Since receiving the Medal of Honor in July, former Army Staff Sergeant Ryan Pitts has shared his story in front of audiences from Washington, D.C., to Italy.
He rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange and chatted with David Letterman about his actions during the Battle of Wanat, for which he received the nation’s highest award for valor. He’s had an opportunity to speak most of these occasions and, without exception, he’s used each one to talk about the nine soldiers that died fighting with him on July 13, 2008. His interview with On Patrol was no different.
Pitts, who was seriously wounded by shrapnel and unable to stand during the Battle of Wanat, is credited with preventing hundreds of enemy fighters from overrunning a small observation post in eastern Afghanistan. He says the medal—the nation’s highest award for valor—is not his alone and that it represents a team effort to defend the post.
The medal also serves a memorial to the men who didn’t come home—men Pitts considers brothers.
1st Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom, 24: He came in partway through the deployment and … it’s always tough to be the new guy, but he was accepted quickly and I think he endeared himself to the guys. He was really likeable and could relate to the guys – he was just one of us.
He was a goofball and would joke around sometimes, but on missions he was very tactically sound – one of the best leaders that I’ve ever seen at that level, that I ever had the privilege of working with. I think we always felt safe going out with him and his plan was a solid plan. We trusted him and he certainly put his guys before himself. [He always did] whatever he could to mitigate risk and it always safety first and making sure we could do everything to bring everybody home. He never cut any corners or anything like that. He’d be right there alongside everyone else and he led by example. He’d jump in and help out with whatever we were doing. I think that really endeared him to the guys because he didn’t see himself as different. That made us want to follow him.
Sergeant Israel Garcia, 24: He was new. He came in after we got back from my first deployment in 2006. I got to know him better over the course of the deployment. … He had a wife, Lesly, and was always just a real happy guy. Garcia was always in a good mood, always smiling, with an infectious [personality]. You know, just real easygoing … a relaxed guy.
He cared a lot about his soldiers and took a lot of time to make sure that they were taken care of and prepared for everything that they would face. I know he loved his wife very much and those were some of his last words … He wanted me to tell his family and his wife that he loved them.
Specialist Sergio Abad, 21: I didn’t know Abad very well. What I do know about him is that he came over from Korengal Valley – he had been with Battle Company – and he came over to join us. … He was a mortarman [and] he was very good at his job. He was a young guy and for him to be as proficient as he was, that was impressive.”
I heard this recently: His squad leader helped [Sergio] get married while he was deployed to Afghanistan. My buddy was a squad leader who took care of that and Sergio wanted to get married . His fiancée was pregnant with their daughter and my buddy looked up online and found the one state – I think it was Nebraska – that would allow people to be married over the phone. And I think that’s how they got married. That’s the way I remember that story.
That’s just something to me that’s pretty amazing. Not only just Sergio’s dedication to make sure his family was taken care of but also the connection that our leaders had with their guys. His squad leader made it happen for him and did whatever he could to help him out.
Corporal Jonathan Ryan Ayers, 24: Ayers was a real quiet, even-keeled, subdued guy. I had been on guard with him [countless] times and I can’t even remember everything that we talked about just because he was so low key. But he was real steady. He never complained and you could always count on him to do whatever he needed to do.
When I think of that day, he got hit in the helmet and continued to stay on the machine gun. … I guess that I’m amazed but not surprised. I’m in awe of what he did, but at the same time, knowing how he was as a soldier … it makes it unsurprising that [he continued to fight].
Corporal Jason Michael Charles Bogar, 25: He had previous combat experience – he had been in the National Guard and had deployed to Afghanistan before. He had come over partway through the deployment. He was a reflective guy. He thought a lot about and cared deeply for the [local] people. He took lots of photographs and thought deeply about why we were there and he believed in it. He tried to capture their culture and their lives. That was always interesting to me. He stood out in that way.
Corporal Jason Dane Hovater, 24: He was the funniest guy in the platoon. … And he made fun of himself just as much as he made fun of everybody else. Everybody loved him. He was deeply religious and his faith was very important to him.
He was a pretty fit guy – and he had gotten Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book on weightlifting a long time ago and he would do Arnold impersonations all the time.
He had a lot of heart. He would admit that he had fear and that he was scared, but I always admired that he would go out and do his job. He could confront his fears and do what needed to be done. I always respected that.”
Corporal Matthew Britten Phillips, 27: He had a wife, Eve, and got married leading up to that deployment. He loved poker and he loved his brand new Jeep Rubicon. He brought that thing to Italy and that was his baby. He loved that thing and didn’t want to let anyone else drive it. He was another guy who smiled quite a bit and had a really infectious way about him.
Corporal Pruitt Allen Rainey, 22: He grew up wrestling and loved it. I think he wrestled for the one year that he went to college and was pretty good at it. I was into Jujitsu when I was over there and he and I fought a couple of time and he was good. He wasn’t afraid. He’d fight anybody. He didn’t care, even if he was going to lose, he wouldn’t back down.
There were a lot of contradictions, too. He was a soft spoken, nice guy and we called him “Baby Huey.” I think that’s what Hovater would call him. I’ve probably never been more comfortable – and I don’t think any of us have been – more comfortable being ourselves than around all those guys. And it’s funny that Rainey – this big, tough guy – listened to whatever type of music that made him happy. He liked Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. You’d think that you’d catch a lot of jokes for it, but the fact that he didn’t care and he was comfortable and nobody else cared either. It was a funny contradiction.
I also remember Pruitt was really good at poker. He racked up some winnings over the course of that deployment.
Corporal Gunnar William Zwilling, 20: He was one of the youngest in the platoon. All these guys are characters – really funny guys and everybody loved them, infectious smiles, really happy – he was just great to be around. He wasn’t physically a big guy but he could carry his weight and we all trusted him and he could be counted on.
What I think was heartbreaking for him was that he lost his mom during that deployment. … He probably wasn’t the same guy after going through that loss and coming back to Afghanistan, but he was just as reliable [and] was the same happy-go-lucky guy. … I don’t know, maybe it helped being around the other guys in the platoon because we were like a family. That’s the way I always felt about it.
Chad Stewart is the senior editor of ON★PATROL.