Former Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha said he felt pride and despair when the president draped the Medal of Honor around his neck.
“The joy comes from the recognition for us doing our jobs as soldiers on distant battlefields,” he told reporters outside the White House. “But it’s countered by the constant reminder of the loss of our battle buddies, my battle buddies, my soldiers, my friends.”
Romesha, 31, of North Dakota, is only the fourth living recipient of the nation’s highest military honor for actions in Afghanistan. Army officials say his valor on the day his remote outpost was overrun by hundreds of Taliban fighters was exceptional and inspirational to other soldiers.
His story of humility and regret in response to that praise is a well-worn refrain repeated by many battlefield heroes. In an interview with Stars and Stripes earlier this year, he said he was just doing his job, the same way any soldier would.
“I just didn’t want to let my brothers down,” he said. “I just relied on my training, remembered our lessons learned, and kept fighting for them.”
Romesha described his fellow soldiers as family, and his family is full of fellow soldiers as well. His grandfather served in World War II. His father is a Vietnam War veteran. Both of his brothers joined the military.
Even before his Medal of Honor heroics, Romesha was a highly decorated servicemember who had earned the respect of his fellow soldiers. Besides the Medal of Honor, his military resume includes a Bronze Star, three Army Commendation medals, five Army Achievement medals and a Purple Heart.
It also includes two deployments to Afghanistan and four to Iraq in his 12-year career.
The defining moment of Romesha’s military work was during the 2009 ambush on Combat Outpost Keating, one of the deadliest battles for U.S. forces in the Afghan War. Eight men were killed that day as hundreds of enemy fighters swarmed the hillsides above their nearly indefensible base.
“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 was section leader with Troop B, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division when COP Keating came under attack.
The isolated outpost — in Nuristan, near the Afghan border with Pakistan — was to be shuttered just days after the Oct. 3, 2009, ambush, but boasted about 50 U.S. troops when the attack occurred. Army officials estimate more than 300 Taliban fighters joined in the attack, firing down from surrounding mountainsides in a highly sophisticated early morning ambush.
The initial barrage killed one soldier as he ran toward a machine-gun mount. More 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.”
As Romesha began directing his fellow soldiers to respond to the attack, two more soldiers were killed by Taliban snipers. More were pinned down by waves of gunfire coming from the hills above.
Romesha climbed on top of a base generator to get a better angle on the attackers and rescue four soldiers trapped inside a Humvee. Almost instantly, an RPG struck his position, hurling him into another soldier and peppering him with shrapnel.
“Every position was overwhelmed,” he told Army investigators.
A medic bandaged Romesha’s wounds as the soldiers took cover. He radioed the men in the Humvee, apologizing for not saving them and promising to return.
By that time, Taliban fighters were walking onto the base. The soldiers were stunned by not just how far they had advanced, but also by how brazen the fighters were.
From just yards away, Romesha gunned down three enemy fighters with a leftover Russian sniper rifle, the only available weapon. Then, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire, Romesha led a team of soldiers to secure the outpost’s ammunition storage and front gate, regaining a measure of control of the outpost.
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, Romesha said the men’s spirits were boosted in the middle of the ordeal when they found out that three friends in the Humvee were still alive. The group laid down cover fire and got them to relative safety.
When they reunited moments later, one of the trapped men — Romesha’s close friend Sgt. Bradley Larson — had gotten crucial supplies: a stash of Dr Pepper. In the middle of the chaos and death, the fizzy treat allowed the group a moment of relaxation and levity.
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.
“They’re ours,” he told the news channel. “We had to give closure to those families. We’re not going to leave someone behind. We’re never going to do it.”
As enemy fighters pulled back and the 12-hour firefight wound down, the soldiers surveyed COP Keating. The official Army reports describe it as a nightmare: burned-out shells of vehicles, piles of rubble where buildings stood, shell casings and bodies from both sides scattered throughout the outpost.
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.”
Nine fellow servicemembers received the Silver Star for their actions. They included Larson, honored for his stand at the Humvee; now-Capt. Andrew Bundermann, who coordinated response attacks from the other side of the base; and Staff Sgt. Justin Gallegos, killed while fighting off the rapidly advancing enemy.
Romesha said repeatedly he is proud of the work he and his soldiers did that day, but still haunted by the loss of his friends.
He asked President Barack Obama to honor them during his Medal of Honor ceremony in February, and the commander in chief singled out the families of the fallen troops several times in his remarks.
“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,” Obama said. “But most of all, they fight for each other, to keep each other safe and have each other’s backs.”
Today, Romesha 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, Gwen, 4, was 5 months old when COP Keating was attacked.
He told reporters he accepted the medal “for the eight soldiers who didn’t make it, and the rest of the team that fought valiantly that day.”
“We were not going to be beat that day,” he said. “I want them to know how proud I am of them.”