"Enemy in the wire! Enemy in the wire!"
The news, the stuff of nightmares, spread through Red and Blue platoons in seconds: "Enemy in the wire."
Many soldiers didn’t believe it at first. It was a phrase they never expected to hear; one they dreaded.
It couldn't be true, they reasoned. The battle for Combat Outpost, or COP, Keating, and for their very existence, had started less than an hour earlier, as Oct. 3, 2009, dawned, when some 400 insurgents had surrounded the small outpost manned by about 50 Americans, an Afghan National Army unit and its two Latvian trainers.
The fighting was intense. But the enemy couldn’t possibly have breached the base that quickly, could they?
Crouched behind the COP’s aid station a short time later with a couple of other soldiers, Red Platoon’s lead scout and acting platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Clinton L. Romesha, didn’t quite believe it as he watched three enemy fighters casually stroll through Keating’s entry control point.
They sat down behind one of the Humvees as though they had already won the battle.
One of the fighters even leaned his rocket-propelled grenade launcher against the truck and reached up to tighten his headband.
"I kind of thought to myself: ‘Is this real?’" Romesha remembered. "We had three Taliban fighters just walk right through our front gate and put [a] foot in our home."
Romesha had already been fighting hard, exposing himself to enemy fire countless times – he had the shrapnel wounds to show for it – but enough was enough.
He squeezed the trigger on his sniper rifle and "put an end to that." It was time to take Keating back.
Romesha, "Ro" to his soldiers, seemed fearless as he ran from one position to another, securing this building, closing that entrance, inspiring his troops with his resolve and steely sense of calm.
"I think that’s what gave more motivation to soldiers, just to see that this guy had no fear," now-Staff Sgt. Armando Avalos Jr., the unit’s forward observer, said.
Adding, "He just looked like an old Vietnam veteran with this long mustache, and just to see him out there, directing ... not once was he ever questioned. He was precise, he was confident and he knew exactly what to do."
To recognize that courage, the valor that Romesha showed throughout the 12 hours it took to retake and secure Keating, President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor to him at a White House ceremony, Feb. 11, making Romesha the fourth living Medal of Honor recipient from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (See related story, Page 9.)
It’s something Romesha never set out to achieve or really ever wanted. It’s an honor – the highest of honors – that he will wear with pride for the eight soldiers who died that day. But the cost, he later explained, was just too high. He’d gladly trade it in to bring back even one of those men.
A Medal of Honor recipient is born
The son of a Vietnam veteran and grandson of a World War II veteran who took his brother’s place in the draft, Romesha was born to serve.
He grew up on his grandfather’s stories of landing on Normandy only two days after D-Day and always knew that once he turned 18, he would follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.
He left the Mormon seminary he had attended while still in high school to become a heavy armor soldier.
Romesha headed to Germany in 2000 with his new wife, his high school sweetheart Tammy, and was soon sent to Kosovo and later assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea.
There, he learned one of his old noncommissioned officers had been killed in Iraq.
Around the same time, parts of the 2nd Infantry Division received deployment orders. He could do no less than his mentor who had sacrificed everything for him, Romesha reasoned. So he went to his colonel and asked to go to Iraq. He didn’t bother to discuss it with his wife. It was just something he had to do.
A new assignment with the 4th Infantry Division brought a second deployment to Iraq and a new specialty: reconnaissance scout.
He had liked armor, but being a scout suited him.
"I liked being light," he recalled. "I liked being fast. I liked observing and kind of being the silent over-watch that no one knows is there."
He enjoyed teaching his soldiers all of his tricks too, and was always happy to give pointers, even during his downtime, now-Sgt. Thomas Rasmussen, who served under Romesha in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said.
Romesha, Rasmussen added, was definitely the best noncommissioned officer, or NCO, he’s ever had.
He was tough and he pushed his soldiers hard, but he was fair and there was never any doubt that he cared about them.
His sense of humor was goofy and weird and perhaps even dark, Rasmussen and Avalos agreed.
"He’s always the one making stupid jokes," Rasmussen continued, "Or pissing off a lieutenant just to make everyone else laugh, or getting on somebody’s nerves just to lighten the mood or cracking jokes at the most inopportune times."
The low ground
Romesha, Rasmussen, Avalos and the other men of Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, arrived in the remote pocket of Afghanistan known as Nuristan in late May 2009, about four months before the attack on Keating.
Nestled in the Hindu Kush mountains along the border with Pakistan and cut off from much of the modern world, Nuristan is poor, semiautonomous and home to fiercely independent people suspicious of outsiders.
Expect to get in a lot of firefights, Sgt. Josh Kirk told his buddies before they deployed.
He had already spent a year in the area with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, and warned his new unit that it was extremely dangerous. The local insurgents were nothing like those they’d faced in Fallujah and Ramadi, Iraq.
Here, the mujahedeen were well trained and well supplied; many of them had honed their military skills fighting the Soviets. Two of the four previous American commanders of Keating had been killed, possibly even targeted, by insurgents.
Even worse, Kirk explained, COP Keating sat in the worst possible location for an outpost. It sat on the low ground, surrounded by 10,000- and 12,000-foot mountains blanketed with trees and boulders and nearly invisible trails.
Even with that warning, the men of B Troop were stunned when they arrived. It was like being in a fishbowl or fighting from the bottom of a paper cup, said then Sgt. Brad Larson, now a first lieutenant.
The mountains and the local river were stunning, "beautiful in a way that if there wasn’t a war going on, you could have made a killing off the rapids," Romesha said.
Adding, "But tactically speaking, it was pretty dismal. That first morning I remember thinking to myself: ‘I’m going to have the strongest neck muscles from looking up for an entire year.’"
It was hard to explain to his soldiers why they were there, why the Army had stuck them some place that went against every ounce of training they had received, as Avalos put it. In the end, it didn’t matter.
"They all dug deep," Romesha continued. "They knew it was their duty. It was our job to sit there, and we were going to defend whatever they gave us."
That was easier said than done.
The enemy attacked almost every day, often multiple times a day, for four months.
Rasmussen preferred it that way, however: It was easier on the psyche, he found, to openly shoot back and forth at an enemy than it was to "go driving around in a truck all day waiting to get blown up" by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) the way they had in Iraq.
There were always rumors too, intelligence reports, radio whispers, locals who said insurgents were planning to overrun the outpost. But after the 10th or 20th such report, it was like crying wolf, Romesha explained.
The Army was planning to close Keating. It was, leaders realized, too hard to defend and the area too dangerous for provincial reconstruction teams.
U.S. forces could make better use of Bravo Troop elsewhere. After a few delays, the date was set: Bravo Troop would withdraw in mid-October.
Even on a good day, life at the football field-sized COP Keating was rough. Most of the buildings were tin roofed structures built of stacked rocks and plywood. The soldiers were lucky to get a hot meal every other day and a hot shower once a week.
To pass the time and deal with the unrelenting stress of constant attacks, the men held competitions to see who smelled the worst after a week without a shower, or who could down the most meals, ready-to-eat, known as MREs.
They talked about how they would overrun a base like Keating. They played cards. They lifted weights. They talked about their families, about what they wanted to do when they got back to Fort Carson, Colo., and they played pranks.
During one particularly memorable prank, Larson and Rasmussen (better known as "Raz") captured one of the ubiquitous wild goats that roamed the area and locked it in their lieutenant’s room while he was sleeping. It was the funniest moment of the deployment, Avalos remembered.
Larson and Romesha were close, so close that in a firefight they could look at each other from several hundred feet away and know what the other was thinking. It was those friendships that got them through the summer of 2009.
"We could sit there and talk for hours and not actually say anything," Romesha said. "Relying on that friendship and your battle buddies was what you did. You didn’t sit there and reflect on when we were getting hit next. You just knew your training would take over, your NCOs would be there to support you and you’d stick together and you'd come out of it next time."
"Next time" came at dawn on Oct. 3, 2009, when most of the soldiers were jolted awake by a barrage of enemy fire minutes before 6 a.m.
"The thing that woke me up was the sound of the B-10 recoilless rifle," Avalos remembered.
"It makes a distinct sound, especially being at the bowl of the mountain. Just the echo of it sounded like a freight train coming. No matter where you were, as soon as that bad boy went off, you woke up," he added.
Romesha knew within 20 seconds of that first shot that this attack was different, something more than the daily contact they were used to. This was the attack they had been warned about.
"It was just one of those things you could hear in the air," he said. "The volume that it came in on and the precision it was hitting us at, you just knew. It was just one of those instincts."
The bombardment, from B-10s, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft machine guns, Russian-made Dushkas, mortars, snipers and small arms fire, came from every direction.
The insurgents knew exactly what spots to target and pinned down the American mortars almost instantly, all the while carrying out a simultaneous attack to distract the mortars at nearby Observation Post Fritsche.
"Every position was overwhelmed," Romesha explained. "Every position was pretty much from the get [go] pretty ineffective."
At first Romesha thought: "‘Game on! All right, we’ve got a challenge. Come on boys, let’s do this. Let’s get back at them.’ As I look back, I was just letting instinct take over. I don’t recall having too much thought other than: ‘I’ve got battle buddies out there.’ It was like a man test, the ultimate man test: Step up to the plate or go home, and we were going to step up to the plate, just to prove the point that we’re better than you. We’re not going to be held down."
(Editor’s note: This article is based on a story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers Live.)