Former Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts doesn't like to use the word hero in reference to himself. But he freely used it to describe others July 22 when Pitts was honored for being just that – a hero.
During his induction ceremony into the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes – which came less than 24 hours after he received the Medal of Honor – Pitts praised those who fought alongside him in 2008's Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan, the families of those who lost their lives during that battle, and former and current members of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, aka the "Chosen Few."
Nine U.S. servicemembers died during the battle when Pitts and his fellow paratroopers held off a force of more than 200 enemy fighters attacking Observation Post Topside and Vehicle Patrol Base Kahler. During the attack, Pitts took shrapnel in his arms and legs but continued to lob grenades at the enemy before firing a machine gun from his knees.
With the support of four other soldiers who helped hold the position, Pitts was able to call for air support that would repel the attackers. Had the attack been successful, the enemy would have been on high ground and able to inflict heavier casualties on the vehicle patrol base.
Those who gave their lives that day are the true heroes, Pitts told a packed Pentagon Auditorium audience that included family members of the servicemembers killed in the line of duty at Wanat.
"Our fallen ... fought to their last breathes to ensure the rest of us could return home," Pitts said. "They are the real heroes. These men and so many others displayed extraordinary acts of valor that day. No one man carried the fight. We did it together."
Pitts told the KIA's families in attendance that he thinks about his former comrades daily. "I will for the rest of my life, and I am not alone," he said. "You raised, molded and loved incredible men. Many of the men present in this room are here because of their actions – actions that changed the course of history for us, actions that gave the rest of us a second chance.
"My son Lucas exists because of them, as do many other men's children. I promise that my son will grow up appreciating the actions of these men he never knew. I will spend a lifetime telling their stories to honor their heroic deeds. This is a responsibility that accompanies the award."
Then, addressing those at the ceremony who fought alongside him that day, Pitts said, "I owe you a debt I can never repay."
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said that Pitts' respect for others, along with his gallantry, courage and determination, make the Medal of Honor recipient stand out. "His lasting legacy will be of all those he has influenced by his actions," Odierno said. "We honor Staff Sgt. Pitts ... but by honoring him, we also honor those heroes who fought so selflessly by his side."
Army Secretary John McHugh talked about the bond between Pitts and those who fought alongside him. He spoke of Pitts holding the hand of his dying friend, Sgt. Israel Garcia. The two talked for awhile. Garcia asked Pitts to tell his mother and wife that he loved them.
"Ryan later honored that commitment," McHugh said. "So, through all of the chaos, through all of the destruction, we can clearly see that love, even in the face of such tragedy, bonds these men and their families. And believe it or not, just as it is on the home front, love and trust are the foundations of this incredible professional American Army."
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work said Pitts and his fellow soldiers' "dedication to duty, regardless of personal safety, embodies the very best traditions of the American military. This generation of American fighting men and women have demonstrated by their actions that they are, in fact, a truly great generation."