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After braving gunfire to save comrades, Army vet gets highest U.S. military honor

By Greg Botelho and Ashley Fantz, CNN
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Wed May 14, 2014
Former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan J. Pitts receives the Medal of Honor on Monday, July 21, for his actions during a battle in Afghanistan in 2008. According to the Army, Pitts launched grenade after grenade under a hail of enemy gunfire as comrades at other nearby posts fell. He also asked other soldiers to fire at his position to prevent the enemy from gaining ground. Click through to see other Afghanistan veterans who have received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor in combat. Former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan J. Pitts receives the Medal of Honor on Monday, July 21, for his actions during a battle in Afghanistan in 2008. According to the Army, Pitts launched grenade after grenade under a hail of enemy gunfire as comrades at other nearby posts fell. He also asked other soldiers to fire at his position to prevent the enemy from gaining ground. Click through to see other Afghanistan veterans who have received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor in combat.
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Afghanistan vets receive Medal of Honor
Afghanistan vets receive Medal of Honor
Afghanistan vets receive Medal of Honor
Afghanistan vets receive Medal of Honor
Afghanistan vets receive Medal of Honor
Afghanistan vets receive Medal of Honor
Afghanistan vets receive Medal of Honor
Afghanistan vets receive Medal of Honor
Afghanistan vets receive Medal of Honor
Afghanistan vets receive Medal of Honor
Afghanistan vets receive Medal of Honor
Afghanistan vets receive Medal of Honor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Kyle White: "Without this team, there would be no Medal of Honor"
  • NEW: He vows to "live up to the responsibility" of having the top military award
  • NEW: Obama calls White "a soldier who embodies the courage of his generation"
  • The Army vet, then 20, braved enemy fire to save his wounded comrades in Afghanistan

(CNN) -- Kyle White now has two pieces of metal to wear -- one, a bracelet inscribed with the names of his six comrades killed in an ambush in Afghanistan, the other, a Medal of Honor given to him for his valor that ensured that death toll wasn't higher.

Speaking minutes after President Barack Obama gave him the highest military honor, White insisted the two emblems are equally significant. They both represent his family on that day six years ago -- the seven others who, like him, survived as well as those who did not.

The former Army sergeant said Tuesday he owes it to these men, whom he calls "my heroes," to live his life well, even now that he's left the military, and with honor.

"Though I am still uncomfortable with hearing my name and the word 'hero' in the same sentence, I am now ready for the challenge of proudly wearing this piece of blue fabric and carved metal with the same reverence that I wear the bracelet. And I vow to live up to the responsibility of doing so," White said.

Soldier: Fallen brothers are my heroes
Army sergeant to receive Medal of Honor

Not long before, Obama recalled White's bravery and that of his colleagues.

The President paid tribute to those who died that fall day in Afghanistan and those who survived. They had done everything their country could ask for and more.

"Kyle, members of Chosen Company, you did your duty," Obama said. "And now it's time for America to do ours."

White himself insisted that the Medal of Honor cannot really be an individual award, calling it "a testament to the trust we have in each other and our leaders."

Still, the President said that he deserved to be singled out. A high school freshman when the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, White joined the Army and was just 20 years old and 21 months into his military service when he faced the ultimate test.

He aced it, and in doing so represented the best of what Obama called the "9/11 generation (which) has proven itself to be one of America's greatest."

"Today," the President said to a crowd that included White, his parents and many of his former comrades, "we pay tribute to a soldier who embodies the courage of his generation."

Attacked in 'ambush alley'

On Tuesday, White dressed in full uniform. But on most other weekdays, he now wears a suit to his job as an investment analyst at a bank in Charlotte, North Carolina -- a job that he's admitted to Obama, with a laugh, is less exciting than his previous job in the Army.

The Washington state native joined up after high school, following the lead of his father, a former Army Special Forces member. His service had, like many other members of the military, earned him a ticket to Afghanistan as his platoon's radio telephone operator.

He was there on November 9, 2007, walking back from a meeting with elders with his unit of 14 and a squad of Afghan army soldiers.

"They knew not to stop, they had to keep moving," Obama recalled of the group walking single-file with a cliff to their right and a steep, rocky slope to their left. "They were heading into an area known as ambush alley."

In an interview prior to the award ceremony, White told CNN how the group walked "down this little incline and looking into the valley, (when) I hear this single shot. Then two shots, then the echo, then fully automatic gunfire."

Taking so much fire, members of his patrol were separated as they tried to take cover. White was finishing off his first magazine and beginning to load another one when an rocket-propelled grenade exploded, knocking him unconscious.

Moments after he came to, an enemy round hit a rock just inches from his head. The shrapnel and rock fragments cut his face.

Dazed, he struggled to take in what was happening. He and four others had been separated from the other soldiers, who'd jumped from a cliff. White administered first aid to one wounded soldier using the only cover available: a single tree. That soldier would survive.

It was at that point in the attack that White realized his radio wasn't working.

He looked out and saw a member of his patrol about 30 feet away whose wounds were so bad that he could not move. White ran toward him, braving enemy fire.

White was able to drag the wounded man back to the tree.

But the man's injuries were too severe, and he died.

Risking death, again and again

White continued to risk himself to help his fellow warriors, again running from cover into enemy fire to reach the platoon leader. White told the military publication Stars and Stripes that he could see the leader's helmet and assault pack, but he couldn't tell whether the leader was alive. White had to see, he said.

White crawled toward the man. It was too late. He was dead.

White figured he would be killed. But he would do what he was trained to do. He would carry out his duty.

"It was never a choice," he explained to CNN. "I told myself from the beginning that I was going to be killed, you know... just the amount of fire ... I'm not gonna make it through this."

But he kept focused. The soldier White had dragged to the tree earlier was hit again, this time in the knee, so the White wrapped his belt around the man's leg, creating a tourniquet.

Then White found a working radio on a deceased comrade and called for artillery and helicopter gunships to help.

Finally, maybe, there could be hope. But then a friendly mortar round landed near White.

"I remember just red hot chunks of metal like the size of my palm just flinging by your head," he told Stars and Stripes.

Suffering a concussion, White managed to hang on, waiting for helicopters to evacuate him and others with him that day. When help arrived, he told his rescuers to put the other wounded aboard first.

A soldier, changed

Speaking with National Public Radio this week, White said the experience -- from the violence to the wait -- seemed like "forever." And it hasn't entirely gone away, all these years later.

"It's something you still think about every day," White said. "I still have these images from that day burned into my head. But it's something, as time goes on, it gets easier."

But something inside him changed, he said.

"Even to this day, you know, I can't say if it was something good or bad. ..." he told NPR. "And that was pretty much the reason why I decided to leave the Army."

White first returned home and trained other paratrooopers. When it came time for White to re-enlist, he thought hard about whether doing so felt right. He decided against it because he doubted that he could devote his complete heart and mind to it, he told NPR.

It was unacceptable to him to continue in the service and then, perhaps, be deployed to Afghanistan. Service members deserve a leader who is all in, he explained.

Obama called him on February 10 to tell him he'd be given the Medal of Honor. He's the 10th recipient of that award for his actions in Afghanistan, and the seventh surviving recipient. Four service members received the Medal of Honor -- all posthumously -- for actions in the war in Iraq, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

In a brief statement to reporters after Tuesday's ceremony, White called the Medal of Honor "a symbol of the responsibility all soldiers knowingly face when they depart for distant lands in defense of the nation, a responsibility that locks us all in the bonds of brotherhood."

As such, White couldn't help but think about his brothers in arms.

"Without the team," he said, "there could be no Medal of Honor. That is why I wear this medal for my team."

Read the transcript of the White House ceremony

24 minority veterans receive long overdue Medal of Honor

See Kyle White's Army profile

CNN's Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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