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Sergeant to receive Medal of Honor for 20-hour Afghanistan battle

Apr. 15, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  

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Then-Spc. Kyle White endured a 20-hour battle in Afghanistan, under fire and pinned down. ()

High in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the enemy ambush was quick and deadly.

Spc. Kyle White’s platoon leader was dead, as was a Marine sergeant tasked with advising Afghan soldiers. A fellow paratrooper was wounded, and at least three others were missing.

White, already dazed from an explosion, repeatedly ran the gauntlet of enemy fire to get to the wounded and fallen. When the shooting stopped and night fell, White, who was barely 20 years old, cared for his wounded brother, called in steady radio reports, directed security and guided in close-air support until the medevac birds were able to come and evacuate the wounded and the dead.

For his actions more than six years ago, on Nov. 8, 2007, White will receive the Medal of Honor, the White House announced Tuesday.

White said President Obama informed him about the Medal of Honor on Feb. 10. It was a short phone call, he said, and much of it is a blur.

“It still feels surreal,” White told Army Times, shortly after getting the call. “I know it’s coming and it’s happening, but I don’t really know how you’re supposed to feel. I didn’t have much to say except, ‘Thank you, Mr. President.’ ”

White, now a former sergeant living in Charlotte, N.C., will be the seventh living service member to receive the MoH for actions in Afghanistan or Iraq. Seven service members have been posthumously awarded the medal for their actions in those wars.

White also will be the second soldier from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, to receive the nation’s highest valor award.

Former Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta was the first living service member to be honored for his actions in Afghanistan or Iraq. Giunta and White deployed together in the same battalion in May 2007 for a 15-month deployment to some of the toughest parts of eastern Afghanistan.

White said he hopes he can “do something good” with the medal, and he hopes to be an advocate for disabled veterans.

“Making a difference is one thing I hope to do,” he said. “Whatever opportunities come my way, I want to make sure I preserve the memory of the guys who gave their lives that day. No matter what I do throughout my life, I want to make them proud.”

Maj. Matt Myer, White’s company commander at the time, and Col. Bill Ostlund, who commanded 2nd Battalion during that deployment, nominated White for the MoH.

“Spc. White displayed extraordinary and conspicuous gallantry as he risked his life many times,” Ostlund wrote in an e-mail to Army Times from Afghanistan. “He saved multiple lives by consolidating and treating casualties, and he prevented the capture of others by calling for and delivering accurate suppressive fire while wounded and under continuous fire.”

Ostlund, who now commands 3rd BCT, 1st Infantry Division, said it took more than 20 hours from the time the first shot was fired until the last Americans were evacuated from that trail.

“For 20 hours, many of us wanted to be in place of or beside [White],” he said.

The battle

For the first few months of the deployment, White and other soldiers from the battalion’s 1st Platoon, C Company, were based in the Ranch House, a remote outpost in Aranas in Nuristan province.

On Aug. 22, 2007, the base was attacked by 60 to 80 Taliban insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. The 22 soldiers from 2nd Battalion, who lived and worked there with members of the Afghan National Army, fought back and prevented the outpost from being overrun. More than half the Americans were wounded during the almost three-hour fight.

Not long after the attack, White said, the unit closed down the Ranch House and the soldiers moved to Camp Blessing and later to Combat Outpost Bella, which also was in Aranas.

As the soldiers settled into COP Bella, they received word that the village elders wanted to have a shura, or meeting.

On the night of Nov. 8, 2007, about 14 soldiers, along with Marine Sgt. Phillip Bocks and the Afghan soldiers he was advising, set out for the village. Their plan was to bed down at a nearby schoolhouse, which the Americans had recently built for the village, before attending the shura the next day, White said.

The soldiers had been working with the elders at the village for months, since their time at the Ranch House, White said.

But something didn’t feel right from the start.

First, the shura kept getting pushed back, and it didn’t start until 1 p.m. Next, the villagers’ behavior had all the Americans on edge, White told Army Times.

“Normally, they’re not really enthused about [these meetings],” he said. “Their attention span is low, they don’t really care what we have to say. This time, almost every male of fighting age was there. They were all gathered around us and were all very intent on what we had to say.”

The villagers also appeared to be trying to stall the Americans by dragging out the meeting, White said.

It was almost 3 p.m. by the time the Americans left the village and headed back to COP Bella.

The patrol made its way up a steep hill toward a trail that would lead them back to COP Bella, when, about 30 minutes into their journey and right after part of the patrol rounded a spur, “the ambush started,” White said.

White, who was the radio telephone operator for the platoon, was walking with Capt. Matthew Ferrara, the platoon leader, forward observer Spc. Kain Schilling, and Bocks.

That headquarters element was quickly separated from the rest of the platoon, which was in front, and the Afghan soldiers who were bringing up the rear.

Because of the time of day, the sun was right in the soldiers’ eyes, White said. The terrain was “very steep.”

“They waited until pretty much the perfect time” to attack, White said.

The first shot came in like “a single pop.”

“Then two pops, and then the whole valley lit up,” White recalled. “RPGs were coming from it seemed like everywhere.”

White began shooting back.

“I dumped my first magazine, and when I went to reload it, I put the new magazine in, and nothing,” he said.

White was knocked unconscious by an incoming RPG. He woke up facedown on the trail.

“I picked my head up two inches from the ground and an enemy round hit the rock right in front of my face,” he said.

White continued to fire at the enemy, and he soon saw Schilling had been hit in the shoulder.

“There were so many rounds coming in around us, it was incredible,” White said.

As the bullets zipped by his head and rang in his ears, White ran about 20 feet down the trail toward Schilling.

He tied a tourniquet to the specialist’s arm and made sure he hadn’t been hit anywhere else.

White then returned to the fight, running through “a few” magazines before Schilling yelled to him that Bocks had been hit.

“He had some blood coming out of his mouth, so I knew the wound was pretty severe,” White said about Bocks.

White yelled at Bocks to crawl toward him, as rounds hit around them. But Bocks didn’t move.

I decided, “screw it,” White said. “I knew he was in trouble. I got up and bolted to him.”

Bocks, who White described as a “big guy” who was more than 6 feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, was about 20 feet away. When White reached him, Bocks was still holding on to his weapon.

White grabbed Bocks by the carry handle on the top of his body armor and dragged him as far as he could.

Bocks had been shot at least twice, and White, using his body to shield Bock from the enemy fire, tried to stop the bleeding as best he could.

“I worked on him until he was no longer with us,” White said.

White then ran back to Schilling, who was yelling for him.

“Right as I turned around I saw a round go right through his left knee,” White said.

White rushed back to Schilling’s side. He was out of tourniquets, so he ripped off his belt and tied it down on Schilling’s leg.

White then realized his and Schilling’s radios were dead, and he began looking around to try to locate the other soldiers.

“That’s when I saw Capt. Ferrara,” White said.

He was facedown and not moving. White low-crawled to him, under fire.

“I checked his pulse, and he was already gone at that point,” he said.

White moved back to Schilling’s location, and by this time, an interpreter and an Afghan soldier were there as well. Both Afghans were wounded, so White tended to them as well.

Once he made sure they were OK, White decided he needed to find a working radio.

“I was the only able-bodied guy up there and the sun was setting,” he said. “I barely made it back from Capt. Ferrara. I knew if I took a lethal hit, [Schilling] would for sure not get out of there.”

White decided to check to see if Bocks’ radio was still working.

“I pulled the hand mic out of his armor, and as I was bringing it up to my head, a round went through the hand mic and blew it out of my hands,” he said. “Luckily I was the RTO and I knew how to operate the radio pretty well.”

White then began relaying situation reports and updates to the operations center at COP Bella.

“At this point, it gets pretty foggy,” White said. “I’ve heard myself on the radio directing fire support and stuff like that, but I don’t remember.”

As he worked the radio, White pieced together that the other element of the patrol had jumped off the side of the trail and tumbled down a cliff to a riverbed below. They were pinned down, and White decided he would try to link up with them.

“I tried to do that when night fell,” he said. “I picked [Spc. Schilling] up, put him on my shoulder, and I tried to move him, but it was too painful for him. I had to lay him there, and this is where we stayed.”

The men stayed there for hours, waiting for the medevac birds to reach them.

In the dark, White said he felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness.

“It was the scariest part of the entire day,” he said. “Not the firefight itself, but being the only person who was able to see at night and function in the middle of the warzone in Afghanistan is a pretty scary feeling.”

While they waited, White saw three men coming down the trail. He trained his weapon on them and was about to shoot when the interpreter stopped him. The men were Afghan soldiers.

The firefight had lasted for four hours; the enemy stopped firing when night fell, but they didn’t leave, White said.

“They were still all around us,” he said. “I could hear them moving on the cliffs above us.”

The Afghan soldiers, who were listening to the enemy chatter over the radio, told White the enemy was waiting for the medevac birds to come so they could shoot them down with RPGs.

“The night time was the worst, for sure,” White said. “It’s very hard to keep track of a 360-degree area when you’re only one person.”

So, when the Afghan soldiers trickled in to his location, White decided, “I’m going to use them.”

He directed them to pull security and create a perimeter.

As the minutes ticked by, “I noticed I wasn’t quite as with it as I was earlier in the day,” White said. “I think the concussions were catching up with me. I wasn’t blacking out, but it was hard to keep my balance and I just didn’t feel right.”

But White fought the fog in his brain and had the presence of mind to gather and bundle up all the sensitive items and equipment from his location.

When the medevac bird arrived, he sent up Schilling, the two wounded Afghans and the bundle of equipment before allowing himself to be evacuated.

All of the Americans on that patrol were killed or wounded, White said.

Fourteen soldiers were awarded the Purple Heart, one the Distinguished Service Cross, one the Silver Star, four the Bronze Star with V device, and two the Army Commendation Medal with V device for their actions that day.

White spent a few days in the hospital at Bagram Air Base before he was allowed to return to the U.S. for the funeral of his best friend, Cpl. Sean A. Langevin, 23. Langevin was one of the five soldiers killed that day.

White then returned to Afghanistan to finish out the deployment.

“He recovered and rejoined his brothers in an extended fight, completing a 15-month tour,” Ostlund said. “He was a trained, humble and selfless paratrooper and warrior that did not seek recognition or prod the system for recognition.”

After the Army

White, now 26, left the Army in July 2011, five years after enlisting as an infantryman in January 2006. He graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and now lives and works in Charlotte, N.C.

White said that tour and that battle had “a lot” to do with his decision to leave the Army.

“When I initially enlisted, I had every intention of making it a career,” he said. “But after that day, something changed for me. It was never the same after that.”

What happened on that ambush left him angry for a long time, White said.

“I was just not the person I went over there as,” he said.

As he looks back now, White said he is adjusting to life as a civilian and trying to enjoy life.

“Now it’s just trying to make the most of the second chance I’ve been given,” he said. “All the close calls I’ve had just makes you appreciate everything a little more.”

Being awarded the Medal of Honor will give him the chance to honor his fallen brothers, White said.

“It always seems like it’s always the best guys who pay the ultimate price,” he said. “Their sacrifices need to be known and remembered. They gave their all that day. They fought until they couldn’t anymore. I was just doing my job. It’s as much their award as it is mine. I’m just going to be the one wearing it.”

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