Medal of Honor recipient tells his story to appreciative crowd
The Bakersfield Californian
He was honored for "conspicuous gallantry ... above and beyond the call of duty."
That's what the official citation says.
But Medal of Honor recipient Clinton Romesha insists that his brothers in arms each own a piece of the medal he received from President Obama last February.
The former Army staff sergeant, a native of Lake City, Calif., was the guest of honor at a special event held Tuesday night at the DoubleTree in Bakersfield. Proceeds from the nearly sold-out dinner will support the California Veterans Assistance Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides housing and services to homeless and low-income veterans in Kern County.
After being welcomed by a standing ovation, some of the first words out of Romesha's mouth were in recognition and thanks to the dozens of veterans who were in attendance.
"I'm just a regular guy from a small town in California who found himself in a situation one day," he told the crowd.
And what a situation it was.
During his dozen years in the Army, Romesha (pronounced Row-muh-SHAY) was deployed once to Kosovo, twice to Iraq and most recently to Afghanistan. It was during his last deployment in Nuristan Province that the husband and father awakened to an attack on Combat Outpost Keating by overwhelming numbers of enemy fighters.
It was Oct. 3, 2009, and according to the official record, 300 well-armed Taliban fighters occupied the high ground on all four sides of the complex, from which they unleashed a barrage of fire on the much smaller American force, using recoilless rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft machine guns and mortars.
From the first day he arrived, Romesha had known the outpost, surrounded by hills, was in a terrible defensive position.
"My grandmother knows this is not a spot you want to put soldiers," he said. "But I was there with a great bunch of guys."
After risking his life to conduct an assessment of the battlefield and to seek reinforcements, Romesha, with the help of an assistant gunner, took out an enemy machine gun team, the official citation reads. As he was engaging a second team, Romesha was wounded by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade.
"It kind of blew me a little head over heels," he remembered.
Many in the complex were pinned down. Others were wounded and dying.
Undeterred by his injuries, the young staff sergeant went to his men and asked for a five-man team of volunteers.
"I had five guys look me in the eyes that day and say, 'We'll follow you anywhere,'" he remembered. "Those five guys, if it wasn't for them, we couldn't have made it happen."
As he spoke, a theme emerged. The chopper pilots who alerted headquarters were heroes. So were the Air Force A-10 Warthog pilots who arrived later -- and of course the eight comrades who lost their lives that day.
"With complete disregard for his own safety, Staff Sgt. Romesha continually exposed himself to enemy fire, as he moved confidently about the battlefield engaging and destroying multiple enemy targets, including three Taliban fighters who had breached the combat outpost's perimeter," the citation states.
The battle continued all day as Romesha directed air support against a group of 30 enemy gunners and continued to exhibit what his superiors called "extraordinary heroism" and discipline.
Romesha was credited for preventing enemy fighters from taking the bodies of fallen comrades, and ultimately enabling his team to launch a counterattack that secured the combat post.
He received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest medal for valor in combat, in a White House ceremony on Feb. 11, and was inducted into the "Hall of Heroes" at the Pentagon the following day.
Deborah Johnson, president of the foundation, said Romesha, now 32, told her he never expected to see a Medal of Honor up close, much less have one clasped around his neck.
"He believes it was a team effort," she said. "He really honors the men he served with."
Marine veteran Dick Taylor, director of the Kern County Veterans Service Department, said the evening provided a chance to do two things: support veterans who need a helping hand and to hear Romesha's inspirational story, a story that has recently been made into a book titled, "The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor," by Jake Tapper.
"Clint downplays his heroism," Taylor said. "But Clint stood up that day ... and inspired others around him to do the same."
Nevertheless, Romesha remains loyal to those who endured alongside him that day -- and to the memory of the eight.
And when his thoughts return to that daylong battle, he said, he always remembers he was never alone. Someone always had his back.
"It was that teamwork," he said. "It was that brotherly love, that comradery, that got us through."