Medal of Honor Recipient Recalls Challenges of Returning to Civilian Life
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Ryan M. Pitts has faced some daunting challenges in life.
In 2008, he was wounded in Afghanistan. He would later receive the Medal of Honor for the valor he displayed that day. The next challenge for him, he said, was the recovery process and transitioning, the latter a challenge faced by thousands of soldiers every year who must adapt to civilian life.
Pitts spoke about those challenges April 10 at a gathering of 50 Atlanta area corporate and civic leaders and 25 senior Army leaders during the Atlanta CEO Symposium at the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.
At age 17, Pitts said he decided to enlist for "selfish reasons." He needed tuition money for college, and he saw the Army as the best route to that cash.
"My thinking going into it was, 'What am I going to get out of this experience?'" he said.
Upon telling friends and family that he had decided to enlist in the Army, their universal reaction was negative, he said.
"Everyone I knew was against it," Pitts recalled.
One of the comments that always stood out to him was, "You're too smart for that." It bothered him then, and he said it still bothers him today. He believes there's a wide gap in understanding the Army between those who have served and those who haven't.
On July 13, 2008, Pitts was in the Waygal Valley of northeastern Afghanistan setting up a small patrol base for an incoming unit. It was his second tour in Afghanistan and he was due to rotate stateside in two weeks after a 14-month deployment.
Shortly before the sun came up, he and 49 paratroopers from 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment were attacked by more than 200 enemy fighters, he said.
"They had the element of surprise," he said. "They had the high ground. They had us surrounded. They had nearly every tactical advantage that by our doctrine said they should have wiped us off the map. But they didn't.
"There were horrors that day," he continued. "We lost guys. But we fought back as a team."
The battle was high intensity, he said, noting "it felt like the air itself was exploding. Bullets were falling like raindrops."
Yet, each paratrooper put all he had into the fight, Pitts said. Running low on ammunition, soldiers scrambled to get more, exposing themselves to enemy fire in the process, but they did it because that's what needed to be done.
A tow missile truck was struck by an enemy rocket, ejecting a flaming tow missile into a fighting position that had five or six soldiers in it, Pitts said. One of the soldiers grabbed the missile and ran out into the open to prevent it from exploding and killing his comrades.
"He put it down and had the clarity to think that, 'If this thing cooks off, what's a safe direction for it to fly?'" The soldier then rejoined his comrades in the fight.
"This wasn't just a few selected visuals," Pitts added. "It was happening all over the place. All 49 gave it everything they had."
Pitts said he keeps those memories with him and recalls everyone displaying "an absolute sense of duty."
Looking back on it, Pitts said that "the Medal of Honor for me was a capstone of my military career. It embodied the best people I've ever served with and all the great things instilled in us."
Before the battle that day, Pitts had made up his mind to stay in the Army. His thinking about the Army had changed so much since he was a 17 year old enlisting for the sole purpose of getting tuition for college.
Unfortunately, though, the wounds Pitts suffered meant that he would be medically retired.
After being medically evacuated to the U.S., Pitts said, he ended up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., "where doctors there did an incredible job of putting me back together."
In addition to enduring the physical pain of recovery, he found it emotionally painful to be separated from the comrades he’d served with. "The guys that I served with, I'm closer than I am with my brother," he said. "To be removed from that was challenging."
But he realized it was time to transition and to consider the next stage of his life.
During that transition, he often sought reassurance in the words of his company commander to his men: "We never break contact. We never disengage from a fight. We might get knocked down. We might have to take a pause and re-attack, but we always keep moving forward."
Whenever Pitts started feeling sorry for himself, he recalled those words and they gave him a sense of mission and hope.
After being released from Walter Reed, Pitts said, he "hit the ground running." He went to the University of New Hampshire and earned a four-year degree in business.
He treated going to school as his mission, he said, attacking it every day with gusto. But he faced challenges as a college student, he said.
"Military culture is very different from the collegial culture," Pitts said.
As an example, he said, one day during a class presentation, he noticed another student was on Facebook and not paying attention. In the Army, Pitts said, it doesn't matter who's up front.
"If they're giving you a block of instruction, you're supposed to respect what they have to say," Pitts said.
That and other instances of college life "addled" him, he said, but he had two important things going for him that ultimately helped him transition successfully, graduate from college and then find a job in business development for a computer software firm in Nashua, New Hampshire, where he currently works.
First, he recalled his relationships with the men he’d served with. "My greatest obligation was to my brothers," he said. "And that doesn't end after our service."
Those soldiers he served with in Afghanistan were spread out across the U.S., but they stay connected through social media. "We reach out when one of my brothers is struggling," he said.
"The second part of it is finding a meaningful mission after the Army," he explained, before thanking the industry leaders in attendance for connecting veterans like him with those missions in their organizations.
Hiring veterans, Pitts told them, shouldn't be seen as an act of charity in exchange for their service.
"I think it's an opportunity," Pitts said. "There's a tremendous resource there. These are soldiers who know how to work well together in diverse teams with limited resources to accomplish the mission and never break contact."
As for that comment he had heard years ago that he was too smart to join the Army? He points out that, like him, many of the men he served with in Afghanistan ended up with successful careers after transitioning. One works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Another is majoring in biomechanical engineering at the University of California at Berkley. Yet another attends Harvard Law School.
"That battle didn't make them broken," he concluded. "They carry those scars but those scars have healed, and they're moving on and making a difference."
Medal of Honor
President Barack Obama awarded Pitts the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House, July 21, 2014.
In the summer of 2008 in Afghanistan, Pitts, then a sergeant, and his team were part of Operation "Rock Move," which was meant to transfer remaining forces and capability from Combat Outpost Bella to a new location on the outskirts of a village called Wanat. The new position was Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler. Combat Outpost Bella was to be closed.
On the morning of July 13, at about 4 a.m., Pitts was manning Observation Post Topside, which was positioned east of the main base and east of a bazaar and hotel complex in Wanat.
Shortly after, soldiers conducting surveillance identified potential insurgents. They put together a request for fire. But before that could happen, at about 4:20 a.m., soldiers heard machine-gun fire from the north. After that, the valley erupted in enemy fire.
Soldiers at Observation Post Topside were hit with small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades. Pitts and six other paratroopers at Observation Post Topside were injured in the initial volley of enemy fire. Two paratroopers were killed. Pitts took grenade fragments in both legs and his left arm.
For more than an hour after, Pitts continued to fight and defend his position and his teammates, despite his injuries.
Throughout the battle, despite the loss of blood and severity of his wounds, Pitts' incredible toughness, determination and ability to communicate with leadership while under fire allowed U.S. forces to hold the observation post and turn the tide of the battle.
Without his ability to stay alert and fight while critically wounded, the enemy would have gained a foothold on high ground and inflicted significantly greater causalities onto the vehicle patrol base, and the enemy could have been in possession of the fallen soldiers at the observation post.
Nine soldiers -- Spc. Sergio Abad, Cpl. Jonathan Ayers, Cpl. Jason Bogar, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, Sgt. Israel Garcia, Cpl. Jason Hovater, Cpl. Matthew Phillips, Cpl. Pruitt Rainey, and Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling -- were killed in the battle.
Pitts' other awards include the Bronze Star Medal with "V" Device, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal, and Army Commendation Medal with three Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters.
(Follow David Vergun on Twitter: @vergunARNEWS)