The latest Medal of Honor will be awarded on Monday to former Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha for his actions during 12-hour firefight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Steve Inskeep talks to CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper, who told the story of the battle in his recent book, The Outpost.
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It is rare for American troops to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, and it's exceedingly rare that a soldier survives to be given it. Of 10 Americans to receive the nation's highest military honor during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only three of those honors have been living. Today, there's a fourth. President Obama will present the Medal of Honor to former Army Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha. He's being recognized to his resistance to a daylong Taliban attack on Command Outpost Keating, located in eastern Afghanistan. In defiance of normal battlefield wisdom, the camp had been placed at the base of three steep mountains.
JAKE TAPPER: They're in the bottom of a fishbowl. I mean, the troops would spend their days - Clint Romesha and his buddies would spend their days talking about how if they were Taliban, how would they attack this camp.
INSKEEP: That's Jake Tapper, anchor and chief Washington correspondent for CNN. He recounted the attack in a recent book called "The Outpost." That attack began early in the morning of October 3rd, 2009. Gunfire early in the day had become routine for the men of Black Night Troop 361 Cav, who were guarding the camp. But it was soon clear that this was a much larger assault than they had faced in the past.
TAPPER: There were 53 U.S. troops in the camp, and the estimates of how many Taliban were there range up to 400. So it was seven or eight Taliban to one. And keep in mind, you don't need that kind of numeric advantage when you have the advantage of the high ground, but they had both.
INSKEEP: So, Romesha is awakened by this firing. And what did he do then?
TAPPER: He started organizing his men and providing ammunition to the poor guys stuck at the guard posts who were trying to return fire from these Humvees that they were in.
INSKEEP: He was trying to provide ammunition for others. He ended up firing himself, didn't he?
TAPPER: Well, eventually, he started taking more of a leadership role in fighting back. Some of his friends, some of the guys he was closest to - Sergeant Brad Larson and Sergeant Justin Gallegos - were among a group of five men who were trapped in one of these guard post Humvees. And the gun on it had been destroyed by an enemy RPG.
INSKEEP: There's a machine gun on the top of the Humvee and...
TAPPER: That's right.
INSKEEP: ...this isn't working anymore. OK.
TAPPER: It's not working anymore. And so they're just sitting there, and they're sitting ducks. And even though these Humvees are built pretty strong, they're not impenetrable. And they're stuck, and they were worried. And Romesha ran out with another soldier, and they tried to provide cover for the five men stuck in the Humvee. But ultimately, he ran out of ammunition, and the enemy immediately saw where he was, and fired upon him, hit a generator that he was crouching near, and then he had to run back. And ultimately, three of the five men in that Humvee were killed.
INSKEEP: And this is not a single act of heroism or valor. It's a string of things. You describe at one point - you use the word peek-a-boo. He's playing peek-a-boo with a sniper. What was he doing?
TAPPER: He runs out to - Specialist Jack Coppas(ph) is doing guard duty in this one Humvee, and he's running out of ammunition. Romesha runs to the truck, makes sure that Coppas is OK, helps him out with ammunition, and then he sees a sniper. One of the things that's going on here is they have these expert snipers targeting troops specifically, and Romesha is trying to get an idea of where this sniper is exactly in the hills. And in order to do that, he's playing peek-a-boo with him. He's stepping behind the Humvee and then running out.
And the guy fires upon him - the sniper fires upon him, and then he heads back. But he says this is the only way we have of finding out where these guys are. Ultimately, we get to this part in the battle when the enemy are so brazen that they just start walking into the camp. And the call goes out on the radio: enemy in the wire. And it's the worst thing that soldiers can hear, that the enemy is now in their midst. Some of the camp is on fire. Several of the troops are killed. And Romesha sees three Taliban walking in, just walking through the gate, as he says, like Johnny on the block, like nothing's going on. Taliban had thought they'd conquered the camp. They thought it was over.
INSKEEP: What did Romesha do then?
TAPPER: He grabbed a Russian sniper rifle that he'd taken from the aid station in one of his many runs throughout the camp to check on his men, and he killed the Taliban - dropped them like a sack of potatoes, he said.
INSKEEP: Which was not the end of the killing that he had to do that day.
TAPPER: Not at all. At one point, there is a move to try to consolidate and retract, and so the U.S. would only be responsible for five or six buildings, and they would let the enemy have control of the rest of the camp. But Romesha wouldn't have any of it, and he devised a plan to take the camp back.
This is where his heroics really take on a whole new level, as if what he done already wasn't enough. He runs into red platoon barracks, he asks for a group of volunteers, and then they just run into danger. They run first to the ammo supply point. The enemy sees them, is spraying them with as much as they can give them. And then there's this one big building at the front of camp called the shura building. It's where they would have shura meetings with locals.
They don't know who's in there. They don't know what's in there. But they have to run across an open part of the camp with nobody providing any cover. Ultimately, they get in there, they take control of that building, and at this point, they now have this tactical advantage where they are closer to the front of camp and they can start killing more enemy soldiers, and they start doing so. And this is the point in the battle where things start turning around.
INSKEEP: In the end, help arrived. Romesha and a number of other Americans survived. You've said that, in the moment, he was just doing it. It just seemed to him the thing to do. As he had time to decompress and think about it afterward, what went through his mind then?
TAPPER: Well, two things. In the immediate future, October 3rd, 2009, they still have more than half a year of deployment. And though it was obvious Combat Outpost Keating was not going to be around much longer - and, in fact, the U.S. abandoned the base and bombed it a few days later - Black Night Troop still had a job to do until May or June 2010. So it was back to work.
Now, since Clint has gotten back to the United States - he left the Army in 2011 - what he is, is, to a degree, a man haunted by what he could not do that day, the men he could not save, the friend he had, Sergeant Justin Gallegos, who was in that Humvee, who ultimately was killed, and seven other men. And he is so tough on himself. And he is a braver man than I've known. And I've interviewed a lot of brave men, both as a journalist and as somebody who's researched this outpost, and talked to a lot of people who have been heroes, and Clint stands out among them. And yet he just thinks about the men he was not able to save.
INSKEEP: Jake Tapper of CNN is the author of "The Outpost," a book that tells the story of Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha, who's receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor today. Thanks very much.
TAPPER: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.