President Obama will present the Medal of Honor during a Feb. 11 ceremony to Former Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha (shown here in an undtaed photo on duty in Afghanistan), who will be the fourth living service member to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Seven other service members have posthumously been awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions in the wars. (Courtesy Romesha family)
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Former Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha remembers his first morning at Combat Outpost Keating, deep in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
"We flew in there in the cover of darkness … and seeing it in the light and looking up at those mountains, I thought, ‘I'm going to have some of the strongest neck muscles ever, looking up at these for a year.'"
It was at this remote COP, nestled at the bottom of a valley and surrounded by towering mountains, that Romesha and his fellow soldiers from 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, faced their most harrowing, horrifying day.
An enemy force estimated to number more than 300 attacked the COP on Oct. 3, 2009, intent on overrunning the outnumbered U.S. forces. Eight Americans were killed and about two dozen others were wounded, but the soldiers defeated the enemy and saved the COP.
For his actions throughout the 13-hour battle, Romesha will receive the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor, the White House announced Jan. 11.
President Obama will present the award during a Feb. 11 ceremony to Romesha, who will be the fourth living service member to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Seven other service members have posthumously been awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions in the wars.
During an interview Jan. 16 with Army Times, Romesha, who, at the time, was a section leader in the squadron's B Troop, downplayed his actions on that day.
"Having those guys over there, those dear friends, we were all one team that day," he said. "Throughout the course of the day, knowing they're relying on you just as much as you're relying on them, kept me going. We just weren't going to get beat that day."
The soldiers' determination in "such dire straits" and watching them "dig deep inside them to find that personal courage and selfless sacrifice" was amazing, Romesha said.
"We had a job to do that day, and we were going to make it out," he said. "Having the support of those good battle buddies and platoon mates, we were going to make it."
Romesha, 31, left the Army in April 2011. He said he had heard rumors from his Army buddies that he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor, but he didn't pay much attention until the president called in early December.
"Looking back now, it's kind of a blur," Romesha said. "You don't really expect that phone call to come in."
The president informed him he would be receiving the Medal of Honor and congratulated him, Romesha said.
"I told [the president] that for me, this award isn't for me, it's for all those guys who were there that day and to remember the eight soldiers we'd lost," Romesha said.
At 5:58 a.m. Oct. 3, 2009, the enemy launched its attack from all four sides of the small COP. About 50 American, 20 Afghan and two Latvian soldiers were stationed at COP Keating, along with about a dozen Afghan security guards. Nearby, the 19 American and 10 Afghan soldiers at Observation Post Fritsche also came under heavy fire.
The enemy fired a recoilless rifle, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, machine guns and rifles, quickly wreaking havoc on the two positions.
During the first three hours of the battle, mortars hit the COP and OP every 15 seconds, and in less than an hour, the enemy swarmed the COP, breaching the Afghan army side of the compound. The enemy eventually set fire to the small outpost, destroying about 70 percent of it.
According to the citation accompanying Romesha's Medal of Honor, the staff sergeant moved under intense enemy fire to reconnoiter the battlefield and seek reinforcements from the barracks before returning to action with the support of an assistant gunner.
Romesha "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," according to the citation.
Undeterred by his injuries, Romesha continued to fight, and upon the arrival of another soldier to aid him and with the assistant gunner, Romesha again "rushed through the exposed avenue to assemble additional soldiers."
Romesha then mobilized and led a five-man team and returned to the fight.
"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," according to the citation.
As the enemy attacked the COP with even "greater ferocity, unleashing a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and recoilless rifle rounds," Romesha "identified the point of attack and directed air support to destroy over 30 enemy fighters."
When he learned that other soldiers at a distant battle position were still alive, Romesha and his team provided covering fire, allowing three of their wounded comrades to reach the aid station, according to the citation.
Romesha and his team also moved 100 meters under "withering fire" to recover the bodies of their fallen comrades.
An ‘awestruck' spouse
Romesha's actions that day, the battle at COP Keating, and the short but tragic history of the COP are described in the book "The Outpost" by Jake Tapper.
Romesha said he hasn't had a chance to read the book, but his wife, Tammy, has.
"Clint's really good about filtering out events that have happened to him, just to protect me," she said, so reading the book gave her more insight into what her husband went through in Afghanistan.
When she got to the last section of "The Outpost," which focuses on 3rd Squadron's deployment there and the Oct. 3, 2009, battle, Tammy Romesha said she devoured the author's words.
"It only took me a day," she said. "I absolutely couldn't put it down. I'm reading it and looking at the stories and these people I know, the events we shared together, the memories, barbecues, baseball games and all that."
Tammy Romesha said she's proud of her husband, but he's also still the high school sweetheart she married after he graduated from basic training.
"I'm still a little awestruck that they're awarding him [the Medal of Honor]," she said. "No matter what happens in the future, I still look at him and see the guy I fell in love with in high school."
The Romeshas, who married in 2000 and have three kids, met in middle school and began dating in high school in Cedarville, Calif.
"He's very personable once you get to know him," Tammy Romesha said. "He's pretty quiet and shy, but he's got a great sense of humor. He wasn't a standard jock. Honestly, he was a little bit of a computer nerd, and I love that about him."
The Romesha family now lives in Minot, N.D., where Clinton Romesha works for KS Industries, a company that does construction for the oil fields there.
As a boy, Clinton Romesha knew he wanted to be a soldier, and after serving for almost 12 years and deploying five times, the Army will always have "a special spot in my heart," he said.
Clinton Romesha said he hopes to highlight the sacrifices his fellow soldiers made on that day, as well as the service of troops who are still serving today.
"I'm honored … but I look back to that day and I don't believe I did anything any soldier wouldn't have done," he said. "For me, it's not an individual award. It's for all the great things and heroic actions that were done throughout the entire battle, the teamwork and effort, and everybody pulling together."