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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Nashua man awarded Medal of Honor

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Moments after he was presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor on Monday, the military’s highest accolade for valor in combat, Sgt. Ryan Pitts stood stoically outside the White House. With the award freshly around his neck, he read nine names.

Sergio Abad, Jonathan Ayers, Jason Bogar, Jonathan Brostrom, Israel Garcia, Jason Hovater, Matthew Phillips, Pruitt Rainey and Gunnar Zwilling. ...

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Moments after he was presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor on Monday, the military’s highest accolade for valor in combat, Sgt. Ryan Pitts stood stoically outside the White House. With the award freshly around his neck, he read nine names.

Sergio Abad, Jonathan Ayers, Jason Bogar, Jonathan Brostrom, Israel Garcia, Jason Hovater, Matthew Phillips, Pruitt Rainey and Gunnar Zwilling.

“The real heroes are the nine men who made the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us could return home,” Pitts said of the soldiers who died fighting alongside him in the battle of Wanat, one of the bloodiest in the Afghanistan War. “It is their names, not mine, that I want people to know.”

Pitts, a Nashua native, became the ninth living recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He received the award from President Barack Obama at ceremony inside the White House East Room.

Even on a day set aside for him, Pitts continued to deflect praise for his heroic actions on July 13, 2008, when roughly 200 enemy fighters opened fire on the observation post near Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler in northeastern Afghanistan. Despite taking shrapnel to both legs and an arm, Pitts managed to fire a machine gun and grenades at the enemy insurgents, maintaining the high ground and protecting the small base.

In Obama’s words, “Against that onslaught, one American held the line.”

Obama described in harrowing detail the bloody battle, which he said one soldier described as “hell on earth.” Obama recounted how Pitts, with a tourniquet around his wounds, had to crawl back to keep fighting because his legs were so badly wounded and that he managed to call in support troops in hushed tones as enemy combatants drew near.

“Bleeding and barely conscience, Ryan threw his last grenades,” Obama said. “He grabbed a grenade launcher and fired nearly straight up so the grenade came back down on the enemy just yards away. One insurgent was now right on top of the post, shooting down until another team of Americans showed up and drove him back.

“As one of his teammates said, ‘Had it not been for Ryan Pitts, that post almost certainly would have been overrun.’”

Obama also honored Pitts’ wishes to pay tribute to those who had fallen over one man who had survived. With the families of the deceased soldiers and several dozen men who served with Pitts in attendance, Obama read the nine names, stopping briefly to offer anecdotes from their personal lives and from their time in the military, including some stories from that battle.

Men in dress uniform teared up. Wives and mothers cried. Children were consoled. Later, they raucously applauded Pitts after Obama placed the medal around his neck.

Through it all, Pitts stood attentively on the stage, arms behind his back.

In fact, the only point in the ceremony when his tightened lips parted was when Obama bestowed some lighthearted advice on Pitts. Monday was also Pitts’ two-year wedding anniversary with his wife Amy – who was seated in the first row with their one-year-old son Lucas – and prior to the ceremony, Pitts told Obama “it’s going to be tough topping this one.”

“Let me just give you a piece of advice as somebody who has now been married for over 20 years: You should try,” Obama quipped.

Pitts offered a restrained smiled and sheepishly responded to the commander-in-chief: “OK.” After, Obama jokingly described the post-ceremony reception as a “big anniversary party.”

Pitts joined the army in 2003 after graduating from Souhegan High School in Amherst. His first deployment was in 2005 and lasted 12 months, according to an Army profile. His final deployment, which spanned 15 months, began in 2007. He was discharged in 2009 as a staff sergeant while recovering at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Pitts works for a Massachusetts software company, commuting from his home in Nashua. When he received the award, Pitts said he thought of the men who served alongside him – the more than 20 wounded who survived and the nine who did not.

“Valor was everywhere that day,” Pitts said.

In a previous interview with The Telegraph, Pitts said he saw his achievement as an opportunity to tell their story.

“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.”

Obama said the events that July 2008 day also serve as a reminder of the cost of sending American soldiers to the frontlines. The battle of Wanat became one of the most scrutinized of the Afghanistan War, with military examiners later concluding that officers in charge of Pitts’ company, battalion and brigade stretched their forces too thin and left them susceptible to enemy attack.

The ceremony also comes as the Obama administration winds down the United States’ military presence in Afghanistan, a war he vowed to end in 2014.

“When this nation sends our troops into harm’s way, they deserve a sound strategy and a well-defined mission, and they deserve the forces and support to get the job done, and that’s what we owe soldiers like Ryan, and all of the comrades that were lost,” Obama said. “That’s how we can truly honor all those who gave their lives that day. That’s how, as a nation, we can remain worthy of their sacrifice.