WASHINGTON -- When President Barack Obama draped the Medal of Honor around former Army Sgt. Kyle White’s neck Tuesday, the former Bonney Lake resident 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.
His eyes welled up 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 -- who live in Bonney Lake and work for Boeing -- White was joined by his girlfriend and members of the unit he served with in Afghanistan, the 2nd Battalion, C 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. White endured two concussions and shrapnel in his face, yet 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 soldiers. Eight other American soldiers were wounded.
White left the Army in 2011 and now works as an investment analyst in Charlotte, North Carolina.
He enlisted in the Army after graduating from Sumner High School in 2006.
Obama made note of that decision.
“I am told that back home in Bonney Lake, Washington, when Kyle wanted to enlist, at first he had his sights set on the Marines,” the president said. “But his dad Curt is a veteran of the Army, Special Forces. So I’m told there was a difference of opinion. And, I suspect, a good family discussion.”
On the night in Afghanistan that would change White’s life forever, he was a 20-year-old specialist serving as a radio-telephone operator. He and 13 members of his team, along with a squad of Afghan soldiers, left a 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 gradually 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 Tuesday. “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 who died in the fight. White said their sacrifice motivates him.
In a recent interview with The News Tribune, White described how his life has changed since being nominated for the Medal of Honor.
“You go from one day nobody outside your family and your circle of friends knows your name, and now everyone knows your name and there are all these stories out there,” he said.
“It’s exciting because with this ceremony I get to invite a lot of people that were there that day,” White said. “It’s almost a chance for a reunion for people who haven’t seen each other in years.”
He would like to use the attention that comes with the medal to talk with soldiers about what they can expect if they leave the military to pursue civilian careers.
He said he benefited from the GI Bill, and made himself think of his education as his job when he struggled with certain classes. He had to adapt study techniques to overcome the trouble he occasionally has concentrating since his concussions in Afghanistan.
“What I want to do is just inform them,” he said.
News Tribune staff writer Adam Ashton contributed to this report.