Just before sunrise, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts and his fellow soldiers found themselves surrounded by enemy insurgents. It was July 13, 2008, and they were stationed at a new U.S. patrol base in Wanat Village, a region in the Kunar Province in Afghanistan. The army forces were outnumbered by more than four to one, and the patrol base was soon overwhelmed with machine-gun fire and round after round of rocket-propelled grenades.
Pitts and eight others manned their positions at a key observation post roughly 150 meters from the main base, as “bullets came down like rain,” Pitts recalled. The insurgents had flooded into Wanat overnight, setting up firing stations in the town’s bazaar, hotel, homes, and mosque.
All around him, Pitts’ friends and brothers in service were felled by enemy fire. He took shrapnel to his legs and arm from a grenade explosion, but held his ground and protected the post, firing a machine gun using his good arm, and communicating crucial information to the main post. After a while, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom and Specialist Jason Hovater arrived to help, having made a mad dash through direct enemy fire from the main base to the observation post.
Soon, Pitts noticed that all was quiet, and he crawled silently through the post, unable to find anyone still alive. Pitts radioed down to his commanding officer, then-Capt. Matthew Myer, for reinforcements, but there weren’t any. The grim news didn’t stop Pitts, or anyone at the base, from giving everything they had—for each other and for their country.
Eventually, attack helicopters arrived and pushed back the enemy forces while medevac helicopters lifted Pitts and the surviving members of his company to safety. Reinforcements arrived and held both the patrol base and the observation post.
On Thursday, wearing the Medal of Honor he received in 2014 for his valor in Afghanistan, Pitts recalled the event and all the people he’d fought alongside during Northeastern University’s Veterans Day Ceremony.
“On one of the worst days of my life, I saw the best of America,” Pitts said, on the crisp, sunny day at the Neal F. Finnegan Plaza on Northeastern’s Boston campus, half a world away from the horror of that July day.
The people fighting alongside Pitts didn’t stop to ask each other about their beliefs, their politics, or anything else—they jumped in, at great risk to their own lives, to help out a countryman in need.
“I didn’t care what you believed, what political party you loved, the color of your skin, where you were born, how much money you made; none of that mattered. It was all about service. … I loved that about my service. I wish I saw more of that all throughout our country,” he said.
Pitts delivered the featured remarks during a momentous event. It marked the 70th anniversary for Northeastern’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, as well as the 15th anniversary of the dedication of the plaza on which the university’s Veterans Memorial stands.
And, being at Northeastern held particular significance for Pitts, who said his grandparents met on its Boston campus. His grandfather, a returning veteran, sought help from a young woman working in the university’s veterans service office at the time. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I literally wouldn’t be here without Northeastern,” Pitts said, laughing. He also acknowledged the service of all veterans, no matter what their jobs were in the military, noting that logisticians secured the parts for the helicopters that rescued him, and mechanics installed them—and without them, he wouldn’t be here, either.
Later, university president Joseph E. Aoun thanked Pitts and veterans across the country for their service. He referred to Pitts’ comment and added, “Without you, and all those who’ve served, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Andy McCarty, director of the Dolce Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers, and a U.S. Air Force veteran himself, remarked at how wonderful it was to be back, celebrating veterans in person again, after two years of virtual meetings and events.
“I don’t know about you, but I missed being here in this sacred place in the center of our campus, breathing in this crisp, fresh autumn air, hearing the flags snap and wave high above us—to be still for a few moments, while life continues to be busy around us,” he said.
Indeed, the plaza was an island of contemplative stillness and celebration on Thursday. And its namesake, Neal F. Finnegan, chair emeritus of the Northeastern University Board of Trustees, received the Joseph H. Hefflon Yellow Ribbon Award, designed to honor those who were not part of the military but served its members in other ways.
“Pop” Hefflon was a 1915 graduate of the Northeastern School of Law, then known as the Evening School of Law of the Boston YMCA. He volunteered with the YMCA to support the troops during World War I, and was aboard the S.S. Orissa when it was torpedoed off the coast of Wales. Hefflon survived and made it to France, where he supported the U.S. Army for a time before he died in 1919, at a Red Cross hospital in France.
Quoting from the Rudyard Kipling poem, “Recessional,” Finnegan emphasized the gravity of the sacrifices that members of the armed services made. “Lest we forget, lest we forget,” he said, reading a line from the poem that repeats several times.
Kipling’s repetition put “an emphasis on the danger of failing to remember the horrible price of war,” Finnegan said. “And so we must remember, here in 2021, not only Pop Hefflon, but all the names on this wall,” he added, indicating the Veterans Memorial behind him.
The event was also a celebration of those whose service was just beginning, including that of Frances Lee, a student in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and a member of the Northeastern ROTC Liberty Battalion. Lee emceed the Veterans Day event, and credited the training program for helping her to become the person she was.
As a high school student, she said, “I was drawn to service, and I knew I wanted to be a nurse. I began to realize that I wanted to use my nursing degree in a unique way to serve our soldiers and their families.”
She joined ROTC, and gained both mental and physical toughness. “I wholeheartedly believe that I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without these experiences.”
Tom Sheahan, a U.S. Navy veteran and senior vice provost for curriculum and programs at Northeastern, shared memories of talking with his father, who served in the army during World War II and the Korean War.
“We talked a lot about the transformative nature of military service, how it prepared us for our lives and connected us with people from completely different … backgrounds,” said Sheahan, who served in the Navy Civil Engineering Corps. “I’m forever grateful for the lessons learned and support I received from the enlisted men and women with whom I served.”