Try to remember yourself at the age of 20. Where were you and what were you doing? Now try to imagine yourself in Kyle White’s situation at age 20. A radio-telephone operator with a combat patrol in Afganistan. And imagine getting ambushed and knocked unconscious at the very beginning of the ambush by an RPG as the enemy focused their fire on the command group of the patrol. You wake up to a desperate situation and you find it is all left up to you to act to save that situation.
An Army account of the attack says White, then a 20-year-old Army specialist, and his team of 14 U.S. troops, along with Afghan National Army soldiers, were ambushed Nov. 9, 2007, after attempting to hold a meeting with village elders in the village of Aranas in Nuristan province.
After regaining consciousness from the grenade hit, White found his platoon split by the ambush. Half the team had slid down the cliff for cover. He remained atop with three dead, dying and wounded comrades.
Left at the top with White were platoon leader 1st Lt. Matthew C. Ferrara, Spc. Kain Schilling, Marine Sgt. Phillip A. Bocks, who was imbedded with the group, and its interpreter. White set about trying to assess the condition of his fellow soldiers, running and crawling through gunfire only to find Ferrara dead and Bocks badly wounded. Though he tried to stop Bocks’ bleeding, the Marine later died.
Obama described the drama to an East Room audience of service members, family and White House staff:
“Across Afghanistan, base commanders were glued to the radios, listening as American forces fought back an ambush in the rugged mountains. One battalion commander remembered that all of Afghanistan was listening as a soldier on the ground described what was happening.
“They knew him by his call sign, Charlie-1-6-Romeo. We know it was Kyle, who at the time was just 20 years old and only 21 months into his military service.”
Though suffering from concussions, White treated Schilling’s injuries under the shadow of a lone tree and used one of the unit’s radios to call for help. When a helicopter arrived after nightfall, White only allowed himself to be evacuated after the wounded were assisted.
These narratives only give a small glimpse into what really happened that day. They can never ever are able to convey the true gravity or desperation of the situation. They can never give you an inkling of the intensity or the pressure under which this young man operated. For 4 hours, he was on the top of that cliff facing the enemy virtually alone, while trying to protect the bodies of the dead and keep his wounded comrades alive. And when the Medevac helicopters were finally able to get in to pull he and his comrades out, he made sure the wounded and dead were out before he would go.
Yesterday, President Obama presented this young man the nation’s highest honor for valor – the Medal of Honor. He is the 7th living recipient of the medal for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“We pay tribute to a soldier who embodies the courage of his generation,” Obama said.
Following the ceremony, SGT White, who is now retired from the Army, had a few words to say. First he spoke about what the Medal of Honor means to him personally:
“Battles are won by spirit,” he said. “Without the team, there can be no Medal of Honor. That’s why I wear this medal for my team.”
SGT White embodied that spirit and the team. When asked about a bracelet he wore:
“On it are the names of my six fallen brothers,” he said. “They are my heroes.”
Real heroes rarely see themselves as heroes. And SGT Kyle White is a real hero.