Former Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts struggles while taking questions about the 2008 Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan, which led to the Nashua resident's nomination for a Medal of Honor. (MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER)
Shrapnel had struck both legs and the left arm of New Hampshire paratrooper Ryan Pitts.
Reinforcements sent to help him had fallen back or been killed.
And the commander radioed that there were no other troops to send.
Still, the sergeant kept launching grenades and directing artillery fire during what turned out to be one of the bloodiest one-day battles in the War in Afghanistan. Now retired from the Army and nominated for a Medal of Honor, Pitts can vividly recall the battle.
The Nashua man spoke Thursday at a news conference at New Hampshire National Guard headquarters, part of the run-up to the ceremony that will take place on July 21, when President Obama gives Pitts the highest combat award possible.
“When I realized I was alone, I thought I was going to die. I thought it was my time,” Pitts said Thursday. Pitts was one of 47 American troops and 24 Afghan Army troops to withstand a well-planned and coordinated attack by about 200 Taliban troops on July 13, 2008.
Since then, the Battle of Wanat has been dissected and recreated. An Army review found three commanders derelict in their duties, but those findings were later rescinded.
The Army Combat Studies Institute issued a heavily researched study of the battle that is more than 250 pages long (click here to view the report).
And the Army produced a 15-minute training video based on the firefight:
Eight of the nine soldiers to die at Wanat were with Pitts at Outpost Topside, a forward observation post of boulders, sandbags and concertina wire. It was the eyes and ears of a patrol base that the 173rd Airborne Brigade was constructing in the village of Wanat.
Throughout Thursday’s 30-minute news conference, Pitts referred to the nine who died, often by name. The medal, he said, was for everyone at Wanat, and Pitts insisted he did no more than any of them.
“Valor was everywhere, and we carried the day together,” he said at the beginning of his remarks. “The guys who came for me, I’m never going to be as good as them.”
Video: Sgt. Ryan Pitts' Press Conference
One, Sgt. Israel Garcia, arrived when the post commander was eventually able to send a second round of reinforcements. Garcia died in Pitts’ arms.
“There wasn’t anything we could do for him, other than to give him the guarantee I would come home and tell his wife and mother that he loved them,” he said.
Pitts said he was initially shell-shocked by the first attack. A soldier put on a tourniquet.
“There wasn’t any pain at first. For me, I knew I had to participate, I had to do what I could to help out,” he said.
At that point, Pitts was cooking grenades — pulling the pin and holding them for several seconds so they would detonate immediately once they landed. Most of his actions are detailed in his Medal of Honor narrative. He blind-fired a machine gun over a waist-high wall of sandbags until he could prop himself up and continued to lay down fire.
He also directed artillery fire to positions around Outpost Topside. When he realized no fire was coming from his fellow soldiers, he withdrew to the opposite corner of the outpost and realized they were gone. Some were dead. Others thought he was dead and had pulled back.
Pitts continued fighting. He used a grenade launcher to propel grenades almost vertically, landing them on Taliban fighters just outside the sandbag walls. He also radioed nearby troops to place fire just over the tops of the sandbag wall. The fire was designed to strike enemy trying to breach the wall, but it also put rounds just inches above his helmet.
The second round of reinforcements arrived, and then Apache helicopters, turning the tide of battle.
“It was just every man fighting with everything they had,” Pitts said.
Since the Civil War, about 60 other New Hampshire soldiers have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Pitts is the only one from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is one of nine living recipients of the medal.
Pitts said injuries prevented him from re-enlisting. The 2003 graduate of Souhegan High School healed, came home, and soon graduated from the University of New Hampshire. He now works for the software company Oracle.
Pitts celebrates his second wedding anniversary next month; he and his wife, Amy, have a 1-year-old son, Lucas.
Pitts said he realizes the responsibility of being a Medal of Honor recipient. He’ll never do anything to disgrace the honor, and he has a story to tell about the valor of his fallen comrades.
“I don’t want to forget about it,” Pitts said. “I think I’ve learned to manage it. But I take comfort, somehow, in the pain of that loss because it reminds me that they meant something to me.”