By Rik Stevens
CONCORD, N.H.: Ryan Pitts will wear the nation’s highest award for combat valor, but the humble and soft-spoken Medal of Honor recipient who continued to fight after being wounded in one of Afghanistan’s bloodiest battles insisted Thursday that the medal belongs to all of his comrades who fought and died that day.
Pitts, now a 28-year-old married father of one, will receive the medal next month at the White House.
The citation says Pitts fought off enemy fighters on July 13, 2008, in Wanat, Afghanistan. Despite losing blood from wounds in both legs and an arm, he continued to fire at about 200 Taliban fighters and guided air strikes that helped repel the attack. He also used a tactic known as “cooking off” grenades, pulling the pin and holding it longer than usual so the enemy couldn’t throw it back.
Pitts, who was raised in Mont Vernon and now lives in Nashua, started Thursday’s remarks at the National Guard Headquarters in Concord by reading the names of the nine members of his platoon, who died in the attack.
“While it is an honor to have been nominated for the award, it is not mine alone,” he said. “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. I have an absolute responsibility to tell our story, because there are nine men who cannot and it is their names you should know.”
They are Sergio Abad, Jonathan Ayers, Jason Bogar, Jonathan Brostrom, Israel Garcia, Jason Hovater, Matthew Phillips, Pruitt Rainey and Gunnar Zwilling.
“I take comfort somehow in the pain of that loss, because it reminds me that they meant something to me and I never want to forget that and I appreciate the sacrifice they made for us,” he said.
Pitts recalled the moment Garcia died.
“There wasn’t really anything we could do for him other than for me to give him the guarantee that I would come home and tell his wife and mother that he loved them and that he was thinking of them in his last moments,” he said.
Pitts kept his word.
He will become the ninth living recipient of the medal for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan and has heard from two of the others about life after receiving the honor, a prospect he wasn’t happy about when he first learned his actions were being reviewed.
“I never felt that I deserved it but since then, I’ve accepted the fact that this isn’t mine,” he said. “It belongs to everybody who was there that day because we did it together.”
He maintains he hasn’t changed because of the medal.
“I think the biggest thing that has changed is I know I’ve been given a gift and I think I have an appreciation of life that I probably didn’t have before,” he said. “I know now that I’m going to live my life for those who aren’t here because I owe it to them.”
Pitts, who has fully recuperated from his injuries and is in business development at a software firm, was accompanied Thursday by his wife, Amy. His face brightened when asked about life since the battle, clearly happy about his upcoming second wedding anniversary and their 1-year-old son, Lucas.
When he someday tells the boy about what happened in Afghanistan, he said, “I don’t want to tell him about my experiences. I want to tell him about the other guys.”
He added: “I want him to know he’s here because of their actions. It’s the only reason he’s here because a lot of those guys saved my life.”
How would he feel if Lucas joined the service? Proud, but it’s his path to choose, Pitts said.
The military “was the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “It was the honor of my lifetime to serve with those guys and I would do it all over again.”