2015 Commencement Remarks: Keynote Speaker Ryan Pitts '13

Keynote Speaker Ryan Pitts '13
Saturday, May 16, 2015

Good morning.  A warm welcome to President Huddleston, distinguished guests, university faculty and staff, parents and, most importantly, the graduating class of 2015 – congratulations! I would also like to recognize the 44 veterans who are graduating today. Thank you. And thank you, everyone.

I am honored to be here today to help celebrate the remarkable accomplishments of the Class of 2015.  Exactly 2 years have passed since I graduated from UNH and I have not forgotten the excitement and pride you feel right now.  You have achieved an important accomplishment on your path to a successful future.  Personally, I have always admired those students who transitioned from high school straight to college and completed their degree, because I wasn’t one of them.  The pursuit of a college degree is admirable because it’s not like grade school or high school where attendance is compulsory.  When you go to college, you make a decision that costs money, time, and effort, all for the sake of a brighter future.  Be proud of the decision you made and the hard work, dedication, and commitment to see that decision through.  You made it and this difficult accomplishment immediately gives you a bright future. 

But it is important to understand that our futures are shaped by our past.  We all take different paths after college: corporate, non-profit, educational, entrepreneurial, or one of many others.  I understand this is a celebration, but I felt that the best advice I can offer you comes from the most challenging and tragic day of my life.

In July 2008, we were on the final mission in the 14th month of our 15 month deployment.  We were tired and ready to go home, but the mission wasn’t over.  The first 4 days of the mission were spent fortifying our positions, digging foxholes and filling sandbags.  It was exhausting work completed in 100 plus degree temperatures with minimal rest as we rotated through security and building during the days, and guard rotations throughout the nights.  It was all in preparation for a potential attack, which came on the morning of the 5th day.

We were standing watch at around 4:30 in the morning when a burst of machine gun fire broke the morning silence and then all hell broke loose as 200 enemy fighters attacked 48 Americans. A split-second later, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades exploded within a position I occupied with 8 other soldiers.  Immediately, I was immersed in explosions as I dived for cover.  I felt like I had just passed through the middle of a thunderstorm that knocked the wind out of me.  Landing in a fighting position, I attempted to regain my bearings and catch my breath amidst more incoming explosions and the suffocating smoke they produced. 

As I collected myself, I realized that I had been seriously wounded.  I had taken grenade shrapnel in my left heel and calf, entire right leg hip to foot, left arm and forehead.  There was limited dexterity in my left hand and I was unable to move my legs.  A fellow solider, Jason Bogar, placed a tourniquet on my right leg and I thought I was out of the fight until I looked around and watched everyone else fighting with everything they had.  My brothers were undeterred by the enemy fire raining down on us like the violent summer thunderstorms that come out of nowhere.  All my brothers were continuing to do their duty in the most hellish conditions I have ever seen.  We counted on each other and their dedication compelled me to do my part.  They would never let me down and I owed them the same.  It was at this point that I crawled back to my fighting position and rejoined the fight. 

Standing wasn’t physically possible, but I was able to drag myself around and pull myself into a kneeling position when needed.  I fought alongside my brothers like this for a while until our position sounded eerily quiet given the fight raging around us.  I crawled around and it was at this point that I discovered I was the only man left alive at the position.  My brothers didn’t abandon me; they had seen their duties through to the end.  This was the most terrifying moment of my life, I was alone, injured and I could hear the enemy talking around me.  I radioed my situation to my commander and he informed me that there wasn’t anyone to send.  I wasn’t angry, I understood the scale of the fight and the situation we were in.  I accepted that I was going to die and I prepared to make my last stand, but it didn’t come to that.  Four of my brothers came for me: Sean Samaroo, Israel Garcia, Mike Denton and Jacob Sones.  I have never felt more relieved in my life.  No one ordered them to do it.  They decided to risk their lives to save mine.  Shortly after they arrived, another volley of rocket-propelled grenades slammed our position.  Everyone was wounded, Israel mortally.  He sacrificed his life for mine.

We consolidated in one of the fighting positions and radioed the situation to our commander.  Reinforcements had arrived around this time and men began to move to our position.  They came one after another.  Then to my further amazement a helicopter landed between us and the enemy.  The medics disembarked knowing they might not be able to leave.  Sean, Mike, Jacob and I were helped onto that helicopter and flown to a field hospital for treatment.  Others followed on another helicopter that landed at the same time, and there were more on subsequent helicopters.  I along with many others had fought wounded for as long as 90 minutes before being evacuated.  The fight was over for us, but it raged on for hours for those who stayed behind.

This is an emotionally heavy story, but I believe the lessons that I learned apply to life.  My hope is that they can provide some guidance as each of you pursues your individual endeavors.  So what did I learn? 

I never imagined that I would be forced to fight while wounded, let alone that I was even capable of it.  The task seemed insurmountable, but that experience took me beyond the edge of what I believed I was capable.  I discovered that we can venture beyond the horizon of our perceived capabilities and do more than we ever thought possible.  We unknowingly achieve this discovery every time we accomplish a challenge that appears to exceed our abilities.  You must pay attention and appreciate these sometimes seemingly insignificant accomplishments.  Treasure the fact that you have just exceeded your horizon.  Search for the next one and never back down.

It always amazes me how selfless my brothers were that day and that no matter how bad the situation got, they never gave up.  I reflect on that day and the men I served with, and there was nothing we couldn’t accomplish together.  We felt it.  Shared purpose and selfless dedication to each other brought us to that point.  Our unit had atheists and devout Christians, farm boys and metropolitans, men born here and abroad.  We varied in beliefs, origins and backgrounds, but we were all Americans.  We were stronger together than we ever could have been individually.  When we focus on a shared purpose, respect our differences, and put others before self, nothing is impossible.

Valor was everywhere that day in the face of our greatest fear – harm to our friends.  Courage cannot exist without fear and fear is everywhere in life - fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of rejection.  The key is to deny fear its purpose which is to hold us back.  If the men I served with were afraid that day, I never saw it.  They showed me the true definition of courage.  Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the ability to move forward in the face of it.  There is beauty in this definition, because courage can exist in the decisions we make every day.  Courage exists in the individual who accepts who they are and openly lives the life they want in the face of rejection.  Courage exists in those who challenge their own perceptions in the face of accepting they are not infallible.  Be courageous and appreciate courage in others who take action in the face of fear. 

Love for our Country was one of the reasons that led us to join the military.  But I can honestly say, that my country was never once in my mind during a battle.  Many of my friends have shared the same sentiment with me.  We love America and that love was the purpose of our commitment, but it was the men to our left and right that mattered when the rubber met the road.  Altruistic dedication to others will be reciprocated by those worthy of your dedication.  People and the relationships we have with them are the greatest treasure. 

The last thought I will leave you with is more a matter of character: never forget those who helped you reach where you are.  I cannot talk about the events of July 13th without acknowledging the men who are responsible for providing the opportunity for everything I have today: Sergio Abad, Jonathan Ayers, Jason Bogar, Jonathan Brostrom, Israel Garcia, Jason Hovater, Matthew Phillips, Pruitt Rainey and Gunnar Zwilling.  The advice here is simple, appreciate the contributions of others and the impacts they make in your life.  That’s it.

So as you move forward from graduation, and reflect on your past accomplishments, remember to look for that next horizon and be confident you can get there, put others first, be courageous and take action in the face of fear.  Never forget in your own ambitions, goals, and accomplishments that other people and your relationships with them are the greatest enduring treasure.  And, as you celebrate personal progress, pay homage to those who made it possible.

Thank you and I wish you all the best.