Former Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha makes a statement to the media after being presented with the Medal of Honor at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Monday. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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One man earned the Medal of Honor for leading a counterattack against an estimated 400 insurgents at a remote combat outpost in the mountains of Afghanistan, but everyone from the soldier himself to President Obama has made sure to acknowledge the group effort it took to defend COP Keating on that day.
Former Staff Sgt. Clinton L. Romesha, 31, became the fourth living Medal of Honor recipient Feb. 11 at the White House, and the next day he was inducted into the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes. The two emotional ceremonies were attended by defense officials and Romesha's family, as well as his battle buddies and family members of the eight men who lost their lives Oct. 3, 2009.
During Feb. 11's White House ceremony, Romesha remained seated on stage in a room packed from wall to wall with friends, family and fellow soldiers there to watch the commander in chief present him with the nation's highest award for valor.
Romesha teared up during descriptions of his effort to keep U.S. casualties out of Taliban hands, and the "buddy transfusions" blood transfusions in the field that saved some soldiers' lives that day.
"A later investigation found that COP Keating was tactically indefensible," Obama said. "That's what these soldiers were asked to do: Defend the indefensible."
Romesha was a section leader in B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division during an enemy attack on the COP in Afghanistan's northeastern Nuristan province, nestled at the bottom of a valley surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains. The attack left eight American soldiers dead and two dozen others wounded.
Four officers were reprimanded for command failures that a U.S. Central Command investigation found led to Keating's vulnerability and subsequent attack. Long scheduled for closure because of its dangerous location, the outpost was cleared and destroyed following the battle.
The attack began before 6 a.m. Oct. 3, when the enemy fired recoilless rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, machine guns and rifles from all four sides of the COP. During the first three hours of the battle, mortars hit the COP and OP every 15 seconds, and in less than an hour, the enemy swarmed Keating.
"It doesn't look good," Romesha said at the time, according to multiple accounts.
He sought out reinforcements from nearby barracks under heavy fire, managing to engage two enemy machine-gun teams. Despite shrapnel wounds from a rocket-propelled grenade attack, he assembled a five-man team to fight back, called in air support and moved 100 meters under enemy fire to recover casualties.
But he didn't do it alone, Romesha stressed Feb. 12, when he took the stage at the Pentagon to tell the story in his own words.
"Four hundred Taliban versus 52 American soldiers. Just doesn't seem fair," Romesha began. "To the Taliban."
The room erupted in laughter. The somber mood lightened.
"It was our home, and they simply couldn't have it," he continued.
"As you know, the Medal of Honor is not often given when things went well on a battlefield," he said. "Some say I'm a hero, but it doesn't make sense, because I got to come home, with few scars."
Romesha, who grew up Lake City, Calif., and enlisted as an armor crewman in 1999, returned to civilian life in 2011 after a deployment to Kosovo, two to Iraq and that one fateful tour in Afghanistan. Today, he works as a field safety specialist for an oil field construction firm in Minot, N.D., where he lives with his wife and three children.
Before he said anything about his actions on Oct. 3, 2009, Romesha read off the names of his fallen battle buddies: Staff Sgt. Justin Gallegos, Sgt. Michael Scusa, Staff Sgt. Vernon Martin, Spc. Stephan Mace, Pfc. Kevin Thomson, Spc. Christopher Griffin, Sgt. Joshua Kirk and Sgt. Joshua Hardt.
"It is on their behalf that I stand before you today, as just a regular grunt, so wonderfully recognized," he said, before asking his fellow B Troop brothers in arms to stand for another round of applause.