Hire Heroes USA Speaks with Medal of Honor Recipient Clint Romesha
It’s regarded as one of the largest and fiercest battles during the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, and the story of that day-long firefight on October 3, 2009, is told in Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor, a firsthand account by Medal of Honor recipient Clint Romesha, who lost eight members of his platoon that day.
Combat Outpost Keating was the most remote base in Afghanistan, just 14 miles from the Pakistan border and described in the book as “ensconced in the deepest valley of Nuristan’s Kamdesh District at a spot that resembled the bowl of a toilet.” At the time of the deadly Taliban attack on COP Keating, Army Staff Sergeant Romesha was a section leader assigned to Bravo troop, 3-61 Cavalry, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
Hire Heroes USA received advance copies of the book before its release in 2016, and our Chief Operating Officer – Nate Smith – a Marine infantry veteran of two combat tours in Iraq, had the opportunity to speak with Romesha and ask him some questions:
(HHUSA) Even without the benefit of hindsight, a competent military observer could have predicted an eventual decisive battle for Outpost Keating, given the level of Anti-Afghan Forces (AAF) activity in the area and the outpost’s remarkably poor location. The battle was a testimony to American courage and audacity under fire, but it was also a condemnation of mission creep and inflexible planning. In your view, what are the essential lessons every soldier and commander should carry away from the Battle of Kamdesh? And really more importantly, do you think the Army has learned those lessons?
(Romesha) The biggest thing I think our soldiers, or our commanders, should really learn from what happened there on that day -and the stuff leading up to it- is to understand that, yeah, at times we’ve got to follow orders. We run on discipline. That’s what the military does. And there are times in your military service where things are out of your hands. The higher echelon dictates your mission, and sometimes the mission that’s dictated is not in the best interest of your safety or health, but keep in mind: affect what you can affect. We tried to do improvements there at COP Keating, at our level, knowing that our position was less than ideal, and that’s what we tried to affect on the ground there. For commanders at higher echelon, I don’t know what goes on at the 3-star general’s level. I was just a lowly staff sergeant, so I can’t really speak on, you know, maybe they had other intel or other stuff going on that just didn’t allow improvements or relocations to happen in the timely manner that we wanted it to get done on the ground. But at least be open and listen to those guys – the direct guys on the ground.
I would really hope that the military learns from what happened at Outpost Keating. I know they do quite a bit of training and stuff on it now at West Point and a lot of the [Army] leadership schools. So it’s good to hear that they are pushing that information and teaching those lessons learned of what had happened there. Only time will tell whether or not we really understand and don’t try to make the same mistakes. I mean, even talking to my father, while I was over there, he had made comments in letters and stuff about, you know, that was kind of the same thing that had happened in Vietnam – guys got put in less than desirable positions. And that’s really the key, though, training our future leaders in the military these lessons right here. That way, when they get promoted to put those stars on and really make an influence, they can keep this truly in mind.
Along with that line, though, it’s also the mindset of the American people that, often times, the military goes and does the will of our nation. If we’re not going to support our troops 100 percent, give them everything in their power to accomplish the mission – either we do it all or nothing. That’s what we need to remember as citizens of this country: that, when we try and fight two-front wars, there’s only so many helicopters to go around, and there’s only so many boots to put on the ground. We really need to assess what we’re doing and if we’re not doing it at 100 percent, we should really think about what we’re going to commit to before we go.
(HHUSA) Yeah, that’s a really great point and something that, in the infantry and the cavalry, when you’re out there on the edge of the empire, so to speak, I think the American public has this idea that our military is invincible, and I would say at the macro level that’s probably true to some extent. [But] at the individual level, we’re still just guys with heavy packs, with a couple rifles and you can be put in a really bad situation, for whatever tactical reasons and whatever the strategy is, and not having the right support, or adequate support, makes a big difference. That’s a great point.
Moving on to question two: Sometimes it seems like veterans are viewed on two extremes of a spectrum: on one side, veterans are called heroes really regardless of what they did in the military. Their service is kind of taken to make them heroes. On the other side of that, they can be viewed with distrust because of the idea that they have Post-Traumatic Stress or had a lot of violent wartime experiences. In your book, you make it really clear that your fellow soldiers did not fit neatly into either side of that spectrum. How do you think the country and the public should properly view its veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
(Romesha) You know out of the great lessons I got taught coming into the military right away, one of my great NCOs that I had as a brand new Joe taught me a very important lesson I took the entire way with me through the military and life: that a great leader is a leader that can adjust his leadership style for every individual underneath him, and a bad leader will expect everyone to fit their role. And I think that’s the same way with going from heroes to PTSD. Each one of these guys and gals is an individual. They fit somewhere along that spectrum, but we can’t blanket them and group them all into one. We assess them individually, and that’s what we need to understand. We can sit there and listen to their stories and accept them for what they are, but don’t pass judgment until you actually know the veteran. Don’t just sit there and put a label. Don’t put a stereotype. We come from all walks of life, all different experiences, and everyone experiences combat differently. For some guys, the burden of combat is placed upon them in just a few days of being overseas. Some guys do multiple deployments and come back and make a transition fairly easy, and then you wouldn’t even know talking to the guy that he’d ever put on the uniform. He’s just kind of laid back and goes about his business. So, it’s really that the American people need to get to know veterans individually, and help them individually, and support causes that do that.
(HHUSA) Now for the third question: I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to meet several Medal of Honor recipients over the past several years, including a Navy SEAL from Vietnam and some soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For most Medal of Honor recipients, it seems like the Medal is a tangible reminder of the worst day of their lives, but you choose to carry that Medal in your pocket. Why do you do that and what’s been your most memorable experience or encounter in so doing?
(Romesha) You know, um, never in a million years did I think I’d meet a recipient, let alone be one. And that little blue ribbon of silk and that medal is a constant reminder of the service and sacrifice of that day. You can look at it as probably one of the worst days I had been through, but it was also some of the (pause), one of the most memorable days of watching young men step up to the challenge and showing courage and honor and just duty, above and beyond. Like I said, just extraordinarily ordinary men that did that, and that’s my constant reminder of that.
And then, it allows me to, like I said I thought I’d never meet a recipient, so in my travels I kind of fly under the radar. But if I’m sitting there on a plane or just kind of going around town and I start talking to someone and find out they’re a veteran and we just start BS-ing back and forth, that gives me the ability to pull that thing out of my pocket and put it in their hand and let them know this is theirs – just as much as it’s ever mine. I might have gotten selected to wear it, but this is for those that have served this country and gave up more of anything than was ever asked of them, and it’s going to be those that will once again be called upon in the future conflicts that we’ll stumble upon unfortunately. That’s what that Medal represents.
And to be able to have that ability to sit there and, yeah, just BS with someone and then start talking about past experiences and stuff, and not like a “one up” token, but to sit there and just put it in their hand. I was a Staff Sergeant in the cavalry – did 10 years in. The only time I think I was maybe going to meet a recipient, me and my other team leaders got too drunk and we got kicked out of our squadron ball before we could say “Hi!” to the guy. So, don’t think this is impossible. Just know that you rely on your training, you rely on each other and just (pause), you know, do the right thing for the right reasons at the right time.
(HHUSA) That’s great. I wasn’t really clear because at the end of the book it mentioned that you carried [the Medal of Honor] around. There’s this mystique and I remember being a Marine and never having met a Medal of Honor recipient, and really what I associated with that medal were stories from World War II, World War I and Vietnam. And to meet someone who has been in those situations and performed as you did, but to see that there is really no mystique to it – you’re flesh and blood, and you’re someone who – you perform your duty, had a lot of support in doing it – I think is a tremendous testimony to your humility and also just your brotherhood with your fellow veterans.
Now to question 4: You separated from the Army and moved to North Dakota to work in the oil fields. Was that a difficult transition? To go from multiple combat deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, recognition as an expert in your field – this was certainly before you were the recipient of your Medal, but you were someone who had been in some very difficult circumstances and performed really, really well – to go into being the “new guy” in an unfamiliar industry and a place, perhaps, where your Army accolades may not matter that much to your colleagues? They may have judged you by a different standard. Was that difficult?
(Romesha) You know it was. At the start – with that last year in service, knowing that I was going to make the transition out – it was utilizing the Army’s ACAP program and making sure that, you know, that was the biggest thing. I had talked to the soldiers that were under me for the last almost 12 years before that, “Utilize your time before you transition, and make sure you have a Plan A, B, C, D contingencies, because if the first one falls through, where are you going to be? What are you going to do?” That’s what we train in the military all the time, so I tried to carry that with me in my transition.
The first job I was looking for, my hearing had disqualified me, which was unfortunate but that’s what it was. And I knew with the oil fields going on up here in North Dakota, it was one of those, “Well, unemployment rate is 2.3 percent,” yeah, [rather] than, “a profession at my craft as an E-6.” But you know what, there’s times in your life that you have to eat a little bit of humble pie and realize, “Well, if I don’t get a 100,000-dollar-a-year job in my first year out of the service, well that’s fine. That should be normal.”
I made the transition out to just come up here and realize the same things that I learned when I came in the military: that you don’t know everything, especially being new to the industry. First day in basic training was: shut your mouth; learn from the guys that had been there a while; draw from their experience; and, just do your job. And coming into the oil fields, I realized that was kind of an interesting way to look at it and it kind of helped me progress, too, because a lot of the guys I work with had no idea I was even in the service.
And it worked well, also on that, because coming up here I hit the oil fields kind of at the right time. We were busy 12-to-16 hours a day, working 6-to-7 days a week, so you were working so much you didn’t have time to really think too much of the transition. You just got right into it and tried to do your best and, fortunate for me, I went from working a swamper – a labor level job – on a hydro excavator truck, to three months later having my commercial driving license and then managing six of those trucks, and then another three months later making the transition over to the safety side.
Just taking that perspective of, “You’re starting over, so you’ve got to start somewhere and, guess what, if you’re thinking you’re going to start at the top, well, you’re going to set yourself up for failure” – you kind of have to eat that humble pie, reassess your situation, draw from your experience that you learned in the military, but understand that it might not directly translate into your new occupation. So, take the lessons you have learned and learn from the experience of those around you.
(HHUSA) That’s great advice and, in fact, it really mirrors what our transition specialists share with the veterans that they work with. You know it strikes me if anybody had a reason to have a sense of entitlement, leaving the military and feeling like maybe a job should be lined up for them and they should perhaps be able to take it easy for a little bit – that would be you. It’s good to hear that you didn’t fall into that trap and that you’re willing to start a couple notches down, but work hard and work your way back up. That’s excellent.
The last question I have for you, and this is maybe more of a philosophical one, is: What words of advice or admonishment would you share with your fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines that have decided to put military service behind them and focus forward? Are there any post-military pitfalls maybe you’ve seen with other veterans that are avoidable with basic preparation or the right attitude?
(Romesha) The thing I’ve noticed the most as you transition out and move forward: it’s understanding we can never forget our past, the lessons we’ve learned and our service to this country, the friends we’ve made – I mean, that’s a scary time to leave all those guys – but, to understand that our past is our past. We’ll never forget it, but we can’t let that control us. That’s kind of one of the biggest things talking to veterans I’ve served with, or veterans in general, is they move forward with life but they’re still stuck in this, “Oh man, I wish we could be in that platoon we used to have with all our buddies back in 2008.” You know, “Wasn’t that a great time back then?” And you think, “Well it was. Love you guys to death.” But when you let that control yourself and every day you think, “Well, today sucks ‘cause it wasn’t as good as it was back in 2008, or 2009, or 2010, when I was still in the service.” Well, the past you can’t control it. The only thing you can do is affect the future, and as long as you keep the understanding that: Learn from your past; draw on the experiences of your past and don’t let it control you; and, understand that tomorrow is the only thing we can truly affect. So, let’s do everything today to make ourselves or someone else better for tomorrow.
Clint Romesha Profile:
Medal of Honor Citation:
Medal of Honor Official Narrative:
Red Platoon from Penguin Random House:
“Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor” by Clinton Romesha (Dutton; May 3, 2016)