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Veteran Who Held Off Taliban Attack On His Own Receives Medal Of Honor

Sgt. Ryan Pitts waits for a flight at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.
U.S. Army
Sgt. Ryan Pitts waits for a flight at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.

Army Sgt. Ryan Pitts will be the ninth living veteran to receive the nation's highest award for valor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan, when President Obama presents him with the Medal of Honor later today.

As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, Pitts is credited with holding off a brutal Taliban attack back in 2008. Tom filed this report for our Newscast unit:

"Soldiers from Chosen Company were setting up an outpost in the rugged hills near the Pakistan border. Suddenly they came under attack by more than a hundred Taliban fighters.

"Mike Denton and the other soldiers saw much of the fire was focused on Chosen Company's separate observation post or OP, set a hundred yards away on a hillside.

"Ryan Pitts was in that OP and the only one left alive. He tossed grenades, helped call in airstrikes, and comforted the dying. Denton and others eventually were able to come to Pitts' aid.

"'Him staying up there and holding that position definitely kept the day from getting a lot worse,' Denton said.

"Still, the attack was one of the worst of the Afghan war: Nine Americans killed, 27 wounded."

According to the Army, after Pitts realized he was all alone, that all the soldiers around him were gone, he radioed the command post, but was told they had no one who could help.

Pitts said he wasn't angry about that. Instead, he kept fighting.

"I basically reconciled that I was going to die, and made my peace with it," he told the Army. "My personal goal was to just to try and take as many of them with me, before they got me."

Public radio's Here and Now spoke to Pitts earlier this month. He told the news magazine that when he was first told about the honor, he wasn't happy, because he didn't think he deserved it.

"But time has allowed me to process it," Pitts said. "And this was a team effort. It belongs to every man there that day and I'll accept it on behalf of the team. It's not mine."

Update at 3:25 p.m. ET: Obama Awards Pitt Medal

President Obama told the story of the fierce attack that Pitt fended off, noting the brutal circumstances of that day and the selfless courage Pitt showed in fighting to hold his position even after receiving several serious wounds.

The president also led a round of applause for Pitt's fellow service members who were present that day in Afghanistan – and present for today's White House ceremony.

And then he read down a list of the names of the nine Americans who died that day, reciting details about their lives and hopes: Spec. Sergio Abad, Cpl. Jonathan Ayers, Cpl. Jason Bogar, Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, Sgt. Israel Garcia, Cpl. Jason Hovater, Cpl. Matthew Phillips, Cpl. Pruitt Rainey, Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling.

At the end of the list, Obama asked the family members of those fallen veterans to stand. The room broke out into applause for them.

After the Medal of Honor was draped around Pitt's neck, the crowd broke out into loud applause — and when the president let them know that it was fine for them to stand up to give Pitts an ovation, they did so.

Earlier in the ceremony, Obama had said that Pitt and his wife are celebrating their second wedding anniversary today. Noting that Pitt had said it would be hard to top this year, the president offered him some advice.

"You should try," he told the recently retired soldier. "I'm just saying, don't rest on your laurels after just two years."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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