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Sunday, July 6, 2014

To Nashua man, receiving Congressional Medal of Honor is new mission

NASHUA – By nearly all accounts, Ryan Pitts is a normal guy.

He’s a husband and a father. Most mornings, he climbs in his car and commutes south to his job at
a Massachusetts software firm. ...

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NASHUA – By nearly all accounts, Ryan Pitts is a normal guy.

He’s a husband and a father. Most mornings, he climbs in his car and commutes south to his job at
a Massachusetts software firm.

And like many 18-year-olds everywhere, he didn’t really know what he wanted to do when he graduated from Souhegan High School. He joined the Army, along with a couple of friends, looking for time to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.

He went to war, like so many hundreds of thousands, and like so many of them, watched his friends and fellow soldiers die.

But Ryan Pitts isn’t a normal man, not in every way. He’s also a man who performed in battle in the depths of eastern Afghanistan in a manner scarcely comprehensible to most of us. Surrounded, outnumbered and outflanked by enemies intent on his death, seriously wounded and with men dead and dying around him, Ryan Pitts survived and, according to official accounts, played a crucial role in saving the lives of other soldiers.

He says that’s simply what he was trained to do –
no more than what everyone else inside a beleaguered observation post was doing themselves. His country says it was nothing less than an example of the highest form of courage –
a level of bravery, selflessness and heroism, and deserving of the country’s highest honor for battle-time valor.

Later this month, the
retired U.S. Army staff sergeant will officially become the ninth living man to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for actions taken in war since the attack on the World Trade Center more than a decade ago.

Pitts and his family will be at the White House on July 21, when President Barack Obama will present him with the award. Pitts will accept the honor, but says it’s more than a medal. To him, it’s another mission.

“I think people see me when they hear the award, but I see the team,” Pitts said. “I see nine guys that aren’t here. That’s my role. That’s what I’ve accepted as my responsibility, that this isn’t my award. It belongs to us.

“It gives me some measure of comfort to know that it’s a new mission. I’m not getting an award. I’m not receiving an award. I’m receiving a new purpose, and that’s to talk about the guys and tell our story.”

Pitts was a sergeant stationed at an outpost in Afghanistan’s Waygal Valley and nearing the end of his 14-month deployment with Chosen Company on July 13, 2008, when about 200 enemy fighters opened fire on the observation post near Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler, killing and wounding everyone inside with gunfire, RPG rockets and hand grenades.

Nine soldiers were killed and more than 20 were injured in what would be one of the deadliest battles of the Afghan war.

Pitts was peppered with shrapnel, including a serious wound to his right leg. After another soldier applied a tourniquet, he returned to the fighting. He began pulling the pins from his grenades, but holding on for a few seconds before throwing them. He “cooked” the grenades so enemy fighters wouldn’t have time to throw them back into the post before they exploded.

Pitts kept fighting, and is credited with being a key link between the soldiers in the observation post and their commanders.

“It really was just a culmination of training,” Pitts said. “We had never practiced a day or rehearsed a day like that. But you learn all these things along the way, and all those pieces add up and inform you what you have to do.”

Pitts said, “Valor was everywhere.”

He described how two soldiers sprinted through heavy fire from the patrol base to the observation post to help fight off the enemy. Others searched the bodies of their best friends for ammo and returned to the battle. When a TOW missile truck exploded and a rocket landed in a firing position, one soldier grabbed it, carried it away, and in the process, exposed himself to a deadly hail of fire, allowing other soldiers to remain in relative safety and continue fighting.

“I don’t think I did anything greater than any of those actions,” Pitts said.

“The takeaway for me is that we were a small group of guys who were attacked by an enemy who, to me, had almost every advantage,” he said. “They outnumbered us. They had the high ground. They had the element of surprise. They had us completely surrounded and we held our ground because of, for me, it boils down to the relationships that we had. We fought for each other.”

Pitts said he doesn’t exaggerate when he describes the soldiers in his company as his family. The bonds are that close, he said.

“I mean it when I say that we were like a family,” he said. “It’s funny. We didn’t always like each other necessarily, but we loved each other. That is what it’s all about. It’s not about a piece of ground. It’s about fighting for the guys you’re there with. And those nine guys, they made it so the rest of us could come home. And so I think we owe it to them to try to enjoy our lives and make the most of it and be good people and live lives worthy of their sacrifices. Because they can’t.”

Pitts joined the Army in 2003 and was discharged in 2009 while recovering at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, according to the White House.

He was deployed to Afghanistan while stationed at Camp Ederle in Vicenza, Italy, after training at the U.S. Army Airborne School in Fort Benning, Ga. The Battle of Wanat occurred during his second deployment.

“Talking about the guys can be emotional, but it’s also the easiest thing to find the words to explain,” Pitts said. “It’s easy for me to talk about what they did because I’m proud of it. I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Cote on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).