At the White House Monday afternoon, former U.S. Army Sgt. Ryan Pitts became only the ninth surviving soldier to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Pitts was honored for his actions during the Battle of Wanat on July 13, 2008, during which nine U.S. soldiers were killed and 27 injured when a forward listening station near the Afghanistan-Pakistani border was attacked by about 200 Taliban.
Pitts was the last man left alive at his post, and even though he was badly wounded, together with radio messages to helicopter pilots, grenades and shooting a machine gun blind, he was able to hold off the enemy for nearly two hours.
But not entirely alone.
During the White House ceremony, President Barack Obama name-called the nine men who perished, including Sgt. Israel “Ira” Garcia of Long Beach, Calif.
Garcia was 24 when he died, like Pitts, was a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team of the 503rd Infantry Airborne Regiment.
Pitts also mentions Garcia frequently in interviews — not too surprising since he died in his fellow-sargeant’s arms.
“There wasn’t really anything we could do for him,” Pitts told the Lowell (Mass.) Sun in late June. “Other than for me to give him the guarantee that I would come home and tell his wife and mother that he loved them and that he was thinking of them in his last moments.”
Which he did after months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He went to California and met with Garcia’s mother, Maricruz, and wife, Lesly.
“It was certainly emotionally challenging,” Pitts said, “but I owed it to him…. It was not about my level of discomfort at that point.”
Garcia enlisted in 2002, shortly after graduating from high school. He married Lesly in 2006, just before being shipped out to Italy.
Garcia was two weeks shy of the end of his 15-month deployment when Wanat took place, and when Lesly was told of his death, she already had her bags packed to fly to his base station in Italy to meet him.
“It just felt so surreal,” Lesly Garcia told the Victorville (Calif.) Daily Press in April 2013. “After him not coming back for so long and on the same day you leave… It felt like my life was a movie.”
Sgt. Israel Garcia received the Silver Star posthumously.