Former Staff Sgt. Ryan M. Pitts became the third living "Sky Soldier" from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team to receive the Medal of Honor in the past four years.
Pitts joined Sgt. Kyle White and former Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta as the members of the 173rd who make up a group of just nine living recipients of the Medal of Honor from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands of U.S. troops have fought in the Middle East since the attacks of 9/11, but it wasn't until 2010 that Giunta became the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.
Maj. Matthew Myer, Pitts' former company commander, smiled slightly when asked: "What is it with the 173rd?"
It's a good question considering that one infantry brigade combat team currently makes up one-third of all living recipients of the military's highest award for valor out of two wars fought over 13 years.
Myer's answer was simple. He credited the camaraderie within the 173rd and the way soldiers looked out for each other in combat. Myer explained that no soldier woke up and decided to commit an act of bravery worthy of the Medal of Honor.
"No one goes out and decides to be valorous," Myer said. Valor was more the reaction to the realization that "my buddy is in trouble," he explained.
Myer joined Pitts and other former members of the 173rd at the Pentagon on July 22 for the induction of Pitts to the Pentagon's "Hall of Heroes," one day after President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to Pitts at the White House.
Soldiers with the 173rd have faced some of the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan over the past decade. Pitts, White and Giunta each earned their medals for actions taken during bloody battles in the mountainous regions of eastern Afghanistan.
Pitts earned his Medal of Honor in the Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan's Kunar province on July 13, 2008. The battle left nine U.S. soldiers dead and 27 wounded after more than 200 Taliban members attacked an outpost manned by 48 U.S. troops.
Pitts was the sole survivor at his observation post and held the line after he sustained shrapnel wounds to both legs and his left arm. Spc. Jonathan Ayers, Spc. Jason Bogar, Spc. Matthew Phillips, Spc. Pruitt Rainey and Spc. Gunnar Zwilling all died beside Pitts at Observation Outpost Topside.
"In that moment, Pitts resigned himself to certain death, but remained determined to do as much damage as possible to the enemy before they overwhelmed the OP," the Army narrative said.
He continued to fight and "his actions allowed U.S. forces time to reinforce the OP and bring in airstrikes which turned the tide of battle," the narrative said.
The lack of support the 173rd received during the battle has raised controversy within the Army. The president alluded to it at Pitts' ceremony.
President Obama described how the defensive position in Wanat "had significant vulnerabilities. Parts of the village sat on higher ground. On every side, mountains soared 10,000 feet into the sky."
"Heavy equipment to help build their defenses was delayed," Obama said of the soldiers of 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, of the 173rd. "And the aerial surveillance they were counting on was diverted away to other missions."
The survivors who gathered at the Pentagon last week said they viewed their position at Wanat as just another challenge to overcome in the final mission of their 14-month deployment in Afghanistan.
"I didn't have any doubts," said Myer, who was then a captain and the company commander at Wanat. There wasn't much choice in ceding the high ground in mountainous Kunar.
It was the enemy who made the mistake in attacking the paratroopers of the 173rd, said 1st Sgt. David Dzwik, who was then the platoon sergeant.
"They came between us and the chopper" that would take them home after more than a year in Afghanistan, Dzwik said. "That was their bad luck."
In the aftermath, an initial investigation of the battle recommended reprimands for several officers in the chain of command for failures in providing support to the troops at Wanat, but a subsequent investigation overturned the recommendations.
At the Pentagon meeting, Pitts disclosed that the Medal of Honor came as a surprise. He had heard he might have been considered for a Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor, but "I never wanted an award, never wanted anything."
Pitts said that he had heard from White, a buddy in the 173rd who received the Medal of Honor in May, that Pitts' Distinguished Service Cross recommendation was being upgraded to the MoH.
"More or less, it was rumors for a long time that it had been upgraded to a Medal of Honor," Pitts said. "And it was when Kyle White was going through his preparations that I received a phone call from the Pentagon. Kyle texted me and said, 'What's your number? They're going to be calling you soon.' "
Pitts' award came five years after the Battle of Wanat. Some in Congress, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, have criticized bureaucratic delays in the awards process for the medal, but Pitts said it was never a concern to him.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke to the systemic difficulties in selecting recipients of the Medal of Honor in his book "Duty."
Of the estimated 40 million who have served in the military since the Civil War, only 3,500 have received the Medal of Honor, Gates wrote. In his opinion, "too few have been awarded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."
"President (George W.) Bush was, I think, always disappointed that he was unable to present the Medal of Honor to a single living recipient," Gates said.
Gates said he had asked Gen. Peter Chiarelli, then the Army vice chief of staff, why so few had been recommended, and Chiarelli replied that "because medals had been handed out so freely in Vietnam, succeeding officers were determined to raise the bar. They had raised it too high, he thought," Gates wrote.
In Vietnam, 248 Medals of Honor were awarded, 156 of them posthumously. Soldiers received 161, followed by 57 to Marines, 16 to sailors and 14 to the Air Force.
The brief statement that Pitts offered at the White House was dedicated to the soldiers he fought next to in Afghanistan. He told reporters at the Pentagon that six years after the Battle of Wanat, he still thinks about the bravery and valor shown by each soldier in his unit.
"I think about it every day," Pitts said. "I think about the guys, more often. Most of the time, I just think about what we did together, and I'm always awestruck."
"And I use that a lot, but it is awe-inspiring," Pitts said. "I mean, I was there and I saw what some of these guys did, and it's still unbelievable to me."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.email@example.com.