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Medal of Honor recipient recalls friends who fell in 'ambush alley' every day

Anna MulrineThe Christian Science Monitor

True courage is having a perfectly clear sense of the profound peril ahead, and the willingness to face it anyway. And that, President Obama said in a White House ceremony Tuesday, was what Sgt. Kyle White did in Afghanistan in November 2007.

For his “acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty,” Sergeant White was awarded the Medal of Honor Tuesday, becoming the seventh living recipient of that honor for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest award for valor.

“His actions bore witness to the depth of his love and the breadth of his honor,” Army Maj. Gen. Donald Rutherford said at the ceremony.

The heroism at the core of White’s story, he added, has the potential to “so deeply inspire our nation that we may renew our devotion to one another.”

That story began when White and his fellow paratroopers from Chosen Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade, were returning to their base in eastern Afghanistan, along a narrow ridge line known as “ambush alley” when they came under attack.

Bullets were coming from “what seemed like every direction,” Sergeant White recalled, and the attack was so fierce that he had resigned himself to death, Mr. Obama told an audience that included White’s family, members of his company, and the families of the fallen.

But before that happened, White decided that he wanted to save as many of his fellow soldiers as he could.

“I told myself that I was going to die. You know, there’s no doubt in my mind I was not going to make it off that cliff that day,” he told the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. “And so in my mind ... it was, you know, if I’m going to die, I’m going to help my battle buddies until it happens.”

He lost six fellow soldiers that day, and wears a bracelet on his wrist engraved with their names. “I just kind of wear it as a reminder, and it kind of motivates me as well,” he said. “It’s like no matter what is going on in my life – like if something is hard or especially during school – like if you’re complaining about reading a chapter or something, you know – you look down and you’d be like, ‘You know, these guys, if they were here right now, they would not be complaining.’ ”

When his 15-month deployment to Afghanistan was over, White used his GI Bill to go to college, and he now works as a banker in Charlotte, N.C.

Still, he thinks of the battle in which he lost his buddies every day, says White, who has been open about his struggles with post-traumatic stress since his return from America’s longest war. 

“I still think about it every day,” he told Stars and Stripes, “but as years go by, it’s not something I think about as often each day.” 

In the wake of his post-traumatic stress diagnosis, he has also come up with his own coping mechanisms, he says. “My biggest one and the best one that works for me is exercise. You know, no matter what I’m feeling [or] dealing with, I can go in and just clear my head.”

White learned he was to receive the medal in February, but the honor was years in the making. The Pentagon does not award Medals of Honor lightly. Citing the need for accuracy, the paperwork and the testimony of his fellow soldiers to his valor in the field receive “intense scrutiny every step of the way,” the Army website explaining the Medal of Honor recommendation process notes.

The medal must be approved up the chain of command, including by the chief of staff of the Army – the service’s highest-ranking officer – as well as by the secretary of the Army, the secretary of Defense, and, finally, by the president of the United States, who can personally approve or disapprove the medal.

White now joins an elite cadre of American service members. The medal entitles him to an extra $1,200 in monthly pension from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), access to base grocery stores, swimming pools, and theaters (service members who retire with fewer than 20 years of service must generally give up these privileges), and invitations to attend all presidential inaugurations and festivities for the rest of his life.

Should White have children who want to attend college at any of the nation’s service academies, they receive automatic admittance “if they are qualified and desire to attend.”

“You did your duty,” Obama told White Tuesday. “And now it’s time for America to do ours.”