Charlotte Medal of Honor recipient ‘a voice’ for fallen comrades

It was the worst day of Kyle White’s life, one he knew he wouldn’t survive.

That day, Nov. 9, 2007, White was an Army radio operator whose platoon was ambushed by Taliban fighters near the northeastern mountain village of Aranas, Afghanistan.

Suddenly, with Sgt. White and three others cut off from the patrol, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded and knocked White unconscious. Another round spewed shrapnel into his face.

“After I got back some consciousness, I accepted, ‘OK, I’m going to die; I’m not going to make it through this,’ ” White, 27, a Charlotte investment analyst, said Wednesday at a Charlotte news conference where he was congratulated by Gov. Pat McCrory. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to die I’m going to do whatever I can to help my buddies until that happens.’ ”

White survived and what he did on that day will make him the seventh living American to receive the Medal of Honor for gallantry in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Ultimately, during a four-hour firefight that left six Americans dead, he awoke to save the life of one soldier and an interpreter and to call in support that finally repelled the attack.

President Barack Obama will present the medal at a May 13 White House ceremony, and White will forever receive the reverence that comes with the nation’s highest military honor.

He’d known he had been recommended for the medal since a month after the ambush but moved on with his life. After he left the Army in 2011, he earned a bachelor’s degree in finance at UNC Charlotte, graduating last year. Then he took a job with RBC Bank in Charlotte.

Soft-spoken and still military fit, he said nothing prepared him for this searing spotlight.

“When I enlisted, I never thought this was a possibility,” White said. “Being awarded the Medal of Honor is less about me and more about those I fought with. … I will forever tell their stories and preserve their memories.

“I fell back on my training. I didn’t do anything than what any other soldiers would have done that day if they were in my shoes.”

Strange chatter first clue

Growing up in Bonney Lake, Wash., nothing he did foretold that he was capable of mustering so much courage.

He described his childhood as “pretty regular.” He participated in “extreme sports” such as mountain biking and skiing. “But never did I come across a situation that compared to the ambush.”

After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Army in 2006. He trained at Fort Benning, Ga., and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade based at Camp Ederle in Italy.

In spring 2007, the regiment was deployed to Aranas, in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province.

On Nov. 8, his platoon prepared to meet with village leaders in Aranas, according to the Army’s account of the ambush.

Months before, another platoon, based at a different outpost, had been ambushed by Taliban fighters, wounding 11 Americans.

After that, the Americans suspected village leaders of colluding with the Taliban and there had been little contact. White’s platoon leader, 1st Lt. Matthew Ferrara of Torrance, Calif., thought they ought to make an attempt to open communications.

He moved 14 Americans – including White – and a squad of Afghan National soldiers under the darkness of Nov. 8, bunking at a school they had built. At daybreak, they moved to the village mosque for the meeting. Villagers delayed it for several hours, reporting that the elders were praying. The meeting began after 1 p.m., the Army said.

The turnout was unusually large, and the villagers asked more questions than the Americans had previously experienced. Suddenly, Sgt. Phillip Bocks, a Marine trainer, alerted Ferrara that he was hearing radio chatter in a language he didn’t recognize. He advised Ferrara to order the contingent back to the outpost.

“Our first clue (that something was wrong) was the chatter,” White said. “It was in a language that no one could understand. That was the red flag. In that area of Afghanistan you could go from one village to another and the dialect is completely different.”

Several villagers followed the Americans and Afghans into the mountains. When villagers broke from the pack, Taliban fighters simultaneously attacked the patrol, scouts providing cover from a ridge and their outpost.

‘Six die in the ambush’

White returned fire, emptying the magazine in his M4A1 rifle. As he reloaded, the grenade explosion knocked him cold. Regaining consciousness, his face was hit with shrapnel, but he fought to stay awake.

By then, White, Ferrara, Bocks, Spc. Kain Schilling and an interpreter were cut off from the patrol, the rest scampering down the steep cliff to the valley 100 to 150 yards below, the Army said.

Schilling was shot in the arm. White applied a tourniquet to the wound, and he and Schilling took cover under a small juniper tree jutting from the cliff.

Bocks was badly wounded without cover, 35 feet away. White called for Bocks to crawl to the tree. Bocks couldn’t. So White sprinted to Bocks as enemy fire popped past his head and ricocheted around his feet, drawing sparks in the shale. As he dragged Bocks toward the tree, the fire concentrated on White. He left Bocks and sprinted back to the tree to draw the fire away from Bocks.

He made several attempts to bring Bocks to the tree, but the Marine died on the way. Then he saw Schilling get hit a second time in the leg.

“I watched that second shot go right through his leg,” White said. “I’ll never forget it.”

He sprinted to Schilling, tying his belt around the wound to stop the bleeding. Then he sprinted to Ferrara, lying face down on the trail. He was dead. He was posthumously promoted to captain.

White found a working radio – his own had been shot up – and reported the situation, providing enough information to guide mortars, artillery, air strikes and helicopters into the fight and repel the Taliban attack, perhaps saving more lives.

Then a friendly mortar round exploded below, causing another concussion for White. But he fought to stay conscious to get Schilling evacuated from the area.

In the end, five Army soldiers and a Marine died. Including the names of Bocks and Ferrara, White and Schilling wear the names of Spc. Joseph Lancour, Sgt. Jeffrey Mersman, Cpl. Lester Rogue and Cpl. Sean Langevin on silver bracelets.

More than six years later, the scene is still vivid.

“Certain things you think about less and less,” White said. “But at any given moment, I can close my eyes and I can be anywhere in that ambush that day. I can still hear the sounds. I can still smell the gunpowder.”

‘This is Barack Obama’

His Medal of Honor didn’t seem real until this February, when he was sitting in his Charlotte apartment and his cellphone rang. It was a White House secretary asking White to hold for “the President of the United States.”

“I nearly blacked out again – just kidding,” White mused. “The president said, ‘Hello Kyle, this is Barack Obama.’ It was a short conversation. He wanted to officially tell me he was approving the recommendation for the Medal of Honor. He asked me how I liked Charlotte.

“I kept saying ‘Thank you, Mr. President.’ ”

Yet on May 13, it will be the president who likely thanks White on behalf of a grateful nation.