By: Mark Seavey
Staff Sgt. Ryan M. Pitts of Nashua, N.H., strode onto the Hall of Heroes stage at the Pentagon one day after receiving the Medal of Honor last July. His biggest little fan, 9-year-old Evan Pertile of Columbia, S.C., had a prime seat next to his mom, Rachel, and their friend, Leta Carruth, in the third row.
Evan was especially excited about his trip to and from the Hall of Heroes. “We got a police escort from the hotel to the Pentagon, and then they took us back from the Pentagon!” he declared.
That Evan could be there at all delighted Pitts.
At 5, the boy was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor that is now in remission. While he was ill, Evan received a special visit from a wounded soldier recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The soldier was Ryan Pitts.
Until Pitts was awarded the U.S. military’s highest decoration, the Pertile family did not know what had happened to him in Afghanistan.
What had happened was the Battle of Wanat, where some of the war’s heaviest sustained fighting occurred. Forty-eight paratroopers of 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team and 24 Afghan National Army soldiers faced up to 500 fighters led by Sheikh Dost Mohammed.
Launched just before sunrise, the initial wave aimed to take out a small outpost manned by nine U.S. soldiers on an elevated patch of boulders known as “OP Topside.” Construction crews had been delayed, so the outpost at the time had few entrenchments or defensive emplacements, with the exception of some HESCO barriers and sandbagged positions.
A burst of machine-gun fire initiated contact, followed by an RPG round that hit the position and wounded or stunned everyone at OP Topside. Spc. Matthew Phillips managed to toss one grenade before he was mortally wounded. Pfc. Tyler Stafford and Pitts were seriously wounded, and within the first 20 minutes all nine men at the outpost were either killed or badly hurt. Insurgents then swarmed through a wire barrier that provided meager defense.
“I could look back and see the amount of fire that the OP was taking,” says Sgt. Mike Denton, who was stationed below Topside. “It was just a huge dust cloud and explosion after explosion after explosion. You knew that nothing good was happening up there.”
Because of its elevated position, Topside was critical to the base. Losing it would have given the more numerous insurgents excellent firing positions. As President Barack Obama said at Pitts’ Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House on July 21, “against that onslaught, one American held the line … just 22 years old, nearly surrounded, bloodied but unbowed.”
Wounded in both legs and with shrapnel in his arm, Pitts crawled onto the sandbags and fired a machine gun at the approaching insurgents. Alone and bleeding, the perimeter of his position breached, his predicament was grave. He could hear enemy voices as they closed in. He made a prediction about his fate: “I was going to die and made my peace with it.”
Pitts would not go down without a fight, though. He began throwing grenades, but because his attackers were so close and the grenades had a five-second fuse, he would “cook them off” for three seconds before hurling them. After exhausting his supply of hand grenades, he picked up a grenade launcher and began firing almost directly straight up to hit targets surrounding his position.
It was then that a unit from below, including Denton, arrived with needed help. Denton would receive the Silver Star for his actions that day.
“That Mike Denton and the other guys basically decided that my life was worth risking their lives to come and try to save me, that’s pretty amazing,” Pitts says. “He saved my life. He was able to search his best friend Jason Hovater’s dead body for ammo and tell him that he loved him and then moved back on to fight … I don’t know if I could have done that. I don’t know if I would have had the clarity and composure to just turn around and be about business the way he was.”
With support from Denton and his unit, the wounded Pitts’ grim situation began to turn around. He picked up the radio and began calling for air support. Such close-in air missions were extremely dangerous, and Pitts knew it, but he had no other options.
Staff Sgt. Stephen Edward Simmons was away from the fight when Pitts, one of his best friends, made the call. “I was in a place called Chowkay, and we heard it over the TACSAT (satellite radio) that there was a major firefight there that they were involved in, and I heard all the fallen hero missions coming in,” Simmons says. “It was really tough being in a whole ’nother valley and not be able to do anything to help. I wanted to. If I had had a helicopter, I’d have been there to help. It’s tough listening to all that go down on the radio and not be able to do anything.”
Staff Sgt. Adam Delaney, another close friend, listened to the radio from across the valley. “Once I heard that the OP was hit, the first thing I thought of was Ryan.”
“We grew up together – Adam, Stephen and me – and Mike joined us a little later.” Pitts says of the friends who served with him in Afghanistan. “We were all privates together – except Mike – and even after service we’ve all been in each other’s weddings.”
Listening to the battle unfold, Delaney held out hope for Pitts. “I knew that if there was going to be but one person left up there to hold that position, Ryan would be one of the few in the world that could do it.”
“With the amount of RPGs, hand grenades and machine-gun fire that we were receiving, it just seemed like there was no lull,” Denton says. “It was frustrating for a while because it felt like they always had fire superiority over us … and then we started turning the tide.”
With air assets on station, the tide indeed turned, and the enemy finally withdrew.
“I think one of the biggest things about Wanat that Ryan has been recognized for is what he did for us by staying at the OP,” Denton says. “You always want to protect your brothers in combat. You love them very much, but it’s not an obligation. He didn’t have to stay there. But being the type of person Ryan is – I couldn’t see him doing anything else. It’s what he was prepared to give his life to do, and all the nine guys we lost felt the same way.”
“When I found out what Ryan did, it didn’t surprise me,” Simmons says. “He was fearless.”
“There are amazing warriors – it’s in their blood, in their genes, and that’s what Ryan was,” Delaney says. “It’s horrible to say, but he was born to be on top of that OP.”
“When I think about that day, I think about what we did together,” Pitts says. “I think about the guys we did lose, and I know that they helped bring me and a lot of other guys home. Valor was everywhere that day. I am in awe of the things the other guys did. I look at them and think, ‘I’m never going to be as good as they are.’”
Those who fell that day were Spc. Sergio Abad, Cpl. Jonathan Ayers, Cpl. Jason Bogar, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, Sgt. Israel Garcia, Cpl. Jason Hovater, Spc. Matthew Phillips, Cpl. Pruitt Rainey and Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling. “Garcia was mortally wounded and died saving my life,” Pitts says. “Brostrom and Hovater were killed after reinforcing the OP, and Zwilling, Phillips, Rainey and Ayers fought to the death to bring us home.”
Pitts and Denton were flown from Afghanistan to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, then to Walter Reed for treatment of numerous wounds and a long recovery process.
Pitts was a patient at Walter Reed when he learned about Evan Pertile.
The boy was at St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and had quit eating. Chemotherapy and surgeries had taken away his appetite.
His mother, nearly at her breaking point, made a quick trip home while Evan was getting treatments. On the plane, “I was visibly upset sitting next to this complete stranger, who asked me what was wrong.
I was mortified, just crying on the plane. So finally I started talking to her.”
Pertile explained to the stranger that Evan wouldn’t eat. In the course of their conversation she mentioned how much the boy loved the military and would run up to people in camouflage (sometimes even civilians wearing hunting clothes) and shout, “Army guy!”
The stranger sitting next to Pertile worked at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Soon, young Evan began to receive letters from active-duty soldiers across the country. They all had the same basic message: “If you want to grow up to be Army strong, you need to eat your food.”
Evan received thousands of letters and even some Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals. “(His story) spread from the Army to the Navy to the Marines, all over America, Afghanistan and Iraq,” Pertile says. “We had letters from Irish soldiers. It was a worldwide phenomenon. It was a miracle, all these guys, all his battle buddies out there who we haven’t met to this day.
“They said, ‘Eat.’ And he ate.”
Carruth, who writes at the military blog From Cow Pastures to Kosovo, learned about Evan’s story and contacted the family. “She said, ‘Hey, I’m really involved in the military, and I’d like to meet you and Evan and get to know you,’” Pertile recalls. “Shortly thereafter, she said, “There’s a wounded warrior who’s a true national hero, and he’d like to come visit Evan. “We were all about that.”
Pitts met Carruth when he was at Walter Reed. “She had been a big supporter of our battalion ‘The Rock’ during our deployment for OEF8,” he says. “She asked if I would come out to Memphis to visit a school there that had organized a sock drive for us when we were overseas.”
While he was in town, would Pitts mind visiting a sick young man at St. Jude?
“It’s always been tough for me to see kids who are sick or hurt,” Pitts says. “It just never seems fair, especially having cancer. But one thing that has always impressed me is how resilient and strong kids are. He was sick, but at the same time he was this lively young kid.”
“On May 9, 2009, when Ryan shows up with Leta, Evan was sitting in Ryan’s lap within 20 seconds,” Pertile says. “He loved this man. Ryan was a gift from God.”
Of his time in the hospital fighting cancer, Evan remembers some of Pitts’ gifts to him. “He brought me a beret and a coin and a flag,” Evan says.
The battle-hardened paratrooper and the young cancer patient also bonded over an unlikely toy. “Well,” says Evan, giggling a bit, “I had a little fart machine that he helped me put together, and I put it under people’s chairs at the table, and I would press the button and it would make a sound like they had farted.”
Pitts says he loved visiting Evan. “He was a really strong little kid. It was a great experience to see what it meant to him and to see how happy he was, even if just for that afternoon.”
“It was heartwarming to no end,” Pertile adds. “We felt so blessed that this man, who was so grievously wounded fighting for our country, defending his fellow soldiers, took time when he was still in treatment to come and have another battle buddy in Evan. And to encourage and to make him even stronger meant the world to us.”
Pitts and the Pertiles stayed in touch as the soldier made his transition to civilian life. He married the love of his life, Amy, and they have a 1-year-old son. He loves his new family, but still misses the one he had in the military.
“On one hand, you are asked at 18, 19, and 20 years old to grow up and make difficult decisions that no one else will have to face in their life,” Pitts says. “You are going to be responsible for things that are kind of unfathomable. But on the other hand, you don’t have to worry about where you are going to sleep. You don’t have to worry about being fired. Your health care is taken care of. You always know you’ll have a meal. It’s like having a family that is always going to be there to take care of you.”
After he returned from the war, Pitts graduated from the University of New Hampshire at Manchester and now works for Oracle Corp. in business development for the public sector, which includes DoD and other federal agencies. He’s also on the board of directors for DreamCatchers, a New Hampshire nonprofit organization that provides social and recreational activities for individuals with special needs.
“My involvement with DreamCatchers began when I was a student,” he says. “We had a business program class where we did a project to help raise money for them.” Pitts and his team used a benefit auction, featuring art created by special-needs teens and adults, to raise funds.
“The mission is to help kids make friends, have fun and build confidence,” Pitts says. “And it is to provide those same experiences that other kids get growing up, for these kids.”
Pitts also hopes to use his platform as a Medal of Honor recipient to promote to young Americans the benefits of military service and the value of a good education.
“I find it funny that some people say that you give up your individuality when you join the military,” he says. “I put on the uniform and I felt like I belonged to something. And I never felt more comfortable being myself than around the guys I served with. I can’t change what’s happened, but if it had to happen the same way, I would do it all over again. I feel honored that I get to look at my friends, and they are my heroes.”
For young Evan, who is now cancer-free, it was the opportunity of a lifetime to be with a real hero on his day at the Pentagon, and he hopes to return the favor someday. “Ryan requested me to be there at the Pentagon, so we drove there to see him,” he says. “Now I want Ryan to come to South Carolina and go to the beach house with us!”
“It was amazing, a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Pertile says of the relationship between the boy and the soldier. “He’s one of the most gracious and humble men I’ve ever met.”
Mark Seavey is editor of The Burn Pit, The American Legion’s national blog site, and a writer for The American Legion Magazine.