A former Californian was awarded the nation’s highest military honor on Monday for his efforts against a 2009 Taliban attack on his Afghanistan outpost that U.S. officials have described as tactically indefensible.
Former Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha, 31, received the Medal of Honor from President Obama during a nationally televised ceremony Monday. Romesha is the fourth living recipient who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Seven others who fought in those conflicts have received the medal posthumously.
Romesha grew up in Lake City in Northern California, near the Oregon border, and now lives in Minot, N.D., with his wife and three children, all of whom attended Monday's ceremony. Obama joked how Romesha’s youngest child had run around the Oval Office, sampling apples.
“We’re so glad that you’re here, along with your three beautiful children — Dessi, Gwen and Colin,” Obama said. "Colin is not as shy as Clint. He was in the Oval Office, and he was racing around pretty good and sampled a number of the apples before he found the one that was just right.”
Now involved with oil field safety, Romesha was a troop section leader in the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division when the Taliban attacked his Combat Outpost Keating in an area near the Pakistan border beginning at 6 a.m. Oct. 3, 2009.
“Combat Outpost Keating was a collection of buildings of concrete and plywood with trenches and sandbags,” Obama said. “Of all the outposts in Afghanistan, Keating was among the most remote. It sat at the bottom of a steep valley, surrounded by mountains — terrain that a later investigation said gave ‘ideal’ cover for insurgents to attack. COP Keating, the investigation found, was ‘tactically indefensible.’ But that’s what these soldiers were asked to do — defend the indefensible.
“These men were outnumbered, outgunned and almost overrun,” the president said during the ceremony, adding: “Our troops should never, ever, be put in a position where they have to defend the indefensible.”
Eight of the 53 U.S. soldiers at the outpost were killed in the firefight. Many in the audience were seen weeping as Obama read the names of the fallen.
Twenty-two soldiers were wounded, including Romesha, who received shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade. At a news conference last month, Romesha dismissed his wounds.
“I've had buddies that have lost eyesight and lost limbs,” Romesha said at that news conference, held after Obama notified the former soldier of his award. “I would rather give them all the credit they deserve for sacrificing so much. For me it was nothing, really. I got a little peppered, that was it.”
Even though he was wounded, Romesha continued to kill enemy soldiers, recovered his fallen comrades and led operations for the counterattack, according to the account of the day’s action. Officially, Romesha is credited with directly killing more than 10 enemy fighters, about 30 more with indirect fire and leading other U.S. troops to kill at least five more.
“His heroic actions allowed B Troop to reconsolidate on the combat outpost and enabled him to lead the counterattack that secured” the outpost, according to the Army’s official narrative.
Romesha served two tours in Iraq as well as his time in Afghanistan. He left the Army in 2011.
In his book, "The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor," CNN anchor Jake Tapper described the battle.
"Everything was just about his buddies and trying to save his fellow soldiers and trying to do everything he could, literally everything he could, at great risk to his own life over and over," Tapper told the Associated Press. "He's still very broken up about how he couldn't save everyone. He saved lives that day, without question, but eight of the guys died that day and that still tears him up."
Obama described the fight as "one of the most intense battles of the entire war in Afghanistan."
"And if you seek a measure of that day," he said later in the ceremony of those who fought, “you need to look no further than the medals and ribbons that grace their chests — for their sustained heroism, 37 Army Commendation Medals; for their wounds, 27 Purple Hearts; for their valor, 18 Bronze Stars; for their gallantry, nine Silver Stars.”