Obama honours soldier who 'held the line'

THOMAS GIBBONS-NEFF AND ALEJANDRO DAVILA FRAGOSO
Last updated 16:31 22/07/2014
pitts
LARRY DOWNING / Reuters

HONOURED: Former Army Staff Sergeant Ryan Pitts get the Medal of Honor from US President Barack Obama.

pitts stand
LARRY DOWNING / Reuters
MOMENT OF SILENCE: US President Barack Obama and former US Army Staff Sergeant Ryan Pitts bow their heads during the ceremony.

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The ceremony was over and former Staff Sergeant Ryan M. Pitts, the nation's newest Medal of Honor recipient, walked toward the microphones set up in front of the West Wing, his pants bloused over his black boots, and the nation's highest award for combat valour draped over his chest.

"The real heroes are the nine men who made the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us could return home," Pitts said quietly, a reference to the nine soldiers who died defending Observation Post Topside beside him in the summer of 2008 in Wanat, Afghanistan.

"It is their names, not mine that I want people to know."

"Specialist Sergio Abad, Corporal Jonathan Ayers, Corporal Jason Bogar, 1st Lieutenant Jonathan Brostrom, Sergeant Israel Garcia, Corporal Jason Hovater, Corporal Matthew Phillips, Corporal Pruitt Rainey and Corporal Gunnar Zwilling," he read, and in an homage to Chosin Company of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, he added: "Thank you. The Chosin few."

Pitts did not take any questions Monday, and as he walked away, a reporter inquired, "Is that it?" For Pitts, 28, of Nashua, New Hampshire, it was.

A half-hour earlier, Pitts was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama for his actions on July 13, 2008, when he single-handedly defended his observation post from an attack by more than 200 Taliban militants. The citation recounts his courage under withering enemy fire, during which he threw grenade after grenade as he slowly bled from shrapnel wounds he sustained from the explosion of rocket-propelled grenades.

During the ceremony, Pitts stood tall and breathed deeply as the president recounted how the soldier — a 22-year-old paratrooper at the time — fought off some 200 enemy fighters while at his observation post near Wanat, Afghanistan, in July 2008, following the deaths of nine of his comrades and being wounded in one arm and both legs.

"Against that onslaught, one American held the line," Obama said. "As the insurgents moved in, Ryan picked up a grenade, pulled the pin and held that live grenade for a moment, then another, and then another, finally throwing it so they couldn't throw it back. And he did that again and he did that again. Unable to stand, Ryan put himself up on his knees and manned a machine gun."

Yet asked about the battle in an earlier interview, Pitts was brief and humble.

"It was a bad day for us, but a tactical victory in the end," he said. "We held our ground."

After some time in the hospital and his discharge from the Army, Pitts attended college, got married and now has a 1-year-old son.

"Seeing my friends make the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of us, I have an appreciation for life that I didn't before," Pitts said in an interview before the ceremony. "They gave me a gift and I'm just not going to waste it. I'll live a life worthy of their sacrifice."

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He said that the Medal of Honor carries a responsibility to advocate for veterans and "tell our story. ... But I welcome that responsibility".

Pitts is the ninth living service member to receive the award for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

-McClatchy/The Washington Post

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