WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama draped the Medal of Honor around former Army Sgt. Kyle White’s neck, the Charlotte, N.C., man became just the seventh living recipient of the nation’s highest military honor for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It wasn’t until after Obama shook White’s hand that emotions overcame the 27-year-old former soldier.
His eyes swelled and his cheeks reddened as he looked out at his parents and fellow soldiers standing and applauding. In addition to his parents, Cheryl and Curt, White was also joined by his girlfriend and members of his unit in Afghanistan, the 2nd Battalion, Chosen Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Obama praised White’s valor under the most extreme conditions when, on Nov. 9, 2007, his platoon was ambushed on the side of a mountain in Aranas, Afghanistan. White endured two concussions and shrapnel in his face, yet he kept firing his rifle to keep the enemy back and pulled wounded soldiers to cover during the deadly firefight that killed six Americans and three Afghan National Army soldiers. Eight other American soldiers were wounded.
“One battalion commander remembered that ‘all of Afghanistan’ was listening as a soldier on the ground described what was happening,” Obama said. “They knew him by his call sign _ Charlie One Six Romeo. We know it was Kyle.”
Originally from Pierce County, Wash., White left the Army in 2011 and now works as an investment analyst in Charlotte.
He enlisted in the Army after high school 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. He served a combat tour in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008.
He left the Army in 2011 and later enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where he obtained a degree in finance. He started work this year at Royal Bank of Canada in Charlotte.
On that November night in 2007, he was a 20-year-old Army specialist and serving as a radio-telephone operator. He and 13 members of his team, along with a squad of Afghan soldiers, left an Afghan village after a meeting with elders. They made their way up an exposed ridge, single file, headed into an area known as “ambush alley.”
A single shot rang out. Then another. And then, Obama said, the entire canyon erupted, with bullets coming from all directions. White recalled that the whole valley “lit up.”
An explosion from a rocket-propelled grenade knocked White unconscious. He awoke with his face pressed against a rock. Enemy rounds hit just inches from his head, sending shrapnel and rock shards across his face.
As enemy fire ricocheted around him, White sprinted several times into a large open space to, bit by bit, pull a wounded Marine to cover. He fired his weapon to keep the enemy back and treated another soldier who had been badly shot in the arm.
“Kyle, members of Chosen Company, you did your duty, and now it’s time for America to do ours,” Obama said. “After more than a decade of war, to welcome you home with the support and the benefits and opportunities that you’ve earned. You make us proud, and you motivate all of us to be the best we can be.”
White now wears a stainless steel bracelet around his wrist. After the ceremony, he told reporters that the bracelet is perhaps more precious to him than the medal around his neck. It was given to him by another soldier who survived that night. Etched into the bracelet are the names of the six members of his team that died in the fight. White said their sacrifice motivates him.
“Without the team there could be no Medal of Honor,” White said. “That is why I wear this medal for my team.”