They were outnumbered – eight times over – by more than 400 heavily armed Taliban fighters who had occupied the high ground on all four sides of the small base, nestled on the floor of a tiny valley of the Hindu Kush.
“Four hundred Taliban versus 53 American soldiers. It just doesn’t seem fair – to the Taliban,” Mr. Romesha joked at a Pentagon ceremony Tuesday, before sounding a somber note. The outpost “was our home,” he said, “and they simply couldn’t have it.”
But they were going to try. The Taliban were raining down fire upon the American troops at Combat Outpost Keating, using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), mortars, anti-aircraft machine guns, and small arms to fire into what senior military officials described as a “fish bowl.”
It was a battle that was to last one full day – a day that ultimately became the deadliest of that year for US troops, leaving eight American soldiers dead and 80 percent of the buildings on the base destroyed.
On Monday, in a ceremony at the White House, Romesha, who was wounded in the battle, was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama. Mr. Obama cited the now retired staff sergeant’s “conspicuous gallantry” and adherence to the code of never leaving behind a fallen comrade as he rallied the American force and called in airstrikes to repel the Taliban attackers.
On Tuesday, it was the Pentagon’s opportunity to pay tribute to one of its own as it inducted Romesha into the Hall of Heroes, only the fourth living recipient to be awarded the military’s highest honor for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Romesha “embodies the essence of a soldier, and represents what every man and woman who dons this uniform strives to be,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, the service’s top officer, said during the ceremony.
General Odierno pointed to Romesha’s fellow soldiers from his Bravo troop of the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division, which became one of most decorated units in US military history, earning nine Silver Stars, 18 Bronze Star medals with Valor, and 27 Purple Hearts.
On that October morning in 2009, Romesha, who had already served two tours of duty in Iraq, distinguished himself, repeatedly moving through an open and uncovered avenue on the base, which was being hit with a barrage of gunfire and RPG fire, as he made sure his fellow soldiers were in place and well-equipped.
Romesha at one point took cover near a generator to fire at a Taliban machine gun team that that was on high ground. “After destroying this team,” he turned his sights on another machine gun team “that was firing an overwhelming amount of fire” onto the base, according to the Defense Department’s official narrative of the battle.
As he was doing that, however, an RPG hit the generator and knocked Romesha backward, onto his assistant gunner.
“Not noticing his own wounds, Romesha re-engaged the enemy with his weapon system until an additional soldier arrived to man the machine gun.”
At this point, Romesha moved back along the base’s deadly open avenue to assemble another team and to make sure they were well equipped with ammunition.
It was only when he arrived back at the barracks to put together the team did another soldier notice his wounds and provide first aid.
His shrapnel wounds treated, Romesha assembled a five-man team and told them to load up on ammunition. In the meantime, he went to check on a fellow soldier holding Taliban at bay.
As he did, Romesha grabbed “the only accessible sniper rifle along the way, a Dragunov belonging to the Afghan National Army.”
“With complete disregard for his own safety,” according to the official citation, Romesha “engaged multiple enemy positions,” including a machine gun nest and sniper. He also killed three Taliban fighters who had breached the perimeter of the outpost.
Along the way, the team also secured the ammunition depot and an entry control point that the Taliban was trying to break through.
He and his fellow soldiers then pushed forward 100 meters to prevent Taliban fighters from taking the bodies of US soldiers who had been killed during the battle.
“The Medal of Honor is not often given when things went well on a battlefield,” Romesha pointed out during the Pentagon induction ceremony.
Romesha is part of a “new greatest generation of Americans” that have stepped forward after 9/11, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the assembled audience Tuesday. “This generation has endured enormous hardships and they have done it with tremendous courage.”
As he prepares to depart his post as Defense secretary, Mr. Panetta took time during the ceremony to reflect on the condolence letters he has signed, and “the lives that were cut short in the prime of their life – the promises, the dreams, the aspirations that each of those fallen heroes carried with them.”
He said he hoped their sacrifice would encourage politicians to “carefully weigh when we send American men and women into battle.”
Then he turned to Romesha. “Your courage,” Panetta told him, “is now a part of American history.”