PENTAGON - U.S. combat troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, on pace to leave the country by the end of this year. But on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama took time to honor a soldier whose actions while under fire in Afghanistan earned him the Medal of Honor.
It was a brutal assault that has gone down as one of the bloodiest for U.S. forces in Afghanistan - a July 13, 2008 attack near the northeastern village of Wanat.
Setting up at a new outpost, former Staff Sergeant Ryan Pitts and his fellow soldiers faced a pre-dawn onslaught from about 200 Taliban fighters.
“Almost instantly every one of them was wounded," Obama said. "Ryan was hit by shrapnel in the arm and both legs and was bleeding badly. Already three Americans in that valley had fallen, and then a fourth.”
Obama said the terraces near the outpost erupted, with more fire and grenades coming from the village itself. Pitts fought back, holding off the Taliban, helping to call in airstrikes even as the attack claimed the lives of nine fellow soldiers.
“It is remarkable that we have young men and women serving in our military who day in day out are able to perform with so much integrity, so much humility and so much courage," the president said. "Ryan represents the best of that tradition.”
The Battle of Wanat, as it came to be called, was not without controversy. The mother of Corporal Jason Bogar, who died in the attack, claimed the Army made huge mistakes leaving her son, Sergeant Pitts and the other soldiers needlessly exposed.
“The Afghan villagers told them you're going to be attacked. And then the predator drones were pulled the night before," Carlene Cross said.
The Army has changed its tactics as a result. And Pitts, now working for a software company if the proud father of a one-year-old boy. Like the other Afghan War veterans to receive the nation’s highest military honor, he says the medal does not belong to him alone.
“The honor belongs to every man who fought at Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler, especially to those who made the ultimate sacrifice that allowed the rest of us to return home,” he said.
That medal now adorns his neck, as the president put it, a testament to a sacrifice that the United States must never forget.