"Dude, you’re bleeding," Spc. Thomas Rasmussen, now a sergeant, told his acting platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Clinton L .Romesha. Did Romesha want Rasmussen to patch him up?
Surprised, Romesha glanced at his arm. A rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, had damaged the generator he was using for cover a short time before, peppering the right side of his body with shrapnel.
He barely noticed as he unloaded the last of his ammo at some of the roughly 400 insurgents who were trying to overrun Combat Outpost, or COP, Keating.
It was partly his fault. He had been so focused on picking off the enemy, positioned above Keating’s location at the bottom of four over 10,000 foot mountains, that he broke one of the cardinal rules he drilled into his soldiers: "‘Don’t put the blinders on.’ I had gotten pretty fixated on engaging the enemy [to the north]. The enemy was able to skirt in to my right flank."
"Go ahead," he told Rasmussen. "Just throw a bandage on it real quick."
There was no time for anything else. Barely an hour had passed since the attack started shortly before 6 a.m., Oct. 3, 2009.
Three soldiers from Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, were already dead. Others were wounded.
Several were unaccounted for. Keating was on fire, and they had lost power when the RPG hit that generator. Enemy insurgents were inside the wire.
The Afghan National Army soldiers who had been stationed on the east side of Keating were abandoning their posts.
"We weren’t even close to being done with the fight at that point," Romesha said.
Seven soldiers were trapped outside Bravo Troop’s "Alamo" perimeter, the small section of Keating that U.S. forces still controlled that housed some of the barracks, the tactical operations center, or TOC, and the aid station.
One of the men was one of Romesha’s closest friends, Sgt. (now 1st lieutenant) Brad Larson, who had just taken over at the LRAS-2 (long-range advanced-scout surveillance system) Humvee when the attack started.
He was pinned down almost immediately, as were Sgt. Justin Gallegos, Sgt. Vernon Martin, Spc. Stephan Mace and Spc. Ty Carter, who arrived at LRAS-2 to either assist or to bring more ammo, something the men needed desperately –Larson alone went through approximately 1,200 rounds in 10 minutes.
Then, enemy shots hit both an M-240 machine gun and a .50-caliber machine gun, rendering them useless. The blanket of bullets was so thick, Larson recalled, that they couldn’t even crack the Humvee’s windows to shoot out with their M-4s.
"I had no doubt I was going to die that day," he said later. One soldier was dead and two others were pinned down at a second location.
Romesha thought he could help them, but the enemy fire was just too intense. He apologized to the men. He felt terrible for leaving them there, but he would be back.
Air support [Apaches and multiple types of fixed-wing aircraft] had finally arrived. He had to trust that they would be okay.
Closing the gate
In the meantime, Romesha had insurgents to kick out of Keating, an ammo supply point, known as an ASP, to secure and a gate to close.
He grabbed a Dragunov rifle from a wounded Afghan National Army soldier – his own M-4 was running low on ammunition – and ran through open fire, as he would many times that day, to check on their one operational gun truck, which Spc. Zach Koppes was manning, alone, while being stalked by an enemy sniper.
Romesha played "peek-a-boo in and around the Humvee, trying to pinpoint who was shooting at [Koppes]. We kept exchanging fire and it finally subsided."
After stopping along the way to talk to his platoon leader, 1st Lt. Andrew Bundermann, who was also the acting ground commander, and to kill three insurgents he had found inside the wire, Romesha "played the bullet dodge back to the barracks" and asked for five volunteers to help secure the ASP and retake the entry control point.
"They stepped up without hesitation," he said, calling the soldiers’ actions "amazing."
It was an easy decision, Rasmussen said: "The enemy is in your house, so you’re either going to sit there, and they’re eventually going to kill you, or you’re going to fight back."
Romesha’s fighting spirit, his determination and his courage helped too, Rasmussen added. "It made me want to go [on] until I got shot or until we got [Keating] back."
Soldiers from Blue Platoon [Romesha was the acting Red Platoon sergeant] were supposed to provide fire support as the six men bounded to the ASP, but fighting on the other side of Keating held them up.
By then, "We had pretty much run out of ammunition at all the fighting positions for the MK-19 grenade launchers, the .240 machine guns," Romesha explained.
Adding, "We also knew that the enemy being in the wire, it was going to be a close firefight and one of the best things to have on your side is the good old fragmentation grenade. It was to the point where we needed more to continue on."
They made it to the ASP without cover fire from the ground. Just as they started divvying out ammo, enemy fighters charged toward the barriers that ringed the ammo point. The fighting was heavy and one soldier was shot in the shoulder, but the men’s fresh supply of fragmentation grenades helped them fight off the attack.
"I can’t wait in this position any longer," Romesha radioed Bundermann, telling him it wasn’t safe for his soldiers.
He also worried that insurgents would "start carting off our dead." They had to close that gate.
Bundermann sent out another soldier and promised additional help, but once again, Romesha decided to move forward without additional support. Instinct had taken over.
They had to fight inch by inch to secure the shura building, next to the entry control point, and block off the gate, Rasmussen remembered. Once they were inside, the enemy unleashed a fresh volley of RPGs and B-10 rounds and he started to wonder if they were going to make it.
"[Romesha] just looked at me and was like: ‘No, bro. Keep your head up. We’re going to make it out of this,’" he said.
With their new position, they could keep additional insurgents out of Keating. Romesha was able to identify more enemy targets in the neighboring village for the Apache and F-15 pilots. The entire valley shook from the force of 2,000-pound bombs and enemy fire finally began to slow.
The tide started to turn.
It was time to try to account for their missing soldiers. At some point that morning, Bravo Troop had lost radio contact with the five men at LRAS-2. Another soldier, Sgt. Josh Hardt, had been determined to lead a rescue attempt that quickly became a suicide mission.
One soldier was killed in seconds, another was wounded and Hardt had gone missing after radioing in that an RPG was pointed at him.
The men knew they couldn’t stay at LRAS-2 much longer, but Gallegos and Martin were killed almost as soon as they left the Humvee and headed for cover, and an RPG exploded in front of Mace, leaving him with serious leg and abdominal injuries.
Hit in the helmet by a sniper round, Larson continued to provide cover fire, shooting two insurgents who were headed straight for them.
"Get back in the truck," he ordered Carter.
The two soldiers began to worry that they were the only Americans left alive, that some of the enemy’s unrelenting rounds would pierce the Humvee’s much-weakened armor or that they'd have to crawl to the river and float to another American outpost.
Worse, they could see Mace trying to crawl toward them, begging for help. Carter wanted to go to him, but Larson made him wait until the Apaches were overhead on a gun run.
They patched him up as best they could and finally reached Bundermann on a walkie-talkie Carter found.
During a massive air and land bombardment that Romesha called, they grabbed Mace and ran for the aid station. They had been stuck at LRAS-2 all morning, but according to Larson, who immediately went to join Romesha at the shura building, that was the easy part of his day.
The hard part was recovering the bodies.
Romesha led his men through open fire once again until they found Griffin, Martin and Gallegos. The barrage was so intense that now-Staff Sgt. Armando Avalos had to use Gallegos’ body for cover. The two men were good buddies and he knew it was what Gallegos would have wanted, but it haunts him to this day. No one knew where Hardt was. Larson went to look for him, taking off all his gear so he could run faster, but Hardt wouldn’t be found until after the quick-reaction force arrived about sunset.
By the time Romesha learned a medical evacuation flight, or medevac, was finally on the way for Mace, who had received five buddy-to-buddy blood transfusions, but would eventually die, he knew that he had to clear the landing zone.
Many of the buildings had burned down, including the tactical operations center, and others were piles of rubble. Shell casings lay everywhere and the bodies of insurgents lay scattered throughout the outpost.
The men had been fighting for 12 or 13 hours straight and they were exhausted, but there wasn’t time to process what had happened.
They had to hold Keating for a few more days before they could finally leave the outpost, then they had to get through the second half of their deployment. The Army sent a psychologist to spend a lot of time with the men of Bravo Troop, to help them talk through the battle.
"We just kept on with our day-to-day business, bullshitting and laughing and joking around," said Rasmussen.
Adding, "I think we all just kind of suppressed it. There were still missions at hand and stuff that had to be done. For me personally, it didn’t register until I came back home, like that first week. That’s pretty much all I did, just sit there in amazement."
He still wonders if he could have done anything differently, wonders why he’s alive and eight other soldiers aren’t. So does Larson, who is also still "jumpy."
He just completed flight school and flies Chinooks for the Nebraska National Guard now. That helps. It’s a distraction, at least.
Avalos, now a recruiter, is sad a lot, angry all the time and has trouble sleeping. He has an appointment with behavioral health in a couple weeks. He owes it to his family, to his soldiers and to himself to get better, he said.
For his part, Romesha hasn’t noticed any lasting effects, nothing he can’t work through by calling Larson or Rasmussen.
But he does have regrets, a lot of them: "I always felt like we could have done just a little bit more, could have been just a little bit faster, could have been just a little bit better."
He added, "Watching the soldiers who followed me, they did so much greatness, but for me personally, they threw us a lot and I thought I could do more."
The Medal of Honor
He couldn’t possibly have done more, Larson said. No one could have: "I whole-heartedly believe he single-handedly saved the lives of everybody on that outpost. He took it upon himself to take the COP back. I’m glad he’s getting an award for it."
Romesha’s not getting just any award, he’s getting the highest award for valor the nation can bestow: the Medal of Honor, which President Barack Obama presented to him in a Feb. 11 White House ceremony.
The news has helped bring the men some much-needed closure.
"It kind of helped the healing process a little bit, because it finally felt like somebody recognized that it happened," Rasmussen said. "It didn’t just get pushed aside like ‘Aw. Shit. A couple guys got killed. Oh well. Lesson learned. Move on.’ Just acknowledgement that it actually did happen. People busted their asses to survive that day."
In some ways, it means more to the soldiers than it does to Romesha. Like most Medal of Honor recipients, he has mixed feelings about the medal.
"I was just doing a job," Romesha said. "It’s just what anyone would have done in that situation. Anyone would have stepped up to the plate. It was just, I happened to be there, but without the platoon pulling together, I couldn’t have done what I did."
"The Medal of Honor is something you don’t set out to get or achieve," he continued.
Adding, "I don’t wear it for myself. I’ve never been one to sit there and want stuff pinned on my chest, but I wear it for those soldiers. It’s all their heroism that they do on a day-to-day basis that goes unnoticed, that goes unrecognized, but they do it because that’s their duty, that’s their job and they signed up for it."
Eight soldiers, including Sgt. Josh Kirk, who had first warned the men of Bravo Troop about the dangers at COP Keating, were killed in action during the battle.
Another 22 were wounded. Seven soldiers, including Larson and Rasmussen, received Silver Stars.
(Editor’s note: This article is based on a story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers Live.)