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Newest MoH recipient recalls 2007 ambush: 'The whole valley lit up'

Former Sgt. Kyle White will receive highest honor for valor Tuesday at White House

May. 12, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Kyle White roundtable MWM 20140512
Former Army Sgt. Kyle White, left, and former Spc. Kain Schilling speak with reporters May 12. White will be awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House on May 13. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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For more than six years, former Sgt. Kyle White knew he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor.

On Tuesday, he will finally receive the nation’s highest award for valor, and, along with it, a sense of relief.

“Finally, our story can be told,” he said. “These guys were the best of us. To me, it’s important that their names are known. This is only one story, and this was more than six years ago. Since then, hundreds more sacrifices and hundreds other stories are out there.”

Five soldiers and one Marine were killed on Nov. 8, 2007, during a deadly enemy ambush in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province.

White, then a specialist with 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, is being honored for repeatedly running 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.

President Obama will present the Medal of Honor to White during a White House ceremony Tuesday.

“I do not consider myself a hero,” White said. “To me, the real heroes are the ones I fought with that day.”

White will be the seventh living service member to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in Afghanistan or Iraq. Seven service members were posthumously awarded the medal for their actions in those wars.

White also will be the second soldier from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment to receive the nation's highest valor award for actions in Afghanistan.

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.

On Nov. 8, 2007, the soldiers, along with Marine Sgt. Phillip Bocks and the Afghan soldiers he was advising, set out for Combat Outpost Bella after a meeting with the villagers in Aranas.

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.

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.

White dashed out to Bocks, and “you could see sparks all around Kyle,” Schilling said. “He glowed from the ricochets.”

Bocks was about 10 meters away, “but it might as well have been a mile,” White said.

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 Bocks 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, but Ferrara was dead.

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.

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

“It seemed like nighttime was the longest,” White said.

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.

White left the Army in July 2011. He graduated in December with a bachelor's degree in business administration and now lives and works in Charlotte, N.C.

As he prepares for the White House ceremony, White said the Medal of Honor doesn’t belong to him.

“It wasn’t just me on that trail,” he said. “It’s everyone who was there. It’s their award. One of the responsibilities I feel is being a voice for those we lost, making sure their names are known and their stories are told.”

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