Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts is the sole survivor of an outpost that came under fierce attack in one of the bloodiest battles of the war in Afghanistan. And today, the former paratrooper became the ninth living recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"In Ryan Pitts you see the humility and the loyalty that define America's men and women in uniform," President Obama said at a White House ceremony.
Pitts insists that the honor is not his alone. It's a distinction he shares with the men he fought alongside that fateful day in the summer of 2008. Nine died and 27 were wounded, including Pitts, in the battle of Wanat, one of the fiercest of the entire war.
"Valor was everywhere that day and the real heroes are the nine men who made the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us could return home. It is their names, not mine, that I want people to know," Pitts told reporters today.
It was before dawn when hundreds of Taliban fighters launched their attack, far outnumbering the U.S. troops defending their partially completed base outside the village of Wanat in northeastern Afghanistan.
For nearly two hours, Pitts, who was 22 years old at the time, helped fend off the enemy fighters from his isolated observation post. After suffering severe shrapnel wounds, Pitts crawled from position to position, lobbing grenades and firing at the enemy, resigning himself to certain death, the president said.
"As the insurgents moved in, Ryan picked up a grenade, pulled the pin, and held that live grenade - for a moment, then another, then another - finally hurling it so they couldn't throw it back. And he did that again. And he did it again," the president explained.
"Unable to stand, Ryan pulled himself up on his knees and manned a machine gun. Soldiers from the base below made a daring run, dodging bullets and explosions, and joined the defense. But now the enemy was inside the post - so close they were throwing rocks at the Americans, so close they came right up to the sandbags. Eight American soldiers had now fallen. And Ryan Pitts was the only living soldier at that post," Obama said.
The enemy got so close that Pitts could hear their voices. "He whispered into the radio he was the only one left and was running out of ammo," Obama said.
The battle later spurred an investigation and, as the president noted, a report concluded Wanat had "significant vulnerabilities." As Commander-in-Chief, the president said one way to honor the fallen is "by heeding the lessons of Wanat."
"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," he said. "That's how we can truly honor all those who gave their lives that day. … They're hard lessons, but they're ones that are deeply engrained in our hearts."
Pitts now lives in Nashua, N.H., where he works in business development for a software company. He is married and has a 1-year-old son, Lucas. Today is his second wedding anniversary.
"As Ryan put it, it's going to be tough topping this one, as anniversaries go," the president joked. "But let me just give you a piece of advice as somebody who now has been married for over 20 years: You should try."