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Romesha’s MOH Battle to Save Outpost

Undated photo of Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha on duty in Afghanistan. Romesha will be awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House on Feb. 11 for his actions at Combat Outpost Keating in Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2009. (Photo courtesy of Romesha family)
Undated photo of Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha on duty in Afghanistan. Romesha will be awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House on Feb. 11 for his actions at Combat Outpost Keating in Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2009. (Photo courtesy of Romesha family)

The Taliban had swarmed past the gates of Combat Outpost Keating. Some even put down their weapons to take a break before continuing what they thought would be a mop up operation. A few of the Americans suggested waiting until nightfall, and then low-crawling to the river and swimming down to the next U.S. base.

Wounded Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha shouted to Keating's reeling and exhausted defenders: "We need to . . . retake this camp and drive the . . . Taliban out," according to the 673-page new book "The Outpost" by former ABC-TV White House correspondent Jake Tapper.

The book was based on extensive interviews with Romesha and others who fought that day as well as the accounts of troop commanders, reviews of official reports, and visits to the region – all to flesh out events that were to lead to a White House ceremony on Feb. 11, when President Obama will drape the Medal of Honor over Romesha's shoulders.

What follows is based on after-action reports and official investigations from the International Security Assistance Force, published reports on the Battle of Kamdesh (for the village near COP Keating), a Romesha news conference, interviews with military analysts, Tapper's book and his CNN interview with Romesha, and the new memoir "My Share Of The Task" by retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

The troops called the region where Romesha fought "the dark side of the moon."

The southern slopes of the towering Hindu Kush range break up into forbidding valleys and slot canyons through Nuristan and Kunar Provinces in Afghanistan's far northeast. Territory is hard to hold, easy to attack.

Of the seven Medals of Honor awarded for "above and beyond" valor in Afghanistan, six have come from fierce encounters in Nuristan and Kunar across the Pech and Korengal valleys in which U.S. troops tended to be outnumbered and poorly supported.

The generals in Kabul and the strategists in Washington have gone back and forth over the years on whether to stay or leave the isolated combat outposts in the area.

Such was the case on Oct. 3, 2009 for Combat Outpost Keating in the Nuristan River corridor, where Romseha was serving as senior scout and section leader with Bravo Troop, 3d Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.

The doubts of the generals were not the concern of Romesha and the defenders of COP Keating.

"That was our America right there," Romesha said of COP Keating. "We owned that. And we weren't going to let someone come and take it," he told the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Earlier in 2009, Lt. Col. Robert B. Brown, the squadron commander, and Col. Randy George, the 4th BCT commander, had decided to abandon COP Keating and consolidate the counter-insurgency efforts in Nuristan and Kunar at stronger positions.

The move was to begin in early July of 2009, but never got the full attention or approval of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the coalition commander and head of the International Security Assistance Force.

The handoff to McChrystal from Lt. Gen. David McKiernan had been messy. McKiernan had to be pushed out by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. McChrystal was also consumed by the immediate problem of providing security for the Afghan elections. Friction had also grown between McChrystal and the White House over troop levels.

Incoming rounds at COP Keating were a daily occurrence.

"It was a ludicrous position they were in, a hellhole," said Richard S. Lowry, a historian and blogger who wrote one of the first detailed accounts of the fight to hold the base. COP Keating, as he described it, was at the bottom of a fishbowl surrounded on three sides by steep rises from which the enemy could fire and quickly melt away.

Romesha recalled his first sighting of COP Keating: "When you open up a manual to find the definition of a defensible spot, this was the exact opposite of it," he said in an interview with Tapper on CNN Thursday.

Before dawn on Oct. 3, 2009, an estimated 350 enemy fighters swarmed down from the heights in a well-coordinated attacked backed by recoilless rifle and mortar fire. They planned to overrun the base.

Romesha and the other soldiers of Bravo Troop would not let it happen.

About 50 American and 20 Afghan troops, 12 Afghan security guards and two Latvian trainers were defending the base.

There are conflicting accounts of the actions of the Afghans. Initial reports said the Afghans fled as the attack began, but Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew McMurtrey, the lone airman at the base and a communications specialist assigned to Bravo Troop, said the Afghans took the brunt of the first wave of the assault.

At the COP Keating aid station, "the ANA (Afghan National Army) started coming in pretty beat up with lots of wounds" from rocket-propelled grenade shrapnel, McMurtrey said in an Air Force report.

According to the citation for the Medal of Honor,  Romesha, 31, of Minot, N.D., "took out an enemy machine gun team and, while engaging a second, the generator he was using for cover was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, inflicting him with shrapnel wounds."

Romesha ignored his wounds and rallied the Keating defenders.

"With complete disregard for his own safety, Romesha continually exposed himself to heavy 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 said.

Romesha's selfless actions "throughout the day-long battle were critical in suppressing an enemy that had far greater numbers." He also directed airstrikes by Apache helicopter gunships that killed an estimated 30 enemy fighters.

"We had a great team of guys over there. We weren't going to be beat that day. You are not going to back down in the face of adversity. You are just going to win," Romesha said at a news conference in Minot last week.

Romesha, who had served two tours in Iraq, left the Army after 12 years in 2011 to be with his wife, Tamara, and three children in Minot, where he works in the oilfields.

In the CNN interview conducted in Minot, Romesha seemed a bit surprised when asked if he was afraid during the battle. "There wasn't time to be," he said.

But Romesha admitted to his overwhelming dread that the enemy would take away his fallen comrades as trophies after they swept past the wire. "They thought they'd already won, strolling like Johnny-on-the-block," he said. "My biggest fear was the enemy was going to start taking the dead, and that wasn't going to happen."

Romesha struggled for words and appeared to choke up. He said the defenders of COP Keating had to fight on "to give closure to the families – to let them have their son one more time."

And it wasn't just him, Romesha said: "There's so many soldiers out there who would've stepped into my shoes and done the same thing."

The 13-hour battle for COP Keating was one of the deadliest single-day engagements for U.S. forces in the Afghan war. Eight of Bravo Troop's soldiers were killed: Sgt. Justin T. Gallegos, Spec. Christopher T. Griffin, Sgt. Joshua M. Hardt, Sgt. Joshua J. Kirk, Spec. Stephen L. Mace, Staff Sgt. Vernon W. Martin, Sgt. Michael P. Scusa, and PFC Kevin C. Thomson.

More than 20 Americans were wounded and nine other troops who fought alongside Romesha received the Silver Star.

The helicopters came on Oct. 6 to evacuate the troops and abandon COP Keating. Romesha and his close friend, Sgt. Brad Larson, were the last to board. B-1 Lancer bombers came the next day to destroy what was left of the base they had bled to defend.

McChrystal appointed Maj. Gen. Guy Swan III to conduct at Article 15-6 investigation of the Battle of Kamdesh. Swan faulted several officers, including Lt. Col. Brown, for "failure to improve COP Keating's base defense and AT/FP (anti-terrorism/force protection) plans at the troop and squadron level," according to Tapper's book.

Swan recommended that "obviously indefensible" bases such as COP Keating in Nuristan and Kunar should be shut down.

Brown pushed back against the Swan report while noting his "sense of personal accountability for every soldier killed or wounded in this unit, and most acutely those who died on 3 October."

Brown said he had been trying to close Keating and other isolated outposts that "served little functional purpose in the counterinsurgency effort, exacerbated ethnic and tribal tensions to the advantage of the insurgency and placed a majority of the squadron's resources in tactically untenable positions."

Despite the problems, Brown insisted that the battle was "not only a tactical victory for the coalition but a resounding defeat for the Taliban and the enemies of Afghanistan."

McChrystal later decided to downgrade the "memorandum of reprimand" against Brown to a "local filing," meaning that the report would not follow him to his next assignment, the Tapper book said.

In April 2010, McChrystal flew to another base in the region to hand out medals to the survivors of the COP Keating fight. McChrystal later enacted a plan that focused on pulling troops out of isolated outposts and concentrating them closer to cities.

The battle for COP Keating, and the issue of the worth of outposts in Nuristan and Kunar, are not mentioned in McChrystal's own current memoir "My Share of The Task." McChrystal, through the publicity agent for his book tour, declined an interview.

For millennia, Nuristan has treated outsiders warily, when not repelling them. Alexander the Great is said to have passed through Nuristan, leaving no trace. Nuristan (Land of the Enlightened) was once called "Kafiristan" (Land of the Non-Believers) and was the setting for Rudyard Kipling's short story "The Man Who Would Be King" on the folly of Western adventures in a hostile land.

Marine Gen. John Allen, the current ISAF commander who will be turning over his post to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford this month, temporarily reversed McChrystal's course in Nuristan for four months last year. U.S. troops from the Army's 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment went back into Nuristan last June in an effort to block access routes to Kabul, but came out again in October.

"Nuristan remains for me a challenge, a black hole," Lt. Col. Scott Green of the 12th Infantry said last June, Reuters reported. Green's troops called the area "the dark side of the moon."

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