CPT J. Miraldi: Everyone, this is Jake Miraldi. On this week’s edition of the Modern War Institute podcast, we’ll be talking to Staff Sergeant Ryan Pitts, Medal of Honor recipient at the Battle of Wanat. Because his story is so compelling, for the first part of this podcast I’m going to get out of the way and just let him tell it. For the end I’ll jump back in and ask him how junior leaders can prepare themselves and their soldiers to handle a situation like he handled at Wanat.
If you’re listening to this on iTunes or Stitcher, I encourage you to go to the Modern War Council blog web site at ModernWarInstitute.org. We’ll be posting additional information like maps and other things that can help you make sense of Staff Sergeant Pitts’ story. As always, take the time to write us on iTunes and e-mail us through the Modern War Institute web site with comments or topics that you’d like to hear in the future. With that said, here’s Staff Sergeant Ryan Pitts with his story of the Battle of Wanat.
CPT J. Miraldi: This is the Modern War Institute podcast.
SSG R. Pitts: We were breaking down. We’d already broken down the Aranas outpost, and we were breaking down COP Bella. It was just too isolated, you know, air-locked; could only be reinforced by helicopter, only resupplied by helicopter. It was at the bottom of a valley. It was just, it was going to be bad, and so we broke that down, and we needed to have something to deny the enemy freedom of movement. And the incoming unit didn’t have the same experience we did.
I mean, who better than somebody that’s been there for a while? Like we know terrain, we know the weapons systems, we’re cross-trained, we’ve been in fights. We got to set them up for success, and they were going to have less guys than we did. So that’s what it was all about, and it’s not that uncommon. Our Platoon did the same exact thing on OEF 6. We spent our last six weeks out in the middle of nowhere guarding a location to set up a FOB.
Could be resupplied by ground, within indirect artillery support from Blessing, but it was also that was where the government headquarters was for that area, and we wanted – there was a police station there. It was be close to the people, be close to the government, reinforce them, support them. But still be close enough to our own guys, far enough out to kind of do everything we needed to do. It was like three valleys coming together, one running – I say three.
I mean one north-south-running valley, the Waygal, and then one coming off to the east. The village was nestled right up against this river that ran north-south with the Waygal, and it was kind of up in every direction. I mean it was just up from where we were, and we tried to be in the center of the village we were in. Like this large open field area that was near the bazaar, and the mosque and the hotel was kind of all surrounding it. I mean you never loved being down in the low ground, but it’s one of those trades, right?
We got to be able to reinforce it. We got to be able to support it. So it was just, “We’re going to hold this. Let’s build something up and go from there.” Yeah, we were a mix out there. We had taken a TOW missile truck from one of our sister Companies, so that Squad had come over to our Company, our Platoon, and we had sent a Squad to where that truck came from to reinforce that location. And we had our Mortar section was with us.
We had our Headquarters section, so when Bella broke down, our Commander was up there with his Headquarters element. After he flew back, he came up like the next day and came to Wanat. We had Marine ETTs with a Afghan National Army Platoon. We had some Engineers. There was about 48 Americans on the ground, not all organic to our unit. We were probably like three-quarters of our actual Platoon, and then augmented with everybody else. We had the TOW missile truck.
We had 50-cals and MK-19s mounted on the other up-armored Humvees, and then a mix of AT4s, LAWs, 203s, 240s – normal organic stuff. DAWS – I think we still just had the two guns, the two 240s that were organic to our Weapons Squad. Yeah, we knew we needed an Observation Post. The decision-making, what Lieutenant Brostrom was thinking about was it’s not where tradition when you would put doctrinally, you would put an Observation Post. But he wanted it to be able to reinforce it.
We could’ve put it further out, but we didn’t really have the supplies to really build strong fortifications, and so we were willing to kind of sacrifice a little bit of security for reinforceability. And then I was going there ’cause I was the Forward Observer. We had the two gun teams, and then just augmented with some other guys, so we had nine guys up there, including myself. At first let’s build the main fighting positions, and then let’s start thinking about ways to get even better.
It was let’s never stop building We never did, right? So we built walls on the rear side where we thought we were covered, we wouldn’t have to worry about if any fire comes in there. Good thing we did. It was just never stop improving. We knew that the way we were oriented, we wanted a 240 to the north and a 240 to the east, ’cause that was really – with First Squad to the south at the Traffic Control Point, we could have an interlocking sector of fire with the 249 in the lower southern position, with a TCP.
We needed those heavy guns up east and north where we thought the enemy would really come from. It was only like 100, 150 meters away, but it was far enough in the fight. We had thought that when they were going to attack, we thought it would be big, just because the way they had massed and what had happened at Ranch House, what had happened on November 9. I mean the frequency of fights and their probing attacks at Bella were increasing, and more firepower.
And knew that they were trying to work on – they couldn’t quite crack that nut yet on how they were going to assault Bella and overrun it. So we knew those guys, it was just logical, they’re going to come down. It was very early on once the fight started that it was serious. This wasn’t just “We’re going to attack you.” It was, “We’re going to wipe you out.” They had tried that with the way they almost overran Ranch House, what they did with November 9. But they came in close, they had us surrounded.
There was 150 to 200 of them, RPGs and hand grenades. I mean it really comes down to coming in close, volume of fire. I mean it was just an endless stream of RPGs hitting every position. I mean they took out the TOW missile when they blew up a truck that was static, and it wasn’t with an IED. I mean it was the amount of RPGs they were shooting. It was the amount of casualties we took right off the bat, and how hard we were having to fight back, that this wasn’t – I mean for lack of a better way to put it – wasn’t an average firefight.
It initiated with a burst of machine gun fire from the north, and then 360 degrees RPGs. I mean they threw everything. It was violence of action from them. Yeah, I mean for a lot of them, they were trying to shoot like directly into the mortar pit from the other side of this wall. They had moved into the village, and they were inside the mosque and other buildings right along the perimeter. For us, yeah, I think they moved up relatively early on. Maybe they were staged, and as soon as they picked up – I mean I can’t say for certain.
But it wasn’t very long in that one of the guys told me they were throwing hand grenades, so they got to be within 15-20 meters if they’re throwing hand grenades. Immediately I was wounded, Gabel was wounded, Stafford was wounded. Phillips was killed early on, Zwilling was killed early on. But the remaining guys, violence of action right back. Never stopped. Should’ve been unbelievably – it was – disorienting. Dusted themselves off, stood up, returned fire.
Immediately they knew what their tasks were, they knew what their sectors were, they knew what needed to be done, and they just did it. And these are, granted, these are all guys – one of the guys, Bogar, it wasn’t his first deployment; he was a Senior Specialist. The gun team, those guys had been there for over a year. They had done the train-up before, so these are all guys that know at this point, “I know where I fit into this puzzle. I know what everybody’s leaning on me to do, and nobody has to tell me to do it.”
And they just did it, and they did it for as long as they could. There wasn’t time to mourn yet. I’m not sure the other guys – nobody took time. It was just, “Okay. I guess it’s crude at the moment, but they’re gone, and we need to do this,” and that’s what everybody did. And you know, I remember it hit me Bagram Hospital. You know, once it was all said and done and you’re out of that mindset that it’s fight, fight, fight, that now it’s process, that it kind of hit all of us.
I got hit by shrapnel in the initial volley of rocket-propelled grenades or hand grenades or some combination. I took shrapnel to both legs, and I was half-thrown, half-dove into a fighting position, and I was just totally disoriented. I mean I had my bell rung. It was like I didn’t know what to do, ’cause I couldn’t figure out what was happening. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t process it, ’cause I couldn’t move my legs. I was looking at my legs. There’s stuff blowing up all over the place.
I hear guys yelling, and there’s firing, and I just – totally disoriented. Then it was just shock with my legs. I couldn’t move them at all, either one of them, and my left hand was a little messed up ’cause I had taken shrapnel in my arm. But it was…I guess I just reached a point – I could hear all the other guys fighting – that I was able to collect my thoughts, and be like, “Okay, what’s the first thing I have to do?” And I had taken shrapnel in my inner thigh.
And with the training we got I know that a major artery runs through there. I know you can bleed out in two minutes or less – that let’s just get a tourniquet on it. And I had too many wounds for us to have enough Kerlix and Ace bandages up there to plug everything. Let’s just put a tourniquet on it and then we’ll worry about this later, and that was the biggest concern. And so I crawled to that southern fighting position. Bogar’s standing up just firing back, and just returning fire.
He stops, looks at me. “Okay, the only time you really stop – what do you need?” I put a tourniquet on his leg, he put my tourniquet on that leg for me, and he says, “Are you good?” Turns around and goes right back to what he was doing. It wasn’t like, “Hey, go back to fighting.” It was, you know, the leadership’s not so formal. I mean really, when I think back on it, like those guys led me too. You know when I decided to go return to the fight, I’m like, “All these guys are fighting. We all got to do our part here.”
I’d never been in a fight where guys had to fight wounded, and this was the first one. I never thought that was something I’d have to do; never thought it was something I’d be capable of. I’d seen you know there’s like these legends in the history of the unit. There’s other guys that I’d known that had been wounded and they hit, and they walked themselves to the bird. I’m talking like take a round in the chest, and they walked to the aircraft. Like how does this guy do that? But never thought it would be me.
And just everybody’s fighting around me. I got to pull my weight. And that’s what everybody did. I’m not the only one that fought wounded. They were everywhere. I can’t really pop up and pinpoint and work a fire mission. I felt like what I needed to do was return fire. Like we need to keep them from getting in here first, and so we just fired targets. It just kind of became what’s the next thing I can do? What needs to be done right now? It’s all fundamentals. Nothing was anything fancy.
It was shoot a machine gun, clear a malfunction, put it back into operation, shoot some more. Throw a hand grenade, this is how you do it. Just really simple stuff. I mean the guys…you know it was incredible what they were doing. You know, as I was saying, nobody had to be told what to do, and I don’t think that was any position. Guys on the guns on the trucks – and they’re really being targeted, ’cause like I said, the TOW trucks and heavy weapons systems.
And every single guy, even the TOW missile truck crew, they stayed in the truck until it was on fire and they had to get out. All the other guys stayed on heavy weapons systems until they were inoperable, and even then I think they stayed up there and shot some of their own personal weapons systems. And I mean the trucks were just pelted. It was like guys were jumping on hoods to load ammo, because you know couldn’t quite get to the MK-19s; sometimes a pain to try and load from inside the turret.
Guys are jumping on the hood, and you know they’re being targeted. They’re going to try and shoot that guy, and then somehow they did it. It’s like trying to dodge raindrops getting out of your car, and these guys were doing stuff. Probably within the first 10, 20 minutes, they were trying to get in the wire. They were trying to come around that north side. I know one enemy fighter tried to come in from the east, and McKaig had set off a claymore and had taken that enemy.
You know, I think it was they would try, push them back. When I think about it, I think it’s how hard the guys fought that kept them from coming in. Brostrom eventually showed up with Hovater, and Bogar, and Rainey, and Ayers, and all these guys that fought to the death. That I think when I think about why I made it when I was by myself and wounded is because those guys fought so hard that the enemy was hesitant to come in there. That’s what I think. I believe that.
When I first got back to the fight and I’m shooting the machine gun, doing the same stuff everybody else is doing. And then Brostrom shows up, and he starts taking charge. And this is a huge relief to me ’cause he’s able-bodied and he can coordinate the fight. And I give up the gun ’cause he needs it. Rainey gives me another weapons system. And again, it’s just I can’t even remember everything, what I was doing. I was talking to Captain Myer, trying to coordinate fires, trying to shoot this, that.
And just after a while it seems quiet. There’s not a lot of fire coming out. I don’t want to yell out, because if I am the only one, I don’t want the enemy to know that. And so I crawl around and I look down a terrace, and I can see bodies. I don’t know who they are, but I know they’re our guys and they’re dead. And I crawl a little bit further in, and I look up to this position that we had to the east that we called “the crow’s nest,” and nobody’s moving in there.
And I get to the southern position, and nobody’s there, and scares the hell out of me. I’m terrified, because it’s just me, and I can’t leave. I’m not in really any shape to put up any sort of real fight. I just was terrified of being captured. The previous year, the previous October of 2007, they had tried to drag one of our guys off. Who knows what they would have done at Ranch House if they would have taken it? My thing was I didn’t want my family to see a video of me being executed.
Nor did I want to be taken, and so I just – I’d rather die fighting. Before it kind of came to me that I called down to Captain Myer and told him the situation. Everybody’s either dead or gone. And he told me they couldn’t send anybody, ’cause they were in it down there. Understandable. That’s the burden of command. He’s got to make those tough decisions, and the team and the mission and carrying the battle is bigger than one person.
You know, if we’ve taken all those casualties in going up there, and so you know I understood it, and that’s when I just knew I was going to die. And quickly, when I just kind of accepted, my biggest fear was being taken, it was just, “Okay, I’m not going to let that happen. I’m going to make sure that they have to kill me, ’cause I’m going to fight them all the way.” And I said to myself, “I want to kill three of them before they get me.” That was my goal, is just not go quietly.
When I called down to Captain Myer, they could hear the enemy over my radio ’cause they were so close they could hear their voices. And from what I understand, Specialist Jacob Somes was in our Third Squad, he heard it. All of the positions heard it, and Somes was just frantic, like, “We got to get up there. We’re going. We’re going.” And finally – not finally – this may have been a short exchange. But him and Sergeant Garcia made a run to First Squad, the Traffic Control Point, and try and come up from the south.
And they ran into Sergeant Samaroo and Mike Denton, and the four of them make their way to the OP. And I’m just sitting there – I’m just waiting. That’s all I could really do is just sit and wait for guys to come over the sandbags and start shooting. And I can hear voices again, and it’s Americans, and I’m just – I thought I was dead, and those guys showed up. And they start treating me, Somes and Garcia are treating me. And Denton and Samaroo are searching our guys’ bodies for ammo, ’cause at this point in the battle we’re running low.
And it was pretty amazing. I mean Hovater was Denton’s best friend, and he searched his best friend’s body for ammo, told him he loved him, and moved on to the next guy. This kid did that, and just kept going on with the fight. It was just amazing. They were treating me, and we were staying up there. You know at that point we hadn’t made any decision one way or the other, but they were trying to treat me first. And another volley of rocket-propelled grenades comes in and wounds everybody.
Garcia is mortally wounded. And after that we collect ourselves in the southern section of the OP and Sergeant Samaroo makes the call that we got to get out of there. And so we knock down the wall, the sandbag wall. And we really get just on the other side of the wall and we’re sitting there when we start seeing guys start coming up. And the Apaches are on station at this point, and you can – anytime there are Apaches, you feel the change in the battle.
I think our First Platoon is just driving up there, they’re coming up in trucks. I can hear them firing away. And the guys start coming up to the OP and they’re just pouring up there. That was a huge relief, seeing guys that I knew just one after another, coming up the terraces to get us out of there. Medevac helicopter comes in and lands right between us and the enemy, up on the terraces a little bit, and medevac crews get off. Everybody’s helping load. They load me, and Samaroo, and Denton, and then Somes on there, and that was the end of the fight for me.
CPT J. Miraldi: So what do you think, if you could impart – and I know you’ve done it with Cadets here today – if you could impart some sort of wisdom about how to handle a fight like you experienced at Wanat, what advice would you give a new Lieutenant or a Staff Sergeant or a Squad Leader who is potentially going to be involved in something like that?
SSG R. Pitts: The preparation happens months, years ahead of time. You know the wars are won in training, and the hard part – and that’s where the leadership comes in – is instilling that discipline and making sure everybody takes it seriously and gets the most out of it that they can. Making sure guys are cross-trained. I told the Cadets about that today. I mean I knew how to shoot a machine gun ’cause they made sure everybody did it. You know, heavy weapons systems.
Everybody in the unit knew how to stick an IV, do a needle chest decompression and treat a sucking chest wound, and all of that stuff. All the guys knew how to call for fire – I taught them how to do that. There was this reciprocal, nobody held back any knowledge. You want everybody to be the best and know the most that they possibly can know, ’cause you never – all this planning goes right out the window as soon as that stuff happens. Trust is key in those moments we’re almost on our own little islands fighting back.
The OP was its own island. Each truck down at the Vehicle Patrol Base, even though they’re all together, they were really kind of isolated with the volume of fire. You got to have that trust that I know that everybody over there, that as long as they’re drawing breath they’re going to do everything that they can, and I know they’re going to do it well, right? That’s important. And a lot of the stuff just happens ahead of time; it’s always being focused.
And it’s easy to get caught up sometimes thinking about getting promoted, or moving on and doing stuff. But if you just focus on the mission and take care of your people, everything will take care of itself. And for me, Garcia laid down his life to save mine, and Denton, and Sam, and Somes risked their lives just the same. Brostrom and Hovater made that mad dash from Vehicle Patrol Base in front of enemy positions.
When you dedicate yourself to the unit, and you learn it’s no longer about you, it’s about the team, other people, any other guys, anybody that’s worth their salt is going to do the same. And when you need them and you’re willing to go get them, they’ll reciprocate for you, and that’s what they did for me. That’s why Garcia and all of them – that’s why I’m here. It’s not ’cause of anything I did. I’m here because of what everybody else did that day.
I think more of a philosophical stance is that wars and battles aren’t won by people that get awards. They’re won by all the people that do the little things that they never get recognized for. The guys that were low in ammo treating casualties, and we did it together as a team. I guess one of the things that – you’re not going to go out there and be a hero. Just go out there and do your job. Everybody’s counting on you to do it, and everybody’s going to do the same. And that’s all it is. It’s just doing what you’re supposed to do.
You have to follow through. If you say you’re going to do something, you follow through on it. It’s almost like a predictability, right? I might not like every decision of the Platoon Sergeant and the Platoon Leader, but they’re never going to surprise me, and something’s not going to be out of character. If they always put the guys first, they are always going to put the guys first. It’s time together. I mean for me it was unique in that most of the Team Leaders in our Platoon, we’d done two tours together.
We grew up together in the same Platoon. We’d been Privates together, and we became Sergeants together. We were close. We had been through other fights together. There was training. There was discipline. We became like a family. But the Army is this interesting place when I describe it to some people where you can be a nice guy, but if you’re not good at your job, you’re going to be hated. And everybody took being good at their jobs very seriously. It’s just a time thing. You can’t build the trust overnight.
I think it probably even goes back with the guys that came before us in the unit, just building on this history of excellence, and just trying to live up to everybody that came before you and carry that torch forward. Like I look back on it, I’ll never be as good as the Team Leaders that came before me. You know, none of us will look at it, but that doesn’t keep you from trying. You keep going out there and you do it every day, and you move the needle forward, and you prep the next guys to do that.
CPT J. Miraldi: So I want to touch on the cross-training piece too, ’cause I learned in my ’09 deployment as a Platoon Leader the value of that cross-training. For roughly the same reason you’re talking about, where guys get wounded or killed, and in the moment everybody needs to know how to do everything. Where did the emphasis on cross-training come from? Was it a Platoon Leader or Platoon Sergeant level, or was it something that you guys discovered was necessary based on having been in Afghanistan for roughly a year?
SSG R. Pitts: I think it’s a top-down thing. It was just a cultural thing. The top leaders expected it at every level, and it just trickled down, and we just – I mean a lot of it was executed at the Platoon level, right? So I’d give a class on call for fire, somebody else’d give a class on heavy weapons system, you know, “Here’s how you break down the 50.” The medical training – that was even before my first deployment. Maybe they learned it when they went into Iraq. Maybe it was the mentality of everybody’s a Paratrooper first.
Whatever you do is kind of secondary to that. There’s a lot of things and a lot of people. You see the extended team come together there, and it was actually incredible with Wanat to see Apaches coming in. And even the trust between units. We asked the Apaches to shoot within five, ten meters of friendly positions. These guys are putting their careers on the line. They don’t want to shoot friendlies, but they know what’s needed to be done. They know if we’re asking for it, that it’s real.
And they did it, and they executed flawlessly, right? I talked to them, I invited – the Apache Pilots were at my Medal of Honor ceremony. They were part of the team that day, and this everybody’s humble, and “Hey, you know we’re all just doing our part,” well, we couldn’t do what we were doing without you. The medevac crews, and it really opened my eyes to see that it is this extended team that we’re all working together. I mean like I said before, wars aren’t won by people that get awards.
It’s by all the people that do everything that they don’t get recognized for. And that day it was a team effort; that was every guy on the ground. I didn’t give any more than anybody else. We all gave the same. And actually, nobody gave more than the guys that didn’t come home. Those are the guys that are the real heroes. It was just incredible to see what they were willing to do for us.
CPT J. Miraldi: So you ended up at Bagram, right? So you have a good feel for what happened after the fight happened. I mean what ended up being the final fate of the COP and the VPB that were supposed to end up being there?
SSG R. Pitts: They ended up deciding not to establish the outpost there, and that stung. You know I wasn’t happy about that. But I also think we need to make decisions about winning, and if that’s no longer the initiative, that’s not what we want to do, then I’m okay with it. ‘Cause I didn’t go there to lose, I went there to win, and that’s all that matters. You know, I think it’s been hard for us to think that we lost nine guys and then we didn’t end up staying. But they didn’t give their lives for a piece of ground; they gave their lives for us.
CPT J. Miraldi: Have you had any interaction with families of guys that were there?
SSG R. Pitts: Yeah. Yeah.
CPT J. Miraldi: What was that like?
SSG R. Pitts: That’s the hardest part I think is to look at these people, and you just feel guilty, like, “Why am I here, and your son or husband or father isn’t?” You know it’s not fair at all. I think we all kind of feel that guilt. I think it’s probably the hardest one. They ask how you’re doing, and you don’t really want to talk about how you’re happy, ’cause it’s just not fair. But wonderful people. I think it’s important that I hope they know how much we loved their loved ones.
And I think, I’ve heard some of that feedback from them from the Medal of Honor ceremony, ’cause we brought all the families in for that. All the guys that were there in the ground fight, and for Bogar’s mom in particular. She spoke at the Army Birthday a couple years ago, and she talked about how she learned that it was his other family, and he loved what he was doing, and everybody loved him.
CPT J. Miraldi: Do you still interact with them fairly often, the families of those guys?
SSG R. Pitts: Not as much as I probably should.
CPT J. Miraldi: I’m just curious. I know the guys that I’ve lost, yeah, it’s a constant, constant struggle to make sure you’re staying up with those folks. And you do, you feel the guilt is probably the best word to describe.
SSG R. Pitts: It’s hands down the hardest part, one of the hardest parts. Yeah. I think that’s it.
CPT J. Miraldi: All right.
SSG R. Pitts: All right, man. Thanks for having me, man.
CPT J. Miraldi: Yep.
CPT J. Miraldi: If you’d like to find additional research, op eds, and other original ideas from the Modern War Institute, please visit the War Council blog at ModernWarInstitute.org, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can find new episodes of the Modern War Institute podcasts on iTunes and Stitcher. The views expressed in this podcast are those of the respective participants, and so not reflect the official position of the United States government.
For the Modern War Institute, I’m Captain Jake Miraldi, and I hope you’ll join us next time for more in-depth conversations on war, policy, and leadership.