Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in April 2016.
Clint Romesha doesn’t carry himself like a recipient of our nation’s highest award for valor. He’s humble — shy, even. Not the brash, larger-than-life Captain America we tend to imagine war heroes to be. And that speaks to the kind of soldier he was on Oct. 3, 2009, when 300 Taliban fighters launched a brazen assault on the remote outpost where his U.S. Army cavalry troop was based in the Kamdesh district of eastern Afghanistan. On that day, Romesha didn’t earn the Medal of Honor by being a hero. He earned it by getting the job done.
The Battle of Kamdesh stands as one of the bloodiest battles of the entire Afghan War, made infamous in CNN Correspondent Jake Tapper’s best-selling book, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor. It lasted 14 hours and cost eight American lives. Twenty-seven more were wounded. The extent of the casualties sustained that day accelerated wider efforts to shut down especially vulnerable combat outposts like COP Keating, which was located at the bottom of a deep valley.
During the battle, a wounded Staff Sgt. Romesha fought through an unrelenting barrage of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms fire to spearhead a counteroffensive and retrieve the bodies of his fallen comrades. He’s credited with killing dozens of enemy soldiers, including several who had breached the outpost’s perimeter. “Everything was a target,” he once told Tapper. “I was trying to cover everything at once, as fast as I could.” An estimated 150 Taliban fighters were dead by the time the dust settled.
In 2013, Romesha, who had retired from the Army in 2011 and was working for an oil drilling company in North Dakota, received a phone call from President Obama informing him that he’d been awarded the Medal of Honor. “It wasn’t just me out there,” Romesha told the president. “It was a team effort.”
At the White House ceremony, Obama declared, “There were many lessons from COP Keating. One of them is that our troops should never, ever be put in a position where they have to defend the indefensible. But that’s what these soldiers did — for each other, in sacrifice driven by pure love.” Afterwards, Romesha donned his cavalry stetson to field questions from the press.
“Hero” is a tricky title, especially for those who bear it. Like many living Medal of Honor recipients, Romesha has struggled to reconcile the fame the award has brought him with the lives lost and permanently damaged when it was earned. Romesha’s memoir about the Battle of Kamdesh — titled Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor— is an attempt to do just that. Based on dozens of interviews with the American soldiers who fought that day, the book is an opportunity for Romesha to make explicitly clear what he’s been saying all along: His Medal of Honor wasn’t earned alone.
“I want people to understand that these were your average combat line platoon guys, not SEAL Team Six,” Romesha told Task & Purpose in an interview. “They came from all walks of life. They came from dysfunctional backgrounds, and drug addictions, and fucked up situations, for lack of a better term. And they were faced with pretty insurmountable odds at a certain point. They never gave up, no matter what the cost.”
Task & Purpose spoke with Romesha about the challenges of writing a true war story, why he misses being in uniform, and what it really means to serve.
Why did you write this book?
I was kind of apprehensive at first. Jake Tapper had done The Outpost and that kind of covered the story and did a thorough job on the whole history of the outpost. But as time went on, after receiving the medal, a lot of the guys I served with that day and some of the families were talking about, you know, if anyone is going to do a book that will paint a more clear and concise picture, it will come from the ones who were there on the ground. I had already been approached a couple of time about doing a book, but I had told them I needed more time to think about it. Eventually, the willingness from the families and the guys I served with really put it into perspective. So the agreement with them was, if I do this, you guys have to participate, which I absolutely believed would paint a more clear, concise, and full view of the battle in its entirety.
Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House
And did you get full participation from the guys in the platoon?
When we did our proposal, we designated that there were eight critical in-person interviews that we needed to do. We ended up capturing, I think, 13 face-to-face interviews, and then just under 30 phone interviews. So, yeah, the participation was there more than I can ever thank them for.
What was it like going from person to person, asking them to relive the battle? Was it a surreal experience?
It was. I came to realize very quickly that even though I might’ve been standing a couple of feet away from someone, to hear them recount certain portions of that day — you remember certain things as clear as day, but certain things are a fog. So you kind of fill in the gaps for each other. To have that face-to-face interaction, it’s not really what’s being said, but the moments in between; the body language that you can feed off of and get a little more emotion than just the words spoken. That helps create the atmosphere in the air as the story is unfolding.
Was anyone’s version of the story radically different than the common narrative?
I wouldn’t say 100% yes on that. The thing that was truly trick — and it was a tough thing to navigate through — was the timeline. The sense of time. Every one of us had moments where it seemed like certain things only took a fraction of a second, but as we started structuring the timeline, we realized that, no, what we thought took five minutes actually took an hour to develop. Or what we thought took six hours to do only took 15 minutes. That came from those face-to-face conversations and consolidating the sworn statements. It’s still difficult to say we got it right. I’ll never say we got a perfect on that, even with the amount of research and time we spent trying to. But, yeah, that was interesting thing of not really anyone being too dramatically different on their original narrative, but you could tell by reading the sworn statements that were done with them within the first week of the action happening, and then hearing them recount stuff years down the road. Memories fade and certain memories get clearer and crisper.
I imagine the attitudes and emotions around the battle changed as well…
Yes. Certain things that seemed very important at the time to talk about had shifted, as did mindsets and mentalities. There was quite a bit of anger for a lot of us initially coming back. Then kind of having the time to sit there and reflect on it and understand that the past is the past, and we can’t affect that, we can only affect our futures. To sit here and be negative and hold on to something that now cannot be changed is futile.
Do you think books like yours are essential?
You know, we live in a time when 99.5% doesn’t serve in the military. My father, being a Vietnam veteran, he still asks me to this day how I can openly share some of this stuff. His generation, and generations before us, were more of the quiet type. But more people were affected then because there was a higher percentage that had served. We share these experiences so we don’t forget. We remember our history and the weight and the price that is actually paid for us to keep our freedom. That’s the intent. I hope to share with that 99.5% the service and sacrifice that’s made by these great men and women who are still doing it today.
What are some of the crucial lessons you hoped to preserve by writing this book?
We’re an all-volunteer force. We’re not getting drafted like they did in Vietnam. So when these men and women raise that right hand and say, “I’m going to go and do and serve,” they give up the freedom when they’re put in less than ideal situations like we were, at the bottom of a valley. Everybody knew that this wasn’t the most sound spot to be, yet higher command — there were choices above us that we could not affect on the ground. That was our mission. That was our task. We had our reason to be there, even though at times it wasn’t 100% clear, but we knew we had to go and do what was asked upon us to accomplish that mission. To get the civilians to wrap their heads around that: this is what these guys are giving up when they go away and do their time in service for the military. I also hope that people walk away from this hearing the voices of these guys that don’t get to sit here and talk to Task & Purpose and Army Times. Their voice is captured and they get the credit that’s due to them, because if it wasn’t for those great men, I wouldn’t be here. And most importantly, it’s the story of those eight men, their story, which they will never get to share, that hopefully people will understand what those Gold Star families gave up for this nation.
What do you think makes a good soldier?
For me, it was loyalty. You can soldiers to show up to work. You can get them to perform their skill level one tasks, or whatever. But to get them to follow you to hell and back, that takes loyalty.
What do you think are essential components of a war book worth reading?
I think it’s one that concentrates more on those values and the understanding that no one wants to go to war. No one wants to suffer through war. But it’s that necessary evil we must perform. And it’s not motivated by a hatred for whatever enemy you’re fighting. It’s motivated by a love for what you’re defending — those battle buddies to your left and right and the American way of life. And all of those families that are back here supporting us. That’s what I think really makes a story that will stand the test of time as being a great war story.
How do you think war has shaped your perspective on the world?
When I joined in ’99, we really didn’t have a whole lot going on. It was under the advice of my father, when I tried to sign up at 17, he told me I couldn’t, because there might come a day when I have to go and do what things this country needs in a position and a place that no man should have to experience. War really brought that to light, and truly made a 17-year-old punk kid finally understand it at 30 years old. Our military is the greatest fighting force in the world in all of history, but wars aren’t won or lost by the heart and duty of the soldier on the ground, they’re lost on the political levels. When we don’t have the heart to accomplish until the end, or have the final mission statement that this is what we need to get done, that’s really what put more perspective in me. We the people need to understand before we vote for our elected officials, we’re choosing proper ones who understand that when they send guys and girls overseas, that we’re doing it for the right reasons, and when we go we go 100%, or we don’t go at all.
Do you ever miss being a soldier?
Every day. It’s one of those things I loved. I loved being a soldier. Some days were shittier than others. Not every day was puppy dogs and lollipops, but that camaraderie is what I miss the most. Those battle buddies who had your back in the thick of death. The ability to rely on someone you know is going to be there no matter what — right, wrong, or indifferent. If they said they got your back you knew they were coming for you. And that continues after the military. You meet a veteran and you just hit it off. You can come from all different MOSs, or whatever it is, but it’s still that sense of service and that culture that you survived through the military to be successful carries on even after you take off the uniform. There’s nothing like it. You can’t duplicate that. You can’t replicate it. It’s only in the service of the armed forces that you see it.