Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts, amid one of the bloodiest battles of the war in Afghanistan, was badly injured and fighting for his life, when he paused to comfort his comrade as he lay dying, Sgt. Israel Garcia.
Army Secretary John McHugh lauded Pitts' compassion and courage as Pitts was inducted into the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes on Tuesday, one day after receiving the Medal of Honor. As much as the ceremony was about Pitts, it was about the other men who fought the Battle of Wanat, including nine who did not survive and 27 who were wounded.
As Pitts fought an enemy onslaught from a high outpost, Garcia was among four who scrambled up to reinforce Pitts. After a barrage of RPGs injured all five of them, Garcia lay mortally wounded.
"Ryan pulled his close friend to him, his brother, and knowing there was nothing he could do for him, he just laid there and held his hand," McHugh said. " 'We just talked for a while,' Ryan said. He told me to tell his mom and wife he loved him. Ryan later honored that commitment."
McHugh acknowledged Wanat, fought on on July 13, 2008, as "a place of unspeakable sadness and a place of incomprehensible valor." McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno in their remarks acknowledged Pitts, the fallen, their families, and the veterans of the Battle of Wanat who attended the ceremony. The troops were with 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.
"I am moved by Staff Sgt. Pitts' humility, the selflessness and his respect for his fellow soldiers," Odierno said. "This combined with his gallantry and courage under chaotic conditions separates him from others."
Pitts, too, paid tribute to his brothers in arms, recounting the heroic deeds of several members of his team, some "who fought with their last breath so the rest of us could return home. They are the real heroes."
"These men and so many others displayed extraordinary acts of valor that day," said Pitts, 28, of Nashua, New Hampshire. "No one man carried the fight. We did it together."
Pitts, now a former staff sergeant, is credited with enabling U.S. forces to hold the outpost, turning the tide and protecting fallen Americans from enemy hands before air support arrived to decisively end the battle.
In a solemn speech, Pitts recalled the actions of his comrades. He said he considers the award a memorial that, "belongs to every man I fought alongside," and he is only its caretaker.
One soldier was shot through both legs carrying the mortally wounded Spc. Sergio S. Abad, 21, to cover, Pitts said. A handful of others manned critically important weapons systems targeted by the enemy, and others exposed themselves to direct fire to reload those weapons.
One soldier picked up an unexploded missile and ran it into the open to protect his fellow troops. Another stood and returned fire, despite wounds to both legs and a hand.
Cpl. Jason Bogar, 25, who was fatally wounded, had stopped fighting only to provide Pitts and others with medical care.
Cpl. Matthew Phillips, 27, who was also fatally wounded, had returned fire in the battle's first moments and threw a hand grenade to repel the enemy assault.
Cpl. Jonathan Ayers, 24, who did not survive, was heavily targeted while firing his machine gun, "in the face of overwhelming enemy fire, despite already being struck in the helmet by an enemy round," Pitts said.
1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, 24, and Cpl. Jason Hovater, 24, braved enemy fire to reinforce the outpost, while Cpl. Pruitt Rainey, 22, distributed ammo and weapons systems. All three would die.
Four others maneuvered to reinforce Pitts, including Garcia, 24, who would not survive the battle.
"We were a family whose bonds were forged in the fires of combat," Pitts said. "Our brothers' lives were more important than our own."
As Pitts recognized the troops who fought with him and those who came to their aid, his voice cracked briefly. He asked them to stand and be recognized.
"I owe you a debt I can never repay," he said.