NASHUA — Some of the 200 enemy fighters were hidden in the trees. The Americans heard nothing, until the darkness exploded into the deadliest single firefight involving US troops in the war in Afghanistan.
Nine soldiers died and 27 were wounded when the large Taliban force attacked the remote outpost before dawn on July 13, 2008. But it could have been a lot worse had it not been for Ryan Pitts, a Lowell native who grew up just over the border in Mont Vernon, N.H.
On Monday, President Obama announced that Pitts, now 28, will be awarded the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest award for valor — for his role in the Battle of Wanat, one of the most analyzed engagements of the 12-year-old war. It is the 16th Medal of Honor awarded since 2001.
“When I think of that day, I think of the valor that was displayed by everyone who was there,” Pitts, a business development consultant at Oracle Corp. in Burlington, Mass., recalled in an interview at his Nashua home. “Guys who came home and especially the guys who didn’t.”
His is a story of an emotionally difficult childhood in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, a horrific scene in a remote valley near Pakistan, and the continuing struggle to heal.
Pitts taught himself to survive from an early age.
“I don’t care to elaborate, but he did not have the easiest childhood,” said his grandmother, Kathy Krypel, 77, who along with her late husband, Frank, had to help raise Ryan and his half-brother Scott. “But [he] was a very secure child, very comfortable in his own skin, even as a little person. He wasn’t perfect but he always kind of knew what direction he was going.”
Krypel recalled a note she received from Ryan’s fifth-grade teacher saying he was “a very special human being.”
His friends, too, speak of his quiet steadiness.
“He didn’t necessarily want to, but people would look for him to take charge,” said Matt Redmond, 30, a mechanic in Amherst, N.H. The pair became nearly inseparable after they met on the school bus when Ryan was in the ninth grade at Souhegan High School in Amherst. “People would want to follow him.”
Ryan wasn’t much of an athlete as a kid, Redmond recalled, but he had a competitive streak and sought physical and mental challenges such as paint ball and snowmobiling. He bought and restored old cars.
Redmond, the jovial and outgoing counterpoint to the more reserved Pitts, spent months with Pitts building a hang glider out of thin tube steel that they planned to pull behind a snowmobile. They even crafted the frame — with Ryan as chief welder — before deciding, reluctantly, that it probably was not the wisest endeavor.
A defining moment, as it has been for so many, was the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
“I remember where I was when I first heard,” Pitts recalled of 9/11, during his junior year of high school. “I was walking up the stairs of my high school and somebody said, ‘Somebody flew a plane into the World Trade Center.’ I didn’t think it was true. I just thought that’s not even a funny joke.
“For me it was just disbelief,’’ he said. “Whenever I see the photos now, it is definitely angering to me, seeing people jump out of the buildings.”
Two years later, Pitts said, he enlisted in the Army because “I wanted to go to college [but] didn’t know what I wanted to go for, didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I had always wanted to serve.”
On the morning of July 13, 2008, Pitts, then a 22-year-old sergeant nearing the end of his second tour, found himself serving as a forward observer in the darkness of a remote valley in Wanat, Afghanistan, perched on a craggy ridge and surrounded by sandbags.
Nothing appeared to be amiss as Pitts and eight of his fellow paratroopers, all part of the 173d Airborne Brigade, stood watch on what was known as Observation Post Topside. One of the soldiers had documented 14 shooting stars.
But the soldiers were “well aware of significant enemy forces in the Waygal Valley and believed the leaders of these forces . . . intended to attack,” according to a detailed Army report of the battle completed later that year. Their previous outpost, about 5 miles away, had been the target of a series of attacks over the previous year.
Just a few days earlier, Pitts’s 50-strong Chosen Company, along with a small detachment of Marines and members of the Afghan National Army, had established Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler (named after a fallen soldier) to stop Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters sneaking over the border from Pakistan.
There were indications the unit was not welcome by the residents of the town, who complained of civilian casualties at the hands of US airstrikes. They also heard warnings from the chief Afghan police official in the area and from local government security forces.
“However, such warnings were routine and often proved to be false or exaggerated,” the Army found.
Pitts later told investigators he remembered walking to the edges of the observation post to monitor the “dead space” to the north of their perch, where the ground fell away into a tree-filled ravine with a small creek. No one reported seeing or hearing anything suspicious, the Army later found.
Suddenly, at 4:20 a.m., an estimated 200 enemy fighters, hidden in the trees, on rooftops, and inside the town’s bazaar, launched a “staggering” number of rocket-propelled grenades and intense automatic weapons fire. Nearly everyone on the observation post was hit.
The US commander, Captain Matthew R. Myer, radioed from his post to a nearby base, “This is a Ranch House-style attack,” a reference to one of the company’s previous outposts that had been nearly overrun the previous August, wounding several American troops.
The insurgents, wearing masks and a combination of military garb and civilian clothes, fired repeatedly at close range. An American Humvee mounted with an antitank missile launcher was hit and exploded.
Soldiers fell all around Pitts, dead, dying, or wounded. Pitts was stung by enemy fire. Shrapnel pierced his arms, legs, and chest. But he remained focused on keeping the enemy at bay long enough for reinforcements to arrive.
Crawling under heavy fire, Pitts whispered reports over the radio about the insurgent positions just below him and began “cooking off” hand grenades, holding the explosives a few extra seconds so there would be no time for the enemy to throw them back — a desperate move that could have killed him.
He had the presence of mind to provide instructions for helicopter gunships to target the enemy to the north.
He saw his buddies struggle to live — and watched some fight and die.
Among them was the 24-year-old Mexican-born Sergeant Israel Garcia, a fellow team leader. “I was able to talk to him before he died,” Pitts said. Garcia “wanted me to tell his wife and his family he loved them,” a vow Pitts kept when he met Garcia’s mother and his wife, Leslie.
Corporal Jonathan Ayers, a 24-year-old from Georgia, got shot in his helmet. “It didn’t hurt him,” Pitts recalled. “But then he got back on the machine gun and kept firing. You know, they hit you once in the helmet it is pretty safe bet they are going to do it again. But he stayed on it, so it killed him.”
Lieutenant Jonathan P. Bostrom, his platoon commander, and Specialist Jason Hovater, his weight-lifting companion, ran “from the vehicle patrol base to the [observation post] completely exposed to enemy fire to reinforce that position,” Pitts said. “They were killed.”
Also killed were two of Pitts’s close friends: Corporal Pruitt Rainey, 22, his jujutsu partner; and, Corporal Gunnar Zwilling, 20, who “was like the little brother of the platoon.”
Looking back, Pitts said, as he struggled to maintain his composure, “we were a family.”
Pitts spent long months recuperating from his wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington before he was discharged from the Army in 2009.
He returned to New Hampshire, where he studied business at the University of New Hampshire on the GI Bill, got married, and is now a father.
A few weeks ago, he was home in his peaceful suburban home in Nashua with his wife, Amy, and 1-year-old son, Lucas, when the president called on the phone with congratulations: Pitts had been approved for the Medal of Honor.
The award makes him the ninth living recipient of the 16 honorees since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Those awarded the medal posthumously include Sergeant Jared Monti of Raynham, Mass.
It was a moment of pride that was inevitably a painful reminder. So it was that Amy Pitts said she has “mixed emotions” about the award.
“He was determined to heal after he was injured,” said Amy, a mortgage processor.
While she is “incredibly proud” of her husband’s actions, “with this honor also comes the memories of that horrible day,” she said. “I am just beyond grateful that he will be able to share the award time with his brothers. I hope it will be a healing time.”
The ceremony is expected to be held in the coming weeks.
Pitts sees the award as one not for him, but for all.
“No one man carried the day,” he said. “We did it as a team. I remember looking around seeing other guys fighting so hard that I had to do my part, too. Everybody risked their lives for each other, and some of them paid for it with their lives. But they saved other people.”