On July 8, 2008, elements of Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion
(Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade; Army
engineers; Marine Corps Embedded Training Team mentors; and Afghan
National Army conducted Operation “Rock Move,” in the Waygal Valley
of northeastern Afghanistan.
The operation was aimed at
repositioning forces from Combat Outpost Bella to the outskirts of a
village called Wanat, in order to disrupt militant trafficking in
the Waygal Valley, and to set the stage for effective economic and
security development in the region.
This was the third and
final move southward for Chosen Company, the final mission of their
14-month deployment. Over the course of 2007-2008, Chosen Company
engaged in persistent combat with the enemy as the unit responsible
for security in the volatile Waygal Valley region. For then-Sgt.
Ryan Pitts and his teammates, Operation Rock Move meant the end of a
long deployment was in sight.
Several factors prompted the
decision to close COP Bella. Bella was located 16 kilometers from
the nearest base, which was Forward Operating Base Blessing to the
south, and relied solely on helicopter support for supplies and
reinforcements. The small village of Wanat was halfway between Bella
and FOB Blessing, at about 8 kilometers from FOB Blessing, which
housed the company's quick reaction force as well as the tactical
operations center. Also, an improved road network made Wanat
accessible to ground vehicles.
COP Bella was originally
positioned to disrupt militant traffic, but its impact dwindled as
Anti-Afghan Forces left the area or established alternate resupply
routes. Additionally, the sparse development opportunities near
Bella were further limited by a pervasive lack of cooperation from
the traditional village leaders nearby.
Wanat would allow coalition forces to better interdict militant
traffic, and lay the foundation for local economic and security
improvements, a key component of counter-insurgency strategy. Wanat
was the site of a new district government center and a new police
station. Co-locating coalition forces in Wanat would foster
relationships with the local government officials and improve
goodwill with the local population, building on positive
relationships from a bridge construction project completed in Wanat,
After Army leaders announced the pending closure of
COP Bella in June 2008, coalition forces began to receive reports of
large enemy forces massing in the Waygal valley, who planned to
attack COP Bella as forces withdrew. The reports were reinforced by
several harassment attacks on COP Bella throughout mid-June and into
early July. The final two attacks on Bella, on July 3-4, 2008,
resulted in American and militant casualties, as well as allegations
of Afghan civilian causalities.
Prior to the start of
Operation Rock Move, theater-level engineering elements and Chosen
Company leadership had visited Wanat to develop a base defense plan,
which included an interior and exterior wall, a formal entrance
control point, and guard towers. Civilian equipment operators were
scheduled to arrive six days after 2nd platoon's arrival to Wanat,
to build these and other permanent structures. To bolster defenses
until then, 2nd platoon was reinforced with an engineer squad using
a Bobcat front-end loader, a six-man mortar section using a 120 mm
mortar and a 60 mm mortar, four M114 armored Humvees, and a TOW
(tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided) anti-armor missile
system, among other assets.
Under the cover of darkness July
8-9, Chosen Company airlifted 1st platoon out of COP Bella, and 2nd
platoon left FOB Blessing to begin setting up the new vehicle patrol
base, known as a VPB, at Wanat. Chosen Company's 2nd platoon
nicknamed the new post VPB Kahler, in honor of their former platoon
sergeant and slain comrade, Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Kahler. Once at
VPB Kahler, 2nd platoon, along with an attached engineer squad and
6-man mortar team, established a perimeter and began securing the
VPB Kahler was established in an open area and was roughly
the size of a football field, aligned lengthwise from north to
south. The open area lay southwest and adjacent to the village of
Wanat, with the Waygal River forming its rough western border, and
the road running from FOB Blessing to Wanat forming the eastern
On the northwest side of the VPB stood a large
blue-roofed building surrounded by a high stone wall. Next, moving
in a clockwise direction, a one-story mosque, a hotel/caf� complex,
and a bazaar (marketplace) ringed the VPB.
Upon arriving, 2nd
Platoon placed Observation Post “Topside,” on a ridge to the east of
the main base, and east of the bazaar and hotel complex. The ridge
was high enough to block visibility from the VPB to the low ground
in the northeast and southeast. Therefore, OP Topside was placed on
the high ground to give 2nd platoon visibility of the terrain to the
northeast and east, which might serve as an enemy avenue of approach
into Wanat. OP Topside's location also provided visibility of two
bridges just north of the town, and its close proximity to the VPB
ensured it could be reinforced in the event of enemy contact.
One challenge of the placement of OP Topside was that it had no
direct lines of sight to the north, where the ground fell away into
a tree-filled ravine ten yards past the OP. The ravine contained a
small offshoot of the Wayskawdi Creek. The creek curved along the
north, northeast, and east of the ridge. Thus, the OP site had
considerable dead space, which is an area that could not be seen.
Any enemy in this dead space could enter the hotel complex
undetected. To mitigate this risk, Chosen Company developed
pre-planned indirect fire support targets in the dead space that
could be engaged if needed.
On July 13, 2008, 2nd Platoon
conducted stand-to at 4 a.m. local time. Stand-to consists of
placing personnel at their defensive positions in preparation for
enemy attack, at the most likely time of attack – just before dawn.
Sgt. Pitts, the forward observer, was positioned at Topside with a
team of eight other paratroopers. Also assigned to Topside were: Spc.
Jonathan Ayers, Spc. Jason Bogar, Sgt. Matthew Gobble, Pfc. Chris
McKaig, Spc. Matthew Phillips, Spc. Pruitt Rainey, Spc. Tyler
Stafford, and Spc. Gunnar Zwilling.
Shortly after stand-to,
Soldiers conducting surveillance with the thermal imaging sights on
a TOW (tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided) anti-armor
missile system, which was located inside the main vehicle patrol
base perimeter, identified potential insurgents on the western high
ground above Wanat. Pitts and Gobble, located in the center of the
observation post, began putting together a request for indirect fire
in response. Rainey, Ayers, and McKaig were located in the eastern
position, referred to as the crow's nest. Stafford and Bogar were in
the southern position, and Phillips and Zwilling were located in the
Before they could complete the call for
fire, at approximately 4:20 a.m., the paratroopers heard a burst of
machine-gun fire coming from the direction of a two-story building
located on a terraced hill to the north. Then the valley erupted in
enemy fire. An estimated 200 enemy fighters launched a full-scale
assault, focusing their fires on the base's key defensive weapons
systems and positions: VPB mortar-firing position, the vehicle with
the TOW missile system, and OP Topside. The insurgents had
infiltrated Wanat, setting up firing positions and weapons caches in
the town's bazaar, hotel complex, homes, and mosque.
paratroopers at OP Topside were simultaneously hit with small-arms
fire, rocket-propelled grenades, and hand grenades thrown at close
range by insurgents concealed in the draw to the north of the
observation post. All of the paratroopers at OP Topside were
wounded, and two were killed, by the first volley of fire. Pitts was
wounded by grenade shrapnel in both legs and his left arm.
After the initial blast, Pitts found himself thrown toward the
northern position of the observation post. Stunned by the blast, he
crawled to the southern end of the observation post, where he found
Bogar. Seeing Pitts' leg wound, Bogar applied a tourniquet to Pitts'
right leg. Meanwhile, Stafford informed them that Phillips and
Zwilling had both been killed by hand grenades and rocket-propelled
grenades in the initial volley of fire.
Realizing the enemy
was in hand-grenade range, Pitts returned to the northern position,
where the grenades were stored. Despite the risk of running into a
short fuse, Pitts started “cooking off” grenades, letting them burn
for several seconds before he threw them into the draw just beyond
the observation post perimeter to the north. This tactic prevented
enemy forces from throwing the grenades back at the observation
post, before they detonated. By using this tactic, Pitts put himself
at risk, but ensured the blasts were concentrated toward the enemy.
Between deploying hand grenades, Pitts called in a situation report
to the company commander, Capt. Matthew Myer. He informed Myer of
the casualties and estimated enemy locations.
to fire the M240-B machine-gun in the northern position of OP
Topside, in an effort to conserve hand grenades. Unable to stand
because of his injuries, Pitts blind-fired over the wall of
waist-high sandbags with the machine gun to provide momentary cover,
then propped himself up on his knees to fire over the wall. Without
another paratrooper in the northern position to act as assistant
gunner, Pitts repeatedly fired until the gun jammed, then cleared
the malfunction, and loaded more ammunition from the bag beneath the
Within minutes, as the remaining paratroopers at OP
Topside fought for their lives, the enemy forces had destroyed the
TOW system and injured the personnel manning the 120 mm mortar
firing pit, setting the pit that held it ablaze. Myer, attempting to
control the battle from the center of the vehicle patrol base, was
desperate to get additional firepower to support the paratroopers at
OP Topside. Pitts was the only contact between the command post and
the OP, and the only person left capable of controlling indirect
fire support. While firing the machine gun in the northern position,
Pitts maintained contact with Myer on the radio, directing artillery
fires from FOB Blessing onto the pre-planned targets around the OP.
At approximately 4:45 a.m., 1st Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom and Spc.
Jason Hovater maneuvered from the VPB main perimeter, through direct
enemy fire coming from the hotel, to reinforce the paratroopers
under direct attack at the OP. Pitts gave Brostrom a situation
report and described the locations of the enemy, before surrendering
the machine gun to Spc. Rainey and exchanging it for an M4 with a
mounted M-203 grenade launcher. While Brostrom, Hovater, Bogar, and
Rainey re-established the OP's defensive position, Pitts manned the
radio and continued to call in requests for indirect fire to Myer.
Suddenly, Pitts realized he could no longer hear other fires
coming from within the OP. Realizing he was probably alone, and not
wanting to reveal his position to the enemy, Pitts crawled silently
from his position to the southernmost edge of the perimeter,
checking to see if anyone was still alive. He discovered that McKaig,
Stafford, Gobble, Brostrom, Rainey, Bogar, and Hovater were gone.
All the paratroopers still with him in the OP were dead. Pitts later
learned that Stafford and Gobble had moved to the casualty
collection point at the traffic-control point, referred to as the
TCP CCP, while McKaig maneuvered to the VPB for ammunition. The
reinforcing troops, Bogar, and Rainey had been killed while setting
up a defensive perimeter on the northwest side of the OP.
Alone and losing blood, Pitts radioed Myer to inform him that
everyone at the OP was deceased or gone. Pitts was informed that
reinforcements for the OP were not available. At this point, the
insurgents were in such close proximity to Pitts, that Soldiers at
the command post and those listening in on the channel could hear
enemy voices through the radio. In that moment, Pitts resigned
himself to certain death, but remained determined to do as much
damage as possible to the enemy before they overwhelmed the OP.
Taking up the M-203 grenade launcher, Pitts began firing it
almost directly overhead, straight up, placing grenades that would
detonate just on the other side of the perimeter, where the
insurgents had concealed themselves in the draw. Pitts also called
on the radio for any Soldier with a sightline to the OP to begin
firing over the sandbag wall at his position, to knock the enemy
back if they breached the wall. Sgt. Brian Hissong at the TCP CCP
answered the call, and began laying down fire directly over Pitts.
Then, four Soldiers – Staff Sgt. Sean Samaroo, Sgt. Israel
Garcia, Spc. Michael Denton, and Spc. Jacob Sones – maneuvered from
the TCP CCP to reinforce OP Topside. They found Pitts fighting for
his life. Sones was initially able to treat Pitts, before another
round of explosions rocked the OP, mortally wounding Garcia. While
the other Soldiers attempted to secure the OP's perimeter despite
their injuries, Pitts crawled to Garcia and comforted him. Samaroo,
Denton and Sones then pulled Garcia out of the open, to the OP's
casualty collection point at the southern position.
after, attack helicopters arrived to provide close air support.
Despite being nearly unconscious, Pitts continued to communicate
with headquarters, providing needed feedback to Myer as he called in
the first helicopter attack run to engage the insurgents to the
north of the OP. This strike, only 30 meters from the friendly
troops at OP Topside, took the pressure off the Soldiers at the main
base enough so that a third group of reinforcements from the VPB
could scale the terraces and secure the OP. Meanwhile,
reinforcements from FOB Blessing arrived and began clearing enemy
positions within the town and adjacent hillsides.
approximately 6:15 a.m., after fighting for more than an hour while
critically wounded, Pitts was medically evacuated along with Samaroo,
Sones, and Denton. His actions allowed U.S. forces time to reinforce
the OP and bring-in airstrikes which turned the tide of the battle.
If not for his ability to be the commanders' eyes and ears in
his critically wounded state, the enemy would have gained a foothold
on high ground and inflicted significantly greater causalities onto
the main vehicle patrol base, and the enemy could have been in
possession of seven fallen Americans.
The remaining 2nd
Platoon Soldiers and 1st Platoons reinforcements continued to
fight-off the scores of Anti-Afghan Forces for several more hours.
The OP and VPB Kahler-main were secured.
A few days later,
Chosen Company left the village of Wanat – it was clear to Task
Force Rock leaders – the same elders who welcomed them had betrayed
them. The situation in Wanat had changed.
Photos associated with Medal of
Honor Recipient Ryan Pitts including FOB Blessings and COP
Bella in Afghanistan
By U.S. Army Office of the Chief of Public Affairs
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