Former Army Sgt. Kyle White To Receive Medal Of Honor

Renee Montagne talks to Kyle White, who will receive the Medal of Honor for actions conducted during a 2007 battle in Afghanistan. He was with U.S. and Afghan forces when the Taliban ambushed them.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's take you now to a story of heroism on a battlefield in Afghanistan. It was November 2007. Army Specialist Kyle White was with his platoon and a squad of Afghan soldiers and their U.S. Marine trainer in a remote, mountainous part of northeastern Afghanistan. They were ambushed. And in a lengthy firefight with the Taliban, the 20-year-old White risked his life many times trying to save others, and did save the life of fellow soldier Kain Schilling. For those actions, he will be presented with the nation's highest military medal, the Medal of Honor. When Kyle White joined us, he described how that day began, when his group of soldiers went into a local village to meet with the elders.

KYLE WHITE: Normally, when we go to these meetings, there's, you know, a few, you know, the elders there, and they won't be too enthusiastic. But on this day, it seemed that every male fighting agent above was in attendance. And they were just gathered in a horseshoe-shaped formation around us, and just very close packed in together and very attentive to every single thing we had to say.

MONTAGNE: Sounds like a good thing, but that unusual level of interest suggested danger. Their interpreter was also troubled by some chatter he heard on the radio. So, the group decided to leave immediately, and as they made their way back up the mountain, gunfire rang out.

WHITE: It started as a single gunshot, then two, and then it seemed the whole valley erupted. And it just was - the amount of fire, it seemed to come from every direction. And, you know, I fired my first magazine, and I loaded another one. That's when a rocket-propelled grenade hit right behind my head and knocked me unconscious.

MONTAGNE: When you came to, what did you find?

WHITE: When I came to, I was face down in just a large piece of, like, shale rock. And as I picked my head up, an enemy round hit that rock and fragmented into my face. And that kind of brought me back to reality pretty quickly. And I remember putting my hand to my face and pulling it back, and my hand was covered in blood. And as I looked at Specialist Schilling, I could see him running behind a canopy of just one lone tree that was on the trail. As he was running, I noticed that he'd been shot in his right shoulder and was dragging his arm. I got up to go move to his position and put a tourniquet on his right arm.

MONTAGNE: And then Marine Sergeant Philip Bocks was further down. And what - on the ground, hit?

WHITE: Yes. So, once I saw that he had been wounded, I yelled at him to, you know, use all your strength and try to get to me. You know, just use whatever you can. And he's trying to move, but he's kind of just - he's not making any progress at this point. And the fire that's coming in, it's just kind of like a hailstorm. I saw that he'd been wounded and he had helped, and I know that if the roles were reversed, he would have came out and done the same for me. And so I made the decision to just get up and go to him and try to drag him to where I was.

And as I was running out towards Sergeant Bocks, every enemy fighter than was able to see me was firing at me, because the amount of bullets that were coming in, they were so close, you can feel the pressure from the round going by your face. They're snapping through my uniform. You see little puffs of fabric. And I just know that I got to get to him and I got to get back to my position. And so when I grabbed him and started dragging him, I realized that, you know, they weren't shooting at him before I ran out here. They're not really focused on him. They're focusing on me. And I knew the longer I sat there and dragged him, the greater chance he had of being wounded again.

And so I made the decision to kind of draw their fire away from Bocks by running back to Kain's position - Kain Schilling, that's Specialist Schilling. And running back to his position long enough to distract them and have them follow me, and then wait a second and then repeat the movement. I did that about three or four times until I got Sergeant Bocks back to our location.

MONTAGNE: He was badly wounded, right?

WHITE: Yes, he was. And so when I got him to relatively concealed location, I put a tourniquet on his leg and then dressed the wound that was on his left shoulder. But I found that there had been an exit wound in his ribcage. It was bleeding pretty profusely. So, I tried to stop the bleeding as best I could, but he died not long after.

MONTAGNE: So, you knew Sergeant Bocks hadn't made it, but you still, you looked over and you spotted the platoon leader, First Lieutenant Matthew Ferrara, and he was in bad shape, too, as far as you could see, right?

WHITE: I saw his helmet and his assault pack he carried on his back. And it's just that the way the terrain was shaped, that's all I could see from where I was at. And I didn't know if he was alive or dead, but I knew I had to go out and check on him. And so I kind of just crawled out there to go check on him. You know, when I got to him, I checked his pulse, and he had already died.

MONTAGNE: How much longer did this firefight go on?

WHITE: Well, the firefight lasted about four hours. It started 3:30 in the afternoon, and it pretty much ended when night had fallen. It seemed like we were on that hillside forever. I don't know the actual amount of time that had passed from, you know, when the ambush started till when we were actually medically evacuated out of there.

MONTAGNE: You have described this so vividly. I'm just wondering - this is seven years later - how much it imposes itself on you, the thoughts and the memories?

WHITE: It's something you still think about every day. You know, I still have these images from that day burned into my head. But it's something, as time goes on, it gets easier.

MONTAGNE: You've said that something - I'm quoting you now, I've read - you said that "something changed" in you that day. What changed?

WHITE: Even to this day, you know, I can't say if it was something good or bad. Just something changed after that day. And that was pretty much the reason why I decided to leave the Army, as well. When it came time to reenlist, I figured, you know, if I don't have, you know, my 100 percent, you know, heart and mind in what I'm doing here, when I go down back to Afghanistan and I have soldiers that are going to look to me to be a leader, you know, they deserve to have the best leaders they can have. And I didn't feel, at that time, I could give that to them.

MONTAGNE: Well, you had already given your best, which was extraordinary.

WHITE: I just was literally doing the job I was trained to do. And I know that any of those guys there that day, they would have done the exact same thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Six of the 14 Americans fighting on the mountain that were killed. When the Medevac helicopters finally arrived, Kyle White insisted that all the wounded be taken onboard first before he would leave. President Obama will award the Congressional Medal of Honor to former Army Sergeant White this afternoon in a ceremony at the White House. This is NPR News. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The official name for the award is the Medal of Honor, not the Congressional Medal of Honor.]

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