President Barack Obama draped a Medal of Honor on Monday around the neck of former Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha whose leadership and valor three years ago enabled a vastly outnumbered force of U.S. and Afghan soldiers to retake their base from Taliban fighters.
Romesha becomes only the 11th servicemember to be awarded the Medal of Honor since the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq and 2003. Seven of the 11 were awarded posthumously.
"One [soldier] later compared it to the Alamo," Obama said in remarks just before presenting the nation's highest award for heroism to Romesha at the White House. After-action reports described a firefight where 53 Americans at Combat Outpost Keating were attacked by about 300 fighters.
"These men were outnumbered, outgunned and almost overrun," Obama said. "Looking back, one of them said, ‘I'm surprised any of us made it out.' But they are here today. And I would ask these soldiers -- this band of brothers -- to stand and accept the gratitude of our entire nation."
Romesha, who makes his home in North Dakota, was accompanied at the White House by his wife, Tamara, and three children. Also in attendance were family members of the eight troops who died that day, Oct. 3, 2009: 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.
The soldiers were part of Bravo Troop, 3d Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division when they were assigned to Keating, an outpost that Obama noted later was deemed tactically indefensible.
Obama said one lesson of the fight is that American troops should never be asked "to defend the indefensible."
In addition to the eight fallen troops, 20 were wounded during the firefight where the Taliban fighters breached the outpost's defenses. Nine soldiers were awarded the Silver Star for their actions.
Romesha sustained wounds to the hip and neck from a rocket-propelled grenade, but continued to fight on and help another wounded soldier, Obama said.
The enemy began taking the base as the soldiers were pushed back.
"It was then that Clint Romesha decided to retake that camp," Obama said. They took it, building by building, with Romesha calling in close-air support "that shook the earth all around them."
Toward the end of the President's remarks and as the Medal of Honor citation was being read, Romesha looked to be blink back tears.
In a CNN interview with Romesha in Minot, N.D., the former staff sergeant appeared a bit surprised when asked if he was afraid during the battle.
"There wasn't time to be," he said.
Romesha admitted to an 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," Romesha said in the interview. "My biggest fear was the enemy was going to start taking the dead, and that wasn't going to happen."
Obama, who met with Romesha in the Oval office before the ceremony, called the veteran "a pretty humble guy." He noted that Romesha today works in the North Dakota oil fields.
"He says the thing he looks forward to the most is just being a husband and a father," Obama said. "In fact, this is not even the biggest event for Clint this week … tomorrow will be his 13th wedding anniversary.
"I know it's not the kind of intimate anniversary you planned," Obama said, "but I'm so glad you're here along with your three beautiful children, Dezi, Gwen and Colin."
Obama said that Colin was not as shy or reserved as his father.
"In the Oval office he was racing around pretty good …. He sampled a number of the apples before he found the one that was just right," Obama said.
Colin continued to be unintimated by the gathering in the East Room, wandering onstage just before the ceremony and playing peek-a-boo with his mom and the crowd from behind the presidential lectern. Cameras and cell phones clicked away as a White House military aide tried to corral the boy without spooking him.
He finally nabbed him, ever so gently, as he climbed onto the armchair awaiting his dad.