On this Memorial Day, I thought it was appropriate to reflect on the commencement address by Ryan Pitts, a U.S. Army Medal of Honor recipient who deployed twice to the war in Afghanistan. Ryan Pitts’ commencement address held a special meaning for me, a Vietnam veteran who deployed in 1969-70 with the 483rd SPS K-9 division, as a message to young graduates. Cary Hall, America’s Healthcare Advocate
Medal of Honor Lessons for Graduates
On Saturday I attended my first commencement program in 61 years. The speaker drew me there: Ryan Pitts, addressing the University of New Hampshire’s class of 2015.
In an era when speakers are routinely disinvited from American colleges for the sin of challenging academic orthodoxy, I wanted to see how my alma mater would welcome a man who joined the U.S. Army out of high school, who twice deployed to war, and who in July 2008 was the last man alive in an observation post named Topside, above the village of Wanat in the Hindu Kush mountains of northeastern Afghanistan.
Wounded in the forehead, one arm and both legs, Sgt. Pitts defended that outpost with grenades and a machine gun until helicopter gunships could lay down supporting fire to clear the way for his rescue.
On first seeing the extent of his injuries, he told the 2,500 graduates and 20,000 guests on Saturday, “I thought I was out of the fight until I looked around and watched everyone else fighting with everything they had. My brothers were undeterred by the enemy fire raining down on us like the violent summer thunderstorms that come out of nowhere. . . . They would never let me down and I owed them the same. It was at this point that I crawled back to my fighting position and rejoined the fight.
“Standing wasn’t physically possible, but I was able to drag myself around and pull myself into a kneeling position when needed. I fought alongside my brothers like this for a while until our position sounded eerily quiet given the fight raging around us. I crawled around and it was at this point that I discovered that I was the only man left alive at the position.”
Twice, U.S. reinforcements ran from the village to Topside, but all were killed or wounded in the attempt. Sgt. Pitts kept lobbing grenades into a ravine 10 yards away, where the enemy fighters lay concealed—at some points, he said, he could hear them talking—and when the gunships arrived he radioed them to concentrate their fire onto the nearby ravine.
“You gotta be kidding,” a helicopter crewman replied, seeing how short the distance was between the American and his attackers. (The gunship video is on YouTube.) Despite the heroism involved that morning, the Army decided within days that Topside was no longer needed and the outpost was left to the enemy—a taste of what lay ahead for American policy in Afghanistan.
At 29, Mr. Pitts is no older than some of the graduates he addressed Saturday, 44 U.S. military veterans among them. He himself graduated two years ago with highest honors from UNH Manchester. The students, their parents and spectators gave him a standing ovation when his name was first mentioned, again when he was introduced, again when he finished his speech, and yet again when he was draped with the blue and white cape of Doctor of Humane Letters.
In July last year, President Obama draped Mr. Pitts with the Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for valor. The medal, as Mr. Pitts took pains to remind us, is “an individual citation for a collective effort.”
“Valor was everywhere that day,” he said Saturday, before drawing a moral for young people about to embark on their careers: “Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the ability to move forward in the face of it. There is beauty in this definition, because courage can exist in the decisions we make every day. Courage exists in the individual who accepts who they are and openly lives the life they want in the face of rejection. Courage exists in those who challenge their own perceptions in the face of accepting they are not infallible. Be courageous and appreciate courage in others who take action in the face of fear.”
He closed by saying: “The last thought I will leave you with is more a matter of character. Never forget those who helped you reach where you are.”
Then he named the men who died that morning, eight on Topside and one in the village of Wanat: “ Sergio Abad, Jonathan Ayers, Jason Bogar, Jonathan Brostrom, Israel Garcia,Jason Hovater, Matthew Phillips, Pruitt Rainey and Gunnar Zwilling. The advice here is simple: Appreciate the contributions of others and the impacts they make in your life. That’s it.”