WASHINGTON — Former Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha says he had just one thing on his mind during the 12-hour firefight that destroyed Combat Outpost Keating.
“I just didn’t want to let my brothers down,” he told Stars and Stripes. “I just relied on my training, remembered our lessons learned, and kept fighting for them.”
On Monday, the 31-year-old North Dakota resident became the fourth living recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in Afghanistan, a recognition of his bravery that day.
Army officials say Romesha risked his own life multiple times during the fight to fend off enemy fighters, resupply his fellow soldiers and protect wounded comrades. In attendance at a White House ceremony were veterans from the 2009 battle and families of the eight men who died that day.
Romesha paid tribute to those fallen friends after the ceremony, and President Barack Obama recognized the loss each represented to the team and the country.
“You can ask Clint and any of the soldiers here today, and they’ll tell you that, yes, they fight for their country, they fight for our freedom, yes they fight to come home and for their families,” he said. “But most of all, they fight for each other, to keep each other safe and have each others backs.”
The 2009 ambush on the Army post was one of the deadliest battles for U.S. forces in the Afghan War, and it still holds raw emotions for Romesha.
“I lost four men just from my platoon, so I see this as a way to help keep their memories alive,” he said last month shortly after learning he’d receive the honor. “This is not an individual award for me, because it wasn’t an individual effort.”
Romesha was section leader with Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, when COP Keating came under attack.
The isolated Army outpost was to be shuttered just days after the Oct. 3, 2009, ambush, but still boasted about 50 U.S. troops when more than 400 Taliban fighters descended upon it from the nearby mountainside.
Army reports say the initial barrage killed one soldier as he ran toward a machine gun mount, and several others were injured as they tried to return fire from the outpost’s mortar pit.
The attack woke Romesha, and he rushed into the fight.
“From the first shots fired, you could tell this wasn’t your normal spray and pray,” he said. “This was bad.”
Army officials say as he began directing his fellow soldiers to respond to the attack, two more soldiers were killed by Taliban snipers. As Romesha tried to free other teammates pinned down by the incoming fire, an RPG struck a generator he was sitting on, hurling him into another soldier and peppering him with shrapnel.
Romesha downplayed the injury, calling it nothing more than a few scratches, and continued to return fire.
By this time, Taliban fighters had breached the base defenses and were just yards away from the surviving U.S. forces. Romesha spotted three of the enemy and gunned them down with a leftover Russian sniper rifle, the only available weapon.
Repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire, Romesha led a team of soldiers to secure the outpost’s ammunition storage and establish a stronghold in their attempts to repel the attack.
The soldiers knew at least five of their men were dead, and several others were missing. Army officials said Romesha kept his team calm and focused, clearing sections of the outpost while airstrikes started to whittle down the attacking forces on the mountains.
In an interview with CNN last week, Romesha said the men’s spirits were boosted in the middle of the ordeal when they found out that three friends thought to be dead were alive and pinned down in a nearby Humvee.
The group laid down cover fire and got them to relative safety. Afterward, one of the men stumbled upon a stash of Dr. Pepper in one of the secured buildings, allowing them a moment of relaxation and levity while the attack raged on.
But it was followed by the grim task of recovering the bodies of their fallen friends. Romesha’s fellow soldiers told service officials that he again braved heavy fire to make sure the men’s bodies couldn’t be taken.
His award citation states that “throughout the day, Romesha understood the risks he was taking, and he knowingly put his life in danger to save the lives of his soldiers and repel a numerically superior enemy force.”
His fellow soldiers lauded him as a hero, but Romesha said he still regrets not being able to do more to save the men who died. He hopes the honor will give him a better platform to talk about their sacrifice and to keep their memory alive.
“I don’t remember a lot of what happened there, but I remember the guys we lost,” he said. “It’s never easy to think about that.”
Romesha, who enlisted in 1999 and left the Army in 2011, deployed to Afghanistan twice and to Iraq four times. Besides the Medal of Honor, he has also been awarded the Bronze Star, three Army Commendation medals, five Army Achievement medals and a Purple Heart.
Today he works as a safety specialist for an oil field construction company. He said he still loves the Army, but needed to step away to spend more time with his wife, infant son and two daughters. His younger daughter, 4-year-old Gwen, was 5 months old when COP Keating was attacked.
Only seven men, including Romesha, have been awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Afghanistan since 2001, and only four have received the award for valor in Iraq. All of the Iraq awards were posthumous.