, visiting Vicenza, says Medal of Honor story is one of fallen brothers

Former active-duty U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts greets a soldier from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, on August 1, 2014, in Vicenza, Italy. He is the 9th living veteran of Afghanistan or Iraq to receive the Medal of Honor.

VICENZA, Italy — He was too tired to watch his appearance on Letterman. His congratulatory phone call from President Barack Obama is a blur.

Visiting Vicenza last week, Ryan Pitts, the nation’s newest and ninth living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the Afghanistan war, was battling jet lag midway through his grueling, almost monthlong “outreach tour.”

Still, he was game for another interview about the early morning attack six years ago that killed nine of his buddies, wounded 26 more, and left him alive and bestowed with laurels.

RELATED: More Stars and Stripes coverage of the Medal of Honor

“Generally, I’m fine talking about that day,” said the former staff sergeant, a 28-year-old New Hampshirite, now a husband, father and business development consultant with Oracle, the computer technology corporation.

“What’s hard is talking about me. I don’t like talking about me. People see the individual; I see the team.”

The Army arranged Pitt’s tour, as the services have done for each recent living recipient of the medal, to provide a platform for the honored warrior to tell his story.

Pitts was happy to oblige, although he said he doesn’t think of it as his story, exactly, but that of his late brothers-in-arms. “When I think of the actions of that day, my actions don’t really stick out in my mind. I think of that day in appreciation and awe of what they did.”

It can be difficult, Pitts said, being singled out for praise and honor in the midst of so much heroism by others — and so much loss.

“What made it ‘bearable’ to be awarded is that it’s ours,” he said. “I don’t have to shoulder it alone.”

“Nobody decides, ‘I’m going to do something valorous,”’ he said. “Nobody gets to sit it out. It’s necessity, and dedication to each other.”

President Obama awarded Pitts the medal on July 21, and by now his actions in what became known as the Battle of Wanat — one of the deadliest battles of the war — are well-known.

On July 13, 2008, Pitts and eight other soldiers from the 2nd Battalion 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, were keeping watch over a small patrol base from an observation post near the village of Wanat in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province.

The valley exploded with fire from all sides, and more than 200 insurgents attacked. They were so close they could be heard on Pitts’ radio contacts with his commander at the patrol base. Seven paratroopers were hit in the first wave of the attack, five of them mortally.

As his fellow soldiers lay dead or wounded around him, Pitts, with serious shrapnel wounds to both legs, bleeding and unable to stand, held off the Afghans with hand-thrown grenades, a grenade launcher, a machine gun and his radio, calling in enemy positions and air strikes.

He fought off waves of attacks on the observation post for upward of two hours, keeping the Afghans from taking the post, with its perch over the patrol base, and preventing what could have been many more paratroop deaths.

And he did it, for some time, all alone.

“I didn’t feel alone,” Pitts said last week, pointing out that paratroops at the patrol base, came back for him. Sgt. Mike Denton, Pitts said, volunteered. “He came to save me,” Pitts said.

Denton, who was later awarded the Silver Star, survived but three other reinforcements were killed. Sgt. Israel Garcia, hit by an rocket-propelled grenade, died in Pitts’ arms. “I kind of laid there with him, and we talked,” Pitts said. “He wanted me to tell his wife and his mother that he loved them … I hope that it was some comfort for them.”

One of the nine who died was killed at the patrol base as the battle began.

Pitts was the third soldier with the 173rd’s 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, to be awarded the military’s highest honor for combat in Afghanistan.

He happily returned to Vicenza, where the unit is based, to visit with troops after receiving an invitation to the brigade ball, held Friday night.

He feels it’s his duty, he said, to enjoy life.

“I don’t think I should be (alive). They gave me a gift,” he said. “They don’t get to have good days. So I need to try to have as many as I can.”

He always names Garcia and the eight others who died that day: Spc. Sergio Abad, Cpl. Jonathan Ayers, Cpl. Jason Bogar, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, Cpl. Jason Hovater, Cpl. Matthew Phillips, Cpl. Pruitt Rainey and Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling.

montgomery.nancy@stripes.com

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