On the morning of July 13, 2008, Cpl. Jason Bogar fired some 600 rounds of ammunition at Taliban fighters trying to overrun his small observation post in a rugged corner of eastern Afghanistan.
He stopped only long enough to reload his weapon, and tend to the wounded, tying a tourniquet around the bloody right leg of a comrade, Sgt. Ryan Pitts.
Bogar, of Seattle, was part of the battle of Wanat, which ranks as one of the fiercest clashes in America’s longest war. It also is one of the most controversial, due to command decisions that left Bogar’s unit so vulnerable to enemy attack.
As American casualties mounted, Bogar was one of the few from the observation post still able to move about. After his machine gun jammed, he grabbed another weapon and left the protection of the sandbags to try to get closer to insurgents shooting from buildings.
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Soon after, Bogar died from a bullet through his neck.
“He jumped out of the bunker to kill the people who were picking them off. He didn’t make it too far,” says his mother, Carlene Cross.
On July 21, Cross will be at the White House as the sacrifices of that day are recalled when President Obama bestows the Medal of Honor on Pitts.
Pitts, despite his injuries, fought on and helped prevent the observation post from being overrun.
By the time the battle was over, nine Americans had died and 27 were wounded out of a contingent of fewer than 50 troops who occupied the observation post and a larger compound in the village of Wanat.
Pitts says there were plenty of heroes at Wanat, among the living and the dead. He initially was unhappy when word broke that he was under consideration for the nation’s highest military honor
“I didn’t feel like I deserved it,” Pitts told The Seattle Times. “Time has been good to process this. I have come to the realization — the truth — that it belongs to all of us. It’s not mine. We all earned it. I didn’t do any more than anyone else that day.”
According to an Army narrative, this is what Pitts did that day:
After Bogar tied the tourniquet, Pitts began lobbing hand grenades, holding them for a moment once the safety pins had been released so there would be no time for the insurgents to toss them back into the observation post.
He then picked up a machine gun, blind-firing over a wall because he could not stand on his injured leg.
He finally grabbed a grenade launcher, shooting nearly straight overhead to hit Taliban just on the outside of the perimeter.
At the start of the battle, there had been nine soldiers at the observation post.
Five of those soldiers died during the fight. Three others were able to dash back to the larger compound, unaware that the wounded Pitts was left behind.
More than an hour into the battle, four soldiers from the compound made their way to the observation post. They found Pitts barely hanging on, severely weakened by blood loss and multiple concussions.
Pitts was evacuated from Afghanistan, and ended up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Several weeks into his stay there, Pitts called Cross to talk to her about her son’s actions on the last day of his life.
Pitts’ wounds healed. He left the Army in 2009 at the rank of staff sergeant, and returned to his native New England, where he lives in Nashua, N.H., and works for a computer-software company.
In late June, Pitts called Cross again. This time, he invited her to the White House Medal of Honor ceremony.
“I did tell her that it’s Jason’s just as much as it is mine,” Pitts said. ‘”There are a lot of guys. I can’t just single out one person. But his actions helped save my life. He kept calm … and in combat, fear and panic can be contagious.”
Bogar, a Bothell High School graduate, joined the Washington National Guard in 2000. After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, he decided to enlist in the active-duty Army. Bogar had hopes of one day attending art school, and displayed a talent for photography as he took pictures of children his unit encountered in Afghanistan.
In the aftermath of his death, Cross joined other parents of the deceased in pressing the Army to investigate what happened in Wanat.
In the days before the battle, C Company, part of the Italy-based 173 Airborne Brigade, had struggled with shortages of food, fuel and heavy machinery. Lacking excavating equipment, the troops dug fortifications by scraping the rocky soil with their bare hands.
Two days after the battle, U.S. troops withdrew from Wanat, ceding control to the Taliban.
An investigation found fault with leaders. But a general declined to issue any letters of reprimand, saying he feared a chilling effect on the conduct of battlefield commanders who must make difficult decisions.
The parents kept up their pressure.
A subsequent Department of Defense Inspector’s general oversight review affirmed that the battalion commander, “through neglect, was derelict in the performance of his duty” and that the brigade commander also was culpable of dereliction of duty.
Cross, who works at the University of Washington, says she has struggled to get over bitter feelings about those who led her son in this war.
“I spent a couple of years working for accountability, and found that I was pretty angry. But I realized that Jason wouldn’t want me to live my life as an angry person, and I had to release that anger, and celebrate his sacrifice.”
Pitts says he finds no fault with leadership. He says he would still follow them anywhere.
Pitts says the focus should stay on the soldiers who fought at Wanat, and “what we did together.”
“We need to tell our story. Especially for the guys that didn’t come home.”
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org