WASHINGTON – It could have been over for Kyle J. White just 30 seconds into the Taliban ambush, when a rocket-propelled grenade knocked him unconscious.
But he came to and by the time the four-hour firefight in Afghanistan was over, White, reeling from concussions and shrapnel in his face, had saved one comrade's life and helped secure the evacuation of other wounded Americans.
On Tuesday, White became only the seventh living recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan, the latest reminder of the post-Sept. 11 conflicts and U.S. sacrifices President Barack Obama has sought to bring to an end
"We pay tribute to a soldier who embodies the courage of his generation," Obama said.
With the medal, White, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome after the ambush, also draws attention to the recent scrutiny confronting the Veteran's Affairs health care system and allegations of lapses in care and delays in mental health treatment.
Though Obama did not mention the VA controversies specifically, he told White: "You did your duty, and now it's time for America to do ours: after more than a decade of war, to welcome you home with the support and the benefits and opportunities that you've earned."
Following the ceremony, White, 27, said the valor belonged to all the members of his platoon that day.
"Battles are won by spirit," he said. "Without the team, there can be no Medal of Honor. That's why I wear this medal for my team."
An Army account of the attack says White, then a 20-year-old Army specialist, and his team of 14 U.S. troops, along with Afghan National Army soldiers, were ambushed Nov. 9, 2007, after attempting to hold a meeting with village elders in the village of Aranas in Nuristan province.
After regaining consciousness from the grenade hit, White found his platoon split by the ambush. Half the team had slid down the cliff for cover. He remained atop with three dead, dying and wounded comrades.
Left at the top with White were platoon leader 1st Lt. Matthew C. Ferrara, Spc. Kain Schilling, Marine Sgt. Phillip A. Bocks, who was imbedded with the group, and its interpreter. White set about trying to assess the condition of his fellow soldiers, running and crawling through gunfire only to find Ferrara dead and Bocks badly wounded. Though he tried to stop Bocks' bleeding, the Marine later died.
Obama described the drama to an East Room audience of service members, family and White House staff:
"Across Afghanistan, base commanders were glued to the radios, listening as American forces fought back an ambush in the rugged mountains. One battalion commander remembered that all of Afghanistan was listening as a soldier on the ground described what was happening.
"They knew him by his call sign, Charlie-1-6-Romeo. We know it was Kyle, who at the time was just 20 years old and only 21 months into his military service."
Though suffering from concussions, White treated Schilling's injuries under the shadow of a lone tree and used one of the unit's radios to call for help. When a helicopter arrived after nightfall, White only allowed himself to be evacuated after the wounded were assisted.
Schilling attended White's Medal of Honor ceremony.
White retired from the Army in 2011 as a sergeant. He graduated from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte with a finance degree, and he now works as an investment analyst at a bank in Charlotte.
"Kyle will tell you that the transition to civilian life and dealing with the post-traumatic stress hasn't always been easy," Obama said. "More than six years later, he can still see the images and hear the sounds of that battle. Every day, he wakes up thinking about his battle buddies."
Later, White said he and Schilling wear identical bracelets.
"On it are the names of my six fallen brothers," he said. "They are my heroes."