Moqor, Afghanistan — September 2012
Kristopher Ritterhouse enlisted in the Army on Christmas Eve 2008 in quest of an honorable, meaningful profession. It was his younger brother’s idea.
He was 19, from Bullhead City, Ariz., with little knowledge about the military and less about what would become his military job, or calling. “I had no idea what being a medic meant,” Ritterhouse said.
Seven years and two deployments to Afghanistan later, after scores of lives saved and some taken, after knowing war’s thrill and desolation, its brotherhood and brutality, Ritterhouse is a true believer.
His brother was right. Ritterhouse, a combat medic sergeant with the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Vicenza, Italy, doesn’t just like the Army; he loves it.
“I will stay in the Army until they kick me out,” he said.
If he picks up a few awards along the way, well, that’s nice, too.
“It’s an award, man,” he said of his Army Commendation Medal with “V” device. “I don’t get it. I straight up don’t understand it,” he said, referring to being given awards. “It’s my job.”
Ritterhouse was awarded the medal, as well as being named an “Angel of the Battlefield” by the Armed Forces YMCA — “I was so jet-lagged; it’s kind of a blur,” he said of that award — for his actions one rough night in September 2012 in Moqor, Afghanistan.
It was an engagement involving 40 enemy fighters, according to Ritterhouse’s citation, shooting heavy volumes of a variety of rounds for hours. It killed his best friend, senior sniper Sgt. Kyle Osborn. And it left Ritterhouse with a traumatic brain injury, one he ignored while trying to save Osborn — kneeling on a rooftop under a hail of fire — and then to resume fighting.
“He probably should have been evacuated himself, and he stayed and treated his brothers …,” Sgt. Major of the Army Raymond Chandler said at the Angels of the Battlefield gala in Washington a year ago.
Ritterhouse was at the time a scout platoon medic, a prestigious position claimed after tryouts by the “smartest and strongest” combat medics in a unit, he said. He’d spent many an hour with his friends and fellow scouts digging in, hiding out, conducting surveillance and setting up ambush points, often after dark, in his ghillie suit.
On the third day of one such mission, he and the other scouts started taking some fire — “a few rounds, nothing crazy,” he said — while camped in an excrement-strewn ruin they’d had to shovel out. They moved to better cover in a nearby structure called the schoolhouse. Much to their delight, it was clean, with sandstone walls and a roof, and no IEDS.
They settled in and enjoyed some local cuisine supplied by accompanying Afghan troops.
“We’re eating lamb. We’re the happiest people in the world,” Ritterhouse said. “Forty-five minutes later, the first round came in, and it just didn’t stop. Very quickly the schoolhouse we found so safe was the worst place in the world to be.”
An 82mm recoilless rifle round came through the roof and exploded right outside a door, knocking Ritterhouse off his feet and slamming him into a wall. Dazed and deafened, he got up, made his way up a rickety ladder to the roof where the other scouts were, lay down and started returning fire.
“I remember hearing, ‘Doc, doc, doc,’ ” he said.
Then another scout came to him and told him, “Kyle got hit.”’
Osborn was bleeding heavily from the chest, and Ritterhouse could not find a pulse. He treated him anyway, exposing himself to fire as he performed CPR. “Despite the signs of life or lack thereof, a medic’s job is to care for people when they can’t care for themselves,” he said.
A convoy evacuated Osborn, and Ritterhouse climbed back up to the roof, spotting targets for 90 minutes until his TBI took its toll. “I was starting to move slowly. I knew something was wrong,” he said.
Ritterhouse was taken down from the roof and carried into a room with other wounded soldiers where he saw what to him was a wondrous sight: a female military police officer, among two dozen 1st Infantry Division troops who’d arrived during the firefight — like the cavalry — who was returning fire with a machine gun.
“This chick — she picked up a 240 and was engaging guys on the woodline,” Ritterhouse said. “It was the most heroic thing I’ve ever seen females do in combat.”
Ritterhouse was evacuated back to the base. He was sick for a while — off-balance, hard of hearing, nauseous, discombobulated, with little memory of the event. He slept for 16 hours.
When he woke up, he asked if Osborn was dead, hoping that somehow his friend had been resuscitated. He hadn’t been.
“That’s when it hit me. All the emotion came out,” Ritterhouse said.
Yet Osborn’s death wasn’t the most traumatic experience for Ritterhouse. “It’s natural for medics to make friends and natural to lose them,” he said.
What was worse, to him, happened about a month later, when a 3-year-old girl who’d somehow been shot could not be saved no matter how much epinephrine they pumped into her tiny body and how many times they almost brought her back.
“It sucked to be there. It sucked to have that,” Ritterhouse said. “Someone so small and innocent and they’re a casualty of war.”