For his outstanding heroism in one of the bloodiest encounters in the Afghanistan War, former Army Sgt. Ryan Pitts on Monday afternoon became the ninth living recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Joined at the White House ceremony by his family and many of his former fellow servicemen, Pitts received the nation's highest recognition from President Obama for his exemplary "selfless service."
While serving in the summer of 2008 with the 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, Pitts and his team were transferred to a station on the outskirts of a village called Wanat. It was expected to be their last mission before returning stateside.
In the early-morning hours of July 13, the base was ambushed by enemy machine gun fire. Soldiers at Observation Post Topside, where Pitts was positioned, were caught in an eruption of small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades.
During that initial volley, Pitts was hit by grenade shrapnel in both legs and one arm. Despite his debilitating injuries and loss of blood, he continued to fight and defend his position, throwing grenades then taking up an M240 machine gun.
"I couldn't stand because I couldn't really use my legs," Pitts told CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin, noting he deduced the enemy to be a mere ten meters away. "So I would pull myself up on a knee and prop my leg up, and then I would blind fire over the top of the sand bags to try and suppress anybody that might be close by or around there."
Because machine guns typically require two soldiers to operate, he added, he "would have difficulties every once in a while with malfunctions, just because the ammo would shift. And so I would have to pull it back down, clear the malfunction and repeat the process over again, blind fire and prop myself back up."
After crawling out of the north fighting position, Pitts said he "looked down at a terrace to the west, and I could see the dead guys down there. And then I kept crawling south and I didn't see anybody in the Crow's Nest, nobody was in the southern fighting position. That's when I realized, I thought everyone was dead. ...I was the only one there."
During the ceremony Monday, Mr. Obama lauded him for "holding the line."
"Eight American soldiers had now fallen and Ryan Pitts was the only living soldier at that post," the president said. "The enemy was so close Ryan could hear their voices. He whispered into the radio, he was the only one left and was running out of ammo. 'I was going to die,' he remembers, 'and made my peace with it.' And then he prepared to make a last stand."
Nine soldiers were ultimately killed in the battle, and 27 - Pitts included - were wounded. But Pitts' prolonged efforts staved the enemy off high ground that could have resulted in far more casualties, and allowed the U.S. to retain possession of the fallen soldiers at the observation post.
"Nine guys died so the rest of us could come home," Pitts told Martin. "And valor was everywhere. ...We did it as a team. No one guy carried the day."
Pitts departed active-duty service in 2009. He now resides in Nashua, N.H., where he uses his business degree from the University of New Hampshire at Manchester as a developer for the computer software industry. His military education includes the U.S. Army Airborne School, U.S. Army Pathfinder Course and the Warrior Leader Course.