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Medal of Honor recipient still saving lives

President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to former Army Staff Sergeant Ryan Pitts. Alex Wong/Getty Images

When the shooting stopped, when the thump of grenades retreated with the vanquished insurgents, US Army Staff Sergeant Ryan Pitts was lying there, bleeding out of so many places his buddies worried he wouldn’t make it.

It was July 2008, in a remote village in Afghanistan called Wanat, and Pitts had somehow managed to hold off the first wave of some 200 Taliban fighters who tried to overrun the base where he manned the observation post.

Pitts doesn’t like talking about what he did that day. Instead, he prefers to remember his nine brothers, paratroopers from the Second Battalion, 503d Infantry Regiment, 173d Airborne Brigade Combat Team, who died fighting that day.


As the forward observer, Pitts was knocked to the ground by a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades. Shrapnel ripped through his arms and legs, and Pitts believed he was going to die. But he found the strength to hurl grenades, then crawled to a machine gun and opened fire, allowing time for reinforcements to arrive.

In July, Pitts became the most recent and ninth living Medal of Honor recipient from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the third soldier from the Second Battalion, 503d Infantry Regiment to receive the military’s highest honor.

With great care at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the Veterans Administration hospital in Manchester, N.H., his most obvious wounds healed.

But, back home in southern New Hampshire, his wife, Amy, noticed the wound no one could see.

“His short-term memory was poor. He couldn’t focus,” she said. “At first, I thought, maybe he’s just being a guy. You know, selective hearing. But it got worse.”

So did his headaches.

At Amy’s urging, Ryan Pitts went back to the VA and was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. He got treatment and he got better.


On Monday, the night before Veterans Day, Ryan Pitts stood on the stage at Symphony Hall and told of his own invisible wound for the first time. He did so at an event to support Home Base, the program run by the Boston Red Sox and Massachusetts General Hospital that treats veterans and their families for the invisible wounds of war, TBI, and post-traumatic stress.

A couple of hours before that speech, I sat with Amy and Ryan Pitts and they talked about how they hoped his talking about his invisible wound would reduce the stigma that leads so many veterans to not seek help.

“There’s this perception that seeking help is a sign of weakness. Or that we deserve to suffer in some way because we came home and our friends did not. I’ve felt both of these things, and neither is true,” Ryan Pitts said.

Some vets told him they’re ashamed of their invisible wounds, compared with the physical ones like those that left him recuperating in Walter Reed for a month.

“There’s always someone who has suffered more, but invisible wounds are no different than physical wounds, and their treatment is equally important,” Ryan Pitts said. “There is no shame and there is no weakness in seeking help. No one deserves to suffer.”

Pitts suffered in his own way. Eight of the nine soldiers who were killed in action that horrible day in Wanat died at his position, and he blamed himself.

“At first, I felt that I deserved to suffer and that my pain was penance for my failure to bring everyone home,” he said. “But I began to think about how they would want us to carry on and the lives I would want them to lead if we had traded places. We owe it to ourselves and to our fallen to lead good lives worthy of their sacrifice.”


Six years after he saved countless lives in battle, Ryan Pitts is still saving lives. His words are as powerful as the grenades that kept death at bay in a Godforsaken place called Wanat.

“Some of my buddies, I still have to ride them to get help,” he said. “I’m not going away.”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.