Staff Sergeant Ryan M. Pitts enlisted in the Army when he was seventeen, and was just twenty-two years old when he fought at the Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan, where his heroic actions earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. On July 13, 2008, Staff Sergeant Pitts was trapped and badly wounded at an elevated outpost, but helped turn back a brutal attack by 200 insurgents and save many of his company in one of the bloodiest battles of the war with Afghanistan.
The Medal of Honor series profiles recipients of the highest and most prestigious personal military decoration, awarded to recognize U.S. military service members who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary acts of valor.
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Wanat village Nuristan Province, Afghanistan July 13, 2008, 4:00 a.m.
Well before sunrise, the men of Second Platoon, Chosen Company, were ordered to "stand to." Dressed in full battle gear and ready to fight, the soldiers took up their positions on the perimeter of Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler. The paratroopers in the U.S. Army's famed 173rd Airborne Brigade had arrived in the village of Wanat, in eastern Afghanistan, on July 8 to secure the area and begin setting up the new outpost.
As a vehicle patrol base, Kahler was designed to provide a launching pad for patrols in an area that was known to be dangerous. Soldiers in high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (popularly known as Humvees) would provide security and look for signs of insurgents. The army planners hoped that the base's occupants would establish a connection with the local population and discourage enemy fighters from traveling through the area.
Upon arriving, the men of Chosen Company had commenced building up the VPB's defenses. Once they had secured the area with basic obstacles such as concertina wire, sandbags, and antivehicle ditches, army engineers would construct the rest of the installation. To the east of the base, on a small, terraced hill, Second Platoon established an observation post called OP Topside to provide clear views of the valley.
If VPB Kahler was a sailing vessel, then OP Topside was the crow's nest, sitting above the small command post in the center of the base. Topside was protected by sandbags about waist-high — sandbags that had been filled by the soldiers a spadeful at a time in the sweltering heat. Inside Topside were a long-range surveillance system, machine guns, and a grenade launcher, as well as ammunition, grenades, and other supplies. The store of water was limited and was being rationed carefully.
The observation post butted up against a steep ravine that was overgrown with vegetation. It was a vulnerability, and the platoon had strung coils of concertina wire all along the edge to discourage an attack from that direction. Every night, the paratroopers placed antipersonnel mines inside the wire for extra security, recovering them at first light.
As the American soldiers established their base, "it definitely felt like we were being watched," recalled Sergeant Ryan Pitts. "There were a lot of men sitting along the rock walls outside of the perimeter by the bazaar, or by the hotel; sitting and having tea, just spending a lot of time watching what we were doing."
Up at OP Topside in the predawn darkness of July 13, Sergeant Ryan Pitts took his position with eight other paratroopers: Sergeant Matthew Gobble and Specialists Jonathan Ayers, Jason Bogar, Matthew Phillips, Pruitt Rainey, Tyler Stafford, and Gunnar Zwilling, along with Private Chris McKaig. The platoon leader, Lieutenant Jonathan Brostrom, and the current platoon sergeant, David Dzwik, had given Pitts command of the observation post. Brostrom and Dzwik remained in the command center down the hill at VPB Kahler. If any action was needed, Brostrom would coordinate from there.
It was quiet in the village, but all the soldiers had a sense that something was up. It felt "a little bit odd," Pitts said later, which he thought was possibly an "indication of what might be coming. Every day leading up to July thirteenth, at the crack of dawn, people were out there working the fields, and that morning, no one was out there. Oftentimes, in some of the other fights I've been in, in Afghanistan, the locals sometimes know that it's coming, and you can get a sense that something might happen because no one's around. It's kind of a ghost town."
NAMES OF HONOR
OP Topside took its name from an important event in the history of Chosen Company's 503rd Regiment — the 1945 attack on Corregidor Island, at the entrance of Manila Bay in the Philippines, a famous American victory against the Japanese during World War II. The steep, high ground on the western part of the island was called Topside. In a surprise attack from the air, paratroopers from the 503rd landed on Topside, jumping from an altitude of only four hundred feet onto the rocky terrain. An amphibious assault force landed on beaches to the east, and after two weeks of brutal fighting, U.S. forces had control of the island.
Chosen Company's Second Platoon named Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler after Platoon Sergeant Matthew R. Kahler, who had been killed in action six months earlier.
As a forward observer for his platoon, it was Pitts's job to prepare targets and coordinates for artillery directed at any insurgents in the area. If he or his team spotted an enemy location, he was to report back to the company commander, Captain Matthew Myer, at VPB Kahler. Pitts had set up targets for mortar and artillery fire based on his experience in previous fights and where he believed an attack was likely to come from. If required, he could call in mortars, artillery fire, or support from aircraft.
THE BIG GUNS
Artillery is any large, heavy weapon designed to shoot munitions across long distances, from the catapults of antiquity, to sixteenth-century cannons, to modern-day howitzers. Today's artillery pieces can fire projectiles from dozens of miles away with great precision. Chosen Company had three pieces of artillery in place at Wanat, two mortars and an antitank missile launcher mounted on a Humvee. Two 155-mm howitzers five miles away at Forward Operating Base Blessing would also provide fire for VPB Kahler whenever necessary.
Mortars are a smaller, specialized type of artillery. Their lighter, shorter tubes are designed to quickly launch shells at a higher arc and shorter distance than regular artillery. VPB Kahler had a 60-mm mortar, which could fire up to thirty rounds a minute, and a heavier, longer-range 120-mm, which could fire up to sixteen rounds a minute.
It was not long after taking their positions that soldiers manning the missile truck down at the base spotted potential insurgents moving in the hills to the west in the predawn light. At OP Topside Sergeant Pitts trained the surveillance system on them and started to put together coordinates for mortar fire. Before he could radio the mortar pit, however, a burst of machine-gun fire came from the north, at 4:20 a.m.
It was the signal for an attack to begin.
The area erupted in a hail of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades from all directions. "The whole valley lit up," Pitts later said.
In the opening salvo, shrapnel from a grenade hit the mortar pit at VPB Kahler, severely injuring Private Sergio S. Abad. The mortarman nonetheless continued to hand rifle ammunition to his sergeant until the order came to evacuate the pit. Only after soldiers pulled Abad to the cover of the command post did they discover that his wounds were critical. Abad died in the midst of the battle.
As many as two hundred enemy fighters were attacking. The forty-nine Americans at VPB Kahler were seriously outnumbered.
The Battle of Wanat was underway.CHAPTER 2
AFGHANISTAN AND THE WAR ON TERROR
On September 11, 2001, the United States experienced the worst terrorist attack in its history. Extremists hijacked four flights originating from three U.S. airports. After taking control of the planes, the terrorists crashed two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing and injuring thousands of people. A third plane was crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., causing the deaths and injuries of hundreds more. The fourth did not reach its target. Passengers on that flight fought back against the hijackers, causing the aircraft to crash in a field in rural Pennsylvania, killing everybody on board.
The United States found evidence implicating the terrorist group Al Queda in the attack. Al Queda (Arabic for "the base") is a militant network created by Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi Arabian who had fought with Afghan rebels against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Bin Laden considered the United States another threat to Islam, and he trained Islamic militants in Sudan to fight U.S. interests around the world. After Sudan expelled him in 1996, Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, where he found sympathy in the Taliban, an ultraconservative religious and political faction that was taking control of the country.
Afghanistan, a mountainous country in central Asia, is bordered to the north by former Soviet states, to the south and east by Pakistan, and to the west by Iran. It has a turbulent history dating back to ancient times, as the repeated target of attempted conquest and occupation. Alexander the Great is said to have remarked after he invaded the area in 329 B.C., Afghanistan "is easy to march into but hard to march out of."
Since the 1980s, Afghanistan has been torn apart by war and strife. In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded the country to prop up a communist government opposed by the country's devoutly Muslim and largely anticommunist population. For ten years Afghan rebels fought the Soviets and the communist government before the Soviet Union finally pulled out in 1989, after having lost over fifteen thousand soldiers.
When the Soviets left, Afghanistan descended into chaos. Warlords and militia groups controlled various areas. With all the fighting, the capital city of Kabul was reduced to rubble. Claiming he had a vision to restore order, Mullah Mohammad Omar led a group of religious students, the Taliban, to take over the southeastern city of Kandahar.
Soon the Taliban subdued the warlords in the southern part of the country. With help from conservative Islamic elements outside the country, the militant group took over city after city. By 1996 Kabul had fallen, and the Taliban controlled its government. It supported Al Queda and gave the terrorist organization a relatively safe base to operate from.
AMERICA'S WAR ON TERROR
Nine days after the terrorist attack on America, President George W. Bush declared war on terror in a speech delivered to a joint session of Congress. The war would become known as Operation Enduring Freedom:
On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country ...
Americans are asking: Who attacked our country? The evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as Al Queda ...
The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics — a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam ...
The leadership of Al Queda has great influence in Afghanistan and supports the Taliban regime in controlling most of that country. In Afghanistan, we see Al Queda's vision for the world ...
The United States respects the people of Afghanistan — after all, we are currently its largest source of humanitarian aid — but we condemn the Taliban regime. It is not only repressing its own people, it is threatening people everywhere ...
The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.
Our war on terror begins with Al Queda, but it ... will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated. Americans are asking, why do they hate us? ... They hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other ...
With every atrocity, they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends ...
By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions — by abandoning every value except the will to power — they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way, to where it ends: in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies.
World leaders from many countries tried several times to arrange a ceasefire between the Taliban and its remaining foes in northern Afghanistan. But the agreements never lasted long, and by 2001 the Taliban had control of 90 percent of the country.
The Taliban enacted strict laws prohibiting everything from chess sets to CDs and any form of Western entertainment, claiming these things violated Muslim law. Non-Muslim women were required to wear veils and cover themselves. Minorities in the country were required to wear identification tags. The Taliban imposed harsh penalties on anyone who broke the rules.
A month after the events of September 11, 2001, the United States led coalition forces into Afghanistan to seek out Bin Laden and destroy Al Queda. They worked with anti-Taliban allies in the country and, two months of hard fighting later, the Taliban was toppled and a new central government was created. Without a safe haven, Bin Laden and Al Queda were forced into the mountainous border region of neighboring Pakistan, but Afghanistan's problems did not go away. The Taliban regrouped. It was easy for insurgents to come out of hiding, carry out an attack, and slip away, blending seamlessly with the civilians. Suicide bombings against local citizens and the military alike increased. Rival militias reemerged to provide security in rural areas where the Afghan government and U.S. forces couldn't.
The war continues today, even after Bin Laden's death in 2011. Outside extremist groups who see the West as a threat to Islam in general have joined the Taliban's fight in Afghanistan. The U.S. military and its allies fight on.
Afghanistan's tortured history set the stage for the Battle of Wanat, which would become another chapter in that history.CHAPTER 3
Wanat village Nuristan Province, Afghanistan July 13, 2008, 4:30 a.m.
Automatic-weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades rained down on OP Topside. All nine paratroopers in the observation post were hit in the initial attack. Sergeant Pitts was struck by shrapnel in both legs and his left arm. Hurled through the air, he landed in a heap, the wind knocked out of him. A piece of shrapnel had penetrated his right thigh. When he could gather his thoughts, he worried it might have pierced a major blood vessel. Unable to apply his own tourniquet, he needed another pair of hands.
"I'd been a little shell-shocked ... I had taken shrapnel to both my legs and ... couldn't move my feet, couldn't use my legs, just from shock."
Not able to stand, Pitts crawled to the southern end of the observation post, where he heard his team returning fire. There he found Sergeant Gobble wounded and shell-shocked. Specialist Jason Bogar was firing his machine gun, but stopped long enough to apply a tourniquet to Pitts's leg. Specialist Tyler Stafford, badly wounded himself, crawled over.
"Sergeant! We lost Zwilling and Phillips," he shouted over the noise.
Specialist Gunnar Zwilling had been killed in the opening barrage. Specialist Matthew Phillips had managed to return fire and throw a hand grenade before he, too, was killed. Stafford said he thought the enemy was throwing grenades as well as using rocket launchers.
The observation post was surrounded and taking heavy fire. Still unable to stand, Pitts crawled to the northern position of the post, where the team had stored extra ammo and grenades. The enemy had infiltrated the brush-filled ravine just a few meters away,
"My line of thinking was, if they can throw hand grenades, so can we," Pitts said later.
Pitts grabbed the grenades and, one by one, "cooked them off" for a few seconds before throwing them into the brush. This brave move bought some time as the insurgents were temporarily driven back by the explosions.
"COOKING OFF" A GRENADE
This risky maneuver means pulling the pin and releasing the safety lever to trigger the fuse, then holding the grenade for a few seconds before throwing it. This allows the fuse to burn down so the grenade detonates before it strikes the ground or immediately after, preventing an enemy from picking it up and throwing it back before it explodes. It is a dangerous tactic. There is a one in five chance the grenade might have a short fuse and explode before it can be thrown.
Despite his injuries, shock, and blood loss, Pitts radioed a situation report to Captain Myer, the company commander, down at the patrol base. He requested urgent help, and in between lobbing grenades, he reported on casualties and estimated the enemy positions. Trying to conserve grenades, Sergeant Pitts crawled over to a M240 machine gun. Sitting up, he blindly pulled the trigger to fire over the wall of sandbags. Eventually he managed to prop himself up on his knees and lay down suppressing fire. Without an assistant gunner to handle the ammunition, though, the gun repeatedly jammed. Pitts would pull the twenty-seven-pound gun down, clear it, and fire blindly again until he could prop himself back up.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Medal of Honor: Ryan Pitts"
Copyright © 2019 Michael P. Spradlin.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
U.S. ARMY RANKS,
U.S. ARMY UNITS AND SIZES,
1 SURPRISE ATTACK,
2 AFGHANISTAN AND THE WAR ON TERROR,
3 DIRECT HIT,
4 LEARNING ON THE JOB,
5 ALL ALONE,
6 THE LEGACY OF THE 173RD AIRBORNE,
8 CLOSE AIR SUPPORT,
9 THE CAVALRY ARRIVES,
10 SUPPORT FROM FOB BLESSING,
12 THE AFTERMATH,
RYAN M. PITTS'S MEDAL OF HONOR CITATION,
THE MEDAL OF HONOR SERIES BY MICHAEL P. SPRADLIN,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,