For Medal of Honor recipient, the costs of that day diminish excitement of award
By JON HARPER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 12, 2014
WASHINGTON — Former Army Sgt. Kyle J. White will be awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony on Tuesday. White, 27, will receive the award for his actions during a dismounted movement in mountainous terrain in Aranas, Afghanistan. White was serving as a Platoon Radio Telephone Operator assigned to C Company, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, on Nov. 9, 2007, when his team of U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers were ambushed by a much larger and more heavily armed Taliban force after a meeting with Afghan villagers. By the time the battle was over, six U.S. servicemembers had been killed and others were seriously wounded.
Before receiving the award, White sat down with Stars and Stripes to talk about the battle and life after the military.
Stars and Stripes: How did the ambush at Aranas begin?
White: As we were walking down the trail down in the valley you heard a single one shot, and two shots, and then the whole valley erupted, and then RPGs and fully automatic fire came in from it seemed like every direction … They had us outnumbered, that’s for sure … As the [enemy] fire kicked off, it kind of separated the patrol in two. And so after, you know, the initial shots, I didn’t see the [separated part] of the patrol [until the battle was over].
You were knocked unconscious by an enemy RPG, is that correct?
Yes … I fired my first magazine [and] I loaded another one, and as soon as I loaded another one it was lights out [when an RPG landed near my head] within the first probably 30 seconds of the firefight.
What was the situation when you regained consciousness?
As I picked my head up, an enemy round came in and hit that rock just inches from my face.
What did you do when you noticed that Spc. Kain Schilling was wounded?
After I kind of got my bearings together after the RPG, I looked over my shoulder and I could see Kain running down the trail towards like this little treetop … It wasn’t providing any cover from incoming rounds but just concealment … His right arm was just kind of dead and he had blood coming from his upper right arm, and so I saw that and I just moved to him. I just figured that’s where I need to be. And then [I] went down there … and I put a tourniquet on his upper right arm … Towards the end of the ambush, Kain had again been shot again in the leg, and I put a belt on his leg as a tourniquet.
At one point during the firefight, Marine Sgt. Phillip Bocks was lying out in the open severely wounded. Can you describe what you did to try to save him?
I looked back up to the trail from where we were coming from and I could see Bocks still sitting up holding his weapon, but he had been shot in the leg and then his upper left shoulder and I could see, you know, some blood coming from his mouth. So I knew he was pretty severely wounded … So I decided to, you know, get up and go to him and try to pull him back to where we were … As I ran out there and grabbed him I started dragging him by the carry-handle [on his body armor]. And I noticed that … before I ran out to him there was rounds coming in around us but none of them were focused on him, but when I ran out there it seemed like, you know, all the fire was focused on us. And, you know, I kind of came to the conclusion that they weren’t trying to hit Bocks [but] they were trying to shoot me. And so I knew the longer I dragged him and they focused their fire on me, the greater [the] chance [of] him getting hit again was. And so what I did was just kind of dragged him like 5-10 feet … and then [I’d] run back to where Kain was just to try to draw their fire and have them follow me and leave him alone. And so, you know, I’d run back to Kain’s position [and] wait just a few seconds until [the Taliban] get distracted, and then repeat the movement until we got back to Kain, you know, behind the concealment of the tree canopy … [But] obviously some artery had been hit. So I tried to just control the bleeding as much as I could, but he ended up dying.
And you also went out into the open to try to save 1st Lt. Matthew Ferrara, who was wounded on the trail?
The way the trail was shaped, I could just see his helmet and then his assault pack but I couldn’t actually see like him laying there. And so I just wanted to go see what the issue was and go see if he’s OK … That’s where a lot of fire was still coming in, so I more like, you know, high-crawled [and] low-crawled out there to him. And I checked his pulse and he had already died.
What made you decide to put yourself in danger and risk your life so many times?
I told myself that I was going to die. You know, there’s no doubt in my mind I was not going to make it off that cliff that day. And so in my mind … it was, you know, if I am going to die I’m going to help my battle buddies until it happens … You also know that if the roles were reversed and it was you that was sitting out there, you know your battle buddy would come and get you.
You had another close call when you were trying to operate the radio, is that right?
I was pulling the hand mic off of [the] kit … [and] it just flew out of my hand and it wasn’t — you know, I didn’t quite understand what that was. And I picked it up again, and there was a bullet hole clean through it. And I was just like, ‘Really?’ … It was kind of the, you know, just that moment where you’re just like, “C’mon!”
How close was the friendly fire coming in?
Very close. And at one point … our mortar round landed about 20 [yards] down the trail from us … I remember just red hot chunks of metal like the size of my palm just flinging by your head.
After nightfall, were you afraid that the Taliban were going to overrun your position?
It was something I was worried about. You know, I was the only able-bodied American at my position. And trying to cover 360 [degrees] in the middle of a war zone, you get that — you get that very lonely feeling out there.
How long did it take for medevac to arrive and bring everyone out?
Once nightfall came, you know, a minute seemed like an hour, and I couldn’t tell you for sure.
When did the White House inform you that you were actually going to receive the Medal of Honor?
I got the call from President [Barack] Obama February 10th.
Were you allowed to tell anybody that you were going to be awarded the Medal of Honor before the White House made the official announcement?
[Officials] told me not to tell anybody. But, you know, you’ve got to tell your parents about that, so … [laughs].
What did President Obama say when he called you?
I’d like to say I can remember it word for word, but I can’t. You know, there’s something about when you get on the phone with the most powerful man in the world, you kind of, you know, lose track of what’s going on. But … I remember one thing he said about being an investment analyst. He was like, ‘So, you’re an investment analyst now. That has to be less exciting than being in the Army.’ And I was like, “Yeah, it is.”
Who did you invite to the White House ceremony?
I have a lot of my family coming — pretty much all of my family. A lot of the guys I served with and the guys that were there that day [including Kain Schilling]. And then some of the Gold Star family members who lost somebody that day.
Are you excited about receiving the Medal of Honor?
There’s lots of, you know, things you wouldn’t get to do normally, you know, like go see the White House and meet the President. So I mean, there’s a lot of exciting elements of it. But … the cost of, you know, actually receiving the award — knowing what happened that day, what everybody went through, it’s, you know, it kind of takes that excitement away for sure.
What is the significance of the bracelet you wear on your wrist?
Kain Schilling actually had it made for me, and he wears the same one. But it has the names of all those that were killed on 9 November 2007. And I just kind of wear it as a reminder. And it kind of motivates me as well. It’s like no matter what is going on in my life, like if something is hard or especially during school, like if you’re complaining about reading a chapter or something, you know, you look down and you’d be like, you know, these guys, if they were here right now they would not be complaining. And so I kind of just use it as like a motivational item for me. I know that what I want is that no matter what I accomplish in my life, I hope to just make them proud.
What has been the most difficult aspect of adjusting to civilian life?
I guess it’s just finding your own mission. That’s what I like to call it … You’re so used to in the military having everything structured, you know, this is your mission for today or for this hour or for this month [and] this is what you’re doing. And … then you go to you’re doing it all on your own [and] nobody is telling you what to do any more. And so that’s what kind of helped me do it was just making my own missions, like when [I was] going to school [I would think], hey, my mission is to get my degree, and then it’s a long process [and] these are the steps I have to take to get there. And so that was just kind of what I did. Set your own goals [and] make your own mission.
You’ve publicly discussed your PTSD diagnosis. When did you start noticing symptoms and what kind of symptoms were you having?
Probably right after the attack. And symptoms were mostly just … difficulty falling asleep and maintaining sleep. And then, you know, just the kind of the flashes here and there of one minute you’re doing something and you’re thinking and [then] you’re right back there at 9 November [in Afghanistan] … But for the most part I kind of found what — my own coping mechanisms, you know. My biggest one and the best one that works for me is exercise. You know, no matter what I’m feeling [or] dealing with, I can go in [the gym] and just clear my head. And that really works for me.
Do you think about the Aranas battle every day, or do you go through the daily routine of your life like most people and it’s not something that’s always in the back of your mind?
I still think about it every day. But as years go by, it’s not something I think about as often each day.
Looking forward, what are your goals for the future?
I’m going to take it day by day and see what happens. But what I want to do is I really want to kind of help educate servicemembers that are thinking about leaving the service and going back into the civilian world … about the post-9/11 G.I. Bill and the importance of an education and really, you know, how necessary it is for certain jobs out there.