President Obama on Tuesday awarded the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for combat bravery, to former Army Sgt. Kyle White. Obama described how — during a firefight in Afghanistan — White single-handedly saved the life of a fellow soldier and then helped evacuate the wounded during a firefight with the Afghan Taliban.
" 'When you're deployed,' he later said, 'those people become your family. What you really care about is, I want to get this guy to the left and to the right home,' " Obama said of White.
That's why White says he risked his life that November afternoon in 2007. He and other soldiers were meeting with village elders. They had a strange feeling. First, the meeting was delayed. Then the soldiers spotted an unusual number of young men. Then they picked up enemy radio chatter. So they decided it wasn't safe and left. They trudged back up a steep, rocky trail.
"It started off with a single shot, two shots, and then it seemed like the whole valley erupted. There [were rocket-propelled grenades] and small arms fire from every direction," White says.
The Taliban videotaped the attack and put it on the Web. You can actually see some of the soldiers sliding off the side of the trail, desperate to escape the intense fire.
(The Taliban video is directly below. Below that is a second video of the same episode taken from a U.S. military helicopter.)
A rocket-propelled grenade exploded just behind White's head. He was hit, shrapnel peppering his face and hands. He says he didn't see how any of them could survive.
"I told myself I was going to die because I just had that feeling — the amount of fire, I was already wounded — I'm not going to make it through this one. And I knew that if I'm going to die, I'm going to do what I can to help my battle buddies until it happens. And that's what's running through my mind," he says.
Running Through Intense Fire
What White did next is what earned him the Medal of Honor. As others in the unit went down, White ran back and forth — dodging bullets — to care for the wounded.
One of them was Spc. Kain Schilling.
"That's when I got shot in my arm. It went numb. And I thought I lost my arm, thought an RPG or something took it off," Schilling says.
Schilling found cover under a small tree. White ran after him.
"He had to run through overwhelming fire just to get to me. It was ... shale type of rocks, so when bullets hit, it was a cool-looking spark. So everywhere he's going you could see these sparks flying up around him," Schilling says.
White wrapped a tourniquet around Schilling's arm. Then he spotted another American down, Marine Sgt. Phillip Bocks. White ran to help — straight through the Taliban fire. Schilling saw it all happen.
"Tons of sparks, puffs of dirt coming up. He kind of just acted like they weren't there or it wasn't going to hit him. It was for sure he was going to get hit," Schilling says.
The bullets ripped away pieces of White's uniform, but somehow he didn't get hit. He reached Bocks, who was badly wounded. White tried to calm him.
"The only words he ever said to me was, 'I don't think I'm going to make it through this.' Nah, you're going to be fine, Medevac is on its way — just trying to reassure him," White says.
He dragged Bocks toward the tree where Schilling was hunkered down. More than an hour had gone by since the first shots.
White wasn't done.
He found a radio and called in artillery and airstrikes. Then through the night, he joked with Schilling to keep up his spirits. After 20 hours, it was over. White helped Schilling get aboard the Medevac helicopter.
"He got me standing me up, they put me in a hoist and hoisted me up," Schilling says.
White says it was never the same after that day. He decided not to re-enlist; he had no passion for it anymore. He got counseling, a college degree and now works as an investment analyst.
But those who died that day are never far from him. Their names are etched on a silver bracelet he wears on his wrist — including Sgt. Bocks.