updated 07/21/2014 AT 3:00 PM ET
•originally published 07/21/2014 AT 6:10 PM ET
Staff Sgt. Ryan M. Pitts was 17 years old when he enlisted in the Army and just 22 when, with a tourniquet on his own badly injured right leg, he found himself hurling grenade after grenade to defend his platoon in one of the bloodiest battles of the war with Afghanistan.
In the East Room ceremony, as Pitts stood at attention and visibly swallowed several times, Obama detailed the young soldier’s bravery in the Battle of Wanat and lauded all of the American men and women in uniform for serving with integrity, humility and courage.
“Ryan represents the very best of that tradition and we are very, very proud of him,” the president said. “So God bless you, Ryan.”
Pitts, who joined the Army right out of high school in Amherst, New Hampshire, was manning Observation Post Topside in the Waygal Valley of Afghanistan when, just after 4 a.m. on July 13, 2008, he and his platoon were attacked with machine gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades. Even while critically wounded, Pitts fought back with hand grenades and a machine gun until help could arrive. He is credited with keeping the base from enemy takeover.
Pitts said that, in the heat of the battle as his friends were killed around him, he didn’t “dwell too much” on whether he might die, too. “It kinda went to, ‘Just have to keep on fighting,’ ” Pitts told 90.9 WBUR, Boston’s public radio station. “That’s all I tried to do.”
Now, six years later, Pitts says he was initially unhappy to be singled out for the medal. “Didn’t really feel like I deserved it,” he told WBUR. “But time has allowed me to process it. And this was a team effort. It belongs to every man there that day and I’ll accept it on behalf of the team. It’s not mine.”
Pitts’s own shrapnel injuries to both legs and one arm were so extensive that he was not released from Walter Reed Army Medical Center until October 2009. From there, he went to college, started a new career in computer-software business development, got married and settled in Nashua, New Hampshire, with his wife, Amy, and their young son, Lucas.
Pitts said he still thinks about his nine fellow soldiers – all of them in their 20s – who died in that battle. He recites their names and titles from memory. “I’ve never forgotten them,” he told New Hampshire Magazine. “I owe it to them to enjoy my life – the gift they gave me and the rest of us.”