'We weren't going to be beat that day'
GRAND FORKS - The North Dakota oil-field worker who will become the nation's newest Medal of Honor recipient next month in Washington said quietly that it's not about him.
"For me, this isn't for me, it's for all the great things the platoon and the troops did that day," retired Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha said at a news conference Wednesday in Minot.
He served 12 years in the Army, including two deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. It was his heroism and gallantry during a 13-hour firefight in 2009 in northeast Afghanistan that led President Barack Obama to call him over Thanksgiving and tell him he had earned the nation's highest military honor.
"I was a little star-struck," he said. "I can't remember the exact phrases.... He congratulated me and I thanked him."
Romesha (ROE-muh-shay), 31, grew up in Lake City, Calif., a town of 100. He, his wife, Tammy, and their three children moved to Minot after he retired from the Army in 2011.
He will receive the Medal of Honor from the president Feb. 11 in the White House.
Romesha is only the fourth living soldier to receive the medal for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan; seven of the medals have been awarded posthumously.
His unit, Black Knight Troop of the 61st Cavalry Regiment, was stationed at Combat Outpost Keating in Nuristan Province. Surrounded by mountains on four sides, it was a vulnerable place to be because the enemy could fire down from the steep mountain sides, Romesha said.
More than 300 Taliban fighters, armed with rifles, machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, did just that starting early on the morning of Oct. 3, 2009.
Romesha said there were 53 American troops and two Latvians on site, as well as about 20 Afghan soldiers, who melted away as the attack began.
According to news reports, the Medal of Honor citation said Romesha quickly reacted to organize other soldiers despite heavy fire, then "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."
Despite his wounds, he grabbed a machine gun from a corporal and yelled, "grab more ammo and follow me," leading a team of five.
"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.
As the hours went on, he also directed air support that destroyed a pocket of 30 enemy fighters.
He led an effort to cover wounded soldiers so they could get back to an aid station and led a team 100 yards under "withering fire" to recover the bodies of some of the eight American soldiers killed that day.
His "acts of gallantry" helped save many lives and kept the outpost from being overrun, the citation said. After the battle, the outpost was shut down and destroyed.
Humor under fire
Romesha's heroism was noted not only by his comrades but by Jake Tapper, a Washington journalist who spent time with his unit. In his new book, "The Outpost," Tapper features the "wiry and intense" Romesha, calling him one of the most impressive soldiers he's met.
Tapper described Romesha as calm and smiling under fire, as in this excerpt in which the staff sergeant ran to rally Spc. Zach Koppes, who was pinned down inside a Humvee:
"This doesn't look good," Romesha said. "We're all going to die."
He laughed -- he had a pretty dark sense of humor, Romesha. "You okay?"
Koppes looked at him. Bullets were ricocheting off the truck right next to him, but the staff sergeant just stood there looking back at Koppes, smiling the whole time.
Holy (crap), he's lost his mind, the specialist thought.
"Yeah, I'm good," Koppes finally replied. "I still got this sniper behind me."
"Okay, stay low and hang tight," Romesha told him.
At that moment, the sniper shot at Romesha, who then ducked behind the Humvee and began playing peekaboo with the enemy, trying to draw him out so he could see exactly where he was firing from. He decided that the Taliban fighter was midway up on the Northface, so he fired the Dragunov [rifle] at the spot.
Then he turned and airily announced to Koppes, "All right, I'm going to head out."
According to the Medal of Honor citation, Romesha's leadership "throughout the day-long battle were critical in suppressing an enemy that had far greater numbers."
In fact, the Taliban early on figured they had won as they walked openly around the outpost, according to accounts from Tapper and others.
On Wednesday, Romesha didn't want to talk much about it.
When pressed, he admitted, in his dry, understated way, that the fighting got pretty face-to-face that day: "At certain times we did have engagements that were fairly close."
Mostly, he deflected attention to others who he said sacrificed more than he did. "It was our Army training, and my buddies and my platoon and the Black Knight troops were going to handle whatever was thrown our way."
"We had a great team of guys over there," he said, naming several. "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."
It was a long way from his hometown in northern California, as is the White House.
"This isn't something you wake up and think you are ever going to achieve," he said of the rare honor being bestowed on him. "My grandfather was my hero. My grandfather was always teaching me that your actions will speak louder than words."
Romesha comes from a long line military men: his grandfather served in World War II, his father in Vietnam and his brothers served, too, one in the Army and Air Force and the other in the Marines.
"I always knew growing up that, serving my country, I was going to do that," he said.
Tammy, who grew up in nearby Cedarville, Calif., also comes from a military family.
Romesha said he left the Army after 12 years "to be a husband and a dad."
He and his wife have girls, 11 and 4, and a boy, 18 months.
Now several other family members, including Tammy's parents, have moved to North Dakota, they told reporters Wednesday.
His Army training on the importance of team work and discipline helped him get promoted to a job overseeing safety and security procedures for KS Industries, which does construction in the Oil Patch, Romesha said.
He made light of his shrapnel wounds from the battle in which his exploits also won him a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
"I have been able to walk through airport security without tripping anything," he said. "What I got injured with wasn't nothing. I have buddies who lost their eyesight, who lost limbs. For that, I would rather give them all the credit they deserve for the sacrifices they made. For me, it was nothing. I got a little peppered."
Besides eight American soldiers killed that day, about two dozen were wounded. Nine men won Silver Stars for their actions.
His stark adjustment to civilian life has gone well, Romesha said.
"Every deployment I had I knew was going to be something hard and I knew I had great family support back home," he said. "And when it came time to get out and make that transition, for me that chapter in my life had closed. And I was able to compartmentalize and understand that this is the future and I have to move on."