WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor on Tuesday to former Army Sgt. Kyle White, an Afghanistan war veteran celebrated by Obama as “a soldier who embodies the courage of his generation.”
“Today our troops are coming home,” Obama said at a White House ceremony, held in the East Room in front of White’s parents and girlfriend, as well as relatives of those who died beside him in battle more than six years ago.
“By the end of this year, our war in Afghanistan will be over,” Obama continued, “and we’ll welcome home this generation, the 9/11 generation, that has proven to be one of America’s greatest.”
White was awarded the nation’s highest military honor for action in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province, a remote, lightly populated region in the country’s northeast. The battle took place Nov. 9, 2007, a year before Obama was elected president with a pledge to retool and better resource U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
Now 27, White was a high school freshman at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and originally aspired to enlist in the Marines. His father, Curt, an Army Special Forces veteran, helped persuade his son to rethink his service branch of choice.
White has since left the Army, graduated from college and started work as an investment analyst in Charlotte, N.C. U.S. troops long ago abandoned Nuristan, the site of three of the deadliest battles for American soldiers in the long Afghan war.
“I can close my eyes at any moment and still go back to certain experiences that day,” White said this week in a roundtable discussion with reporters. “I can still feel the temperature of the air, the smell of the gunpowder.”
White and 13 other U.S. troops with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, accompanied by a contingent of Afghan soldiers, were moving along a narrow ridgeline after a meeting with tribal elders when the Taliban attacked from three directions.
The soldiers in front of White had nowhere to go, so they threw themselves off the trail and rolled more than 160 feet down a steep, rocky cliff. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded near White’s head, knocking him unconscious.
He woke to find Marine Sgt. Phillip Bocks lying in the open, and badly wounded. Another soldier, Spec. Kain Schilling, was bleeding from bullet wounds to his shoulder and his leg. White tied tourniquets onto Schilling’s wounds and tried to drag Bocks to safety.
“The rounds were coming in and I could feel them go by my face, just the pressure from the bullets,” said White, whose face and hands were peppered with small bullet fragments.
He carried Bocks a few feet and then, when the fire grew too intense, sprinted back to Schilling, drawing the enemy fire with him. Bocks was conscious, but dying. “The only words he ever said to me was I don’t think I’m going to make it through this,” said White, who worked to keep him alive.
“I can talk about the day with … other people I served with,” White said. “But I could never sit down and talk about it with my parents. I don’t know why, but that was always the hardest thing to do.”