A retired paratrooper, who fought alongside an East Tennessee native killed in Afghanistan, received the Medal of Honor Monday.
Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts, 28, became the ninth living recipient to be awarded the nation's highest award for valor in combat for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Six years ago, at least 100 enemies opened fire on Pitts and his fellow soldiers just before dawn in Northeastern Afghanistan on the edge of Wanat Village. Pitts, who was 22 at the time, took grenade shrapnel in both legs and his left arm, but he refused to give up the high ground.
"Against this onslaught, one American held the line, bloody but unbowed," President Obama said Monday of Pitts.
Enemy fighters were so close that other U.S. forces listening to Pitts on the radio could hear their voices in the background.
"He (Pitts) whispered in the radio, "I'm the only one left behind," Obama said.
For more than an hour, Pitts continued to fight, repeatedly tossing hand grenades and manning a machine gun under a hail of enemy fire.
Eventually, four other paratroopers from the combat base below reached him to help defend the outpost. Air support and ground reinforcement arrived and drove back the Taliban.
In all, 2008 battle killed nine U.S. soldiers, including Anderson County native Cpl. Jason D. Hovater, and wounded 27 more service members. Hovater, 24, of Clinton was awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest award for valor, posthumously for his sacrifice in the Battle of Wanat. Staff Sgt. Pitts came to Knoxville in 2011 for Hovater's Silver Star Ceremony held at the East Tennessee Veterans Memorial.
Hovater's mother and sister attended Monday's Medal of Honor ceremony.
Pitts said he accepted the honor on behalf of all the soldiers who fought and died in Wanat that day.
"I'm going to receive it, but it's not going to be mine. We did it together. No one guy carried that day," Pitts told The Army Times. "I don't think I did anything more than anyone else, and I think this award represents everything we did as a collective effort that day. And for me, it's also a memorial to the guys who didn't come home. . . I guess I take comfort in thinking about the award as though I'm going to be it's caretaker. It's not mine, but I will hold onto it for the guys and look after it."
On Monday, the president draped the medal around Pitts' neck. It was Pitts's second wedding anniversary.
"Standing there I thought of these incredible men. Those present here today, and especially our brothers who fell," said Pitts. "Valor was everywhere that day, and the real heroes are the nine men who made the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us can return home. It is there names, not mine, that I want people to know."
During the ceremony, Pitts read each of the fallen soldiers' names. President Obama also talked about the character of each fallen soldier based on what Pitts told him.
When it came to Hovater, the president described him as a young man of deep faith who served God and country, who could always get a laugh by impersonating his commander.
The Battle of Wanat was one of the most controversial moments of the Afghanistan War. A military investigation concluded that the officers who oversaw Pitt's company, battalion and brigade had overextended their force and didn't provide enough support, which left soldiers vulnerable.
An estimated force of 200 to 300 Taliban fighters attacked the compound defended by 48 Americans and a contingent of Afghan soldiers, according to an Army account.
Pitts has retired from the Army and now lives in Nashua, N.H. where he works in business development for a computer software company.
Pitts will be among our nation's bravest military heroes honored in the Medal of Honor Convention, which will be held in Knoxville Sept. 10 -13, 2014.
Contributing: Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY