Editor’s note: Below are the video and transcript to remarks given by Medal of Honor recipient Clinton Romesha at the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s 2017 Restoration Weekend. The event was held Nov. 16th-19th at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida.
Clinton Romesha: I can’t begin to describe to you guys what an honor and a privilege it is to be here tonight. I get to share a story with you guys that eight Americans don’t get to tell themselves, so when I tell you I am truly honored and blessed to be here tonight to talk, it’s because I get to put a little weight on each and every one of you of the weight that this little blue ribbon of silk and this little medal kind of bear down. The Metal of Honor is not given out when things go well. It’s given out when things have gone horribly, horribly wrong and it comes at a price that would gladly be returned just for one more minute, to share one more beer, or say one more goodbye to anyone of those eight guys I served with.
I grew up in a small town in northern California. I grew up in this military family. Like Peter said, my grandfather served in World War II. He’d share stories, not about the war or anything like that, but the camaraderie, the brotherhood, the guys you served with, my dad, two tours in Vietnam, the same thing. He didn’t talk about the horrors of war; it was the camaraderie. Those guys that you’ll meet, that you’ll spend time with out in the field that you’ll never forget, and that any time in your life when you need help, they are one phone call away. My oldest brother, my second oldest brother followed the same footsteps. And so when I joined the military, it was one of those things I wasn’t sure why I wanted to join, but I knew upon graduation – and I’m not joking at all when my parents gave me luggage as a graduation present – that I had to get out and do something with my life. So as an 18‑year-old kid, I went ahead and signed up, and I signed up in 1999. There wasn’t a whole lot going on then. The U.S. was at relative peace. The global war on terrorism hasn’t kicked off yet. I joined at the time where most of the guys joined and was doing it for the G.I. Bill, the college money. I spent some years in the Army and then all of a sudden September 11, 2001 happens. Our whole world changed; what we thought was a relatively peaceful existence. I’m a kid from the ‘80s and ‘90s, where Nintendos were awesome and fuel prices were cheap, and hamburgers were readily available.
I, as an 18‑year-old kid, got to go to Kosovo on my first deployment ever and see first-hand what true tyranny was, something I think more Americans should be exposed to because we get born and from birth, being an American, we get given something that we can easily squander, and that’s our freedom. To go and see that first-hand, watching Albanians and Serbians killing each other strictly because they are in a civil war, and they just hate each other for who they are really put into perspective for me being a punk 18‑year-old kid that used to complain growing up in this northern California town that I had to drive 45 minutes to the nearest McDonald’s.
So as I continued my military service, it was one of those things; I never I’d thought I’d do more than 4 years, honestly. I thought I’d probably be kicked out or arrested or thrown in jail for one of my silly shenanigans, but the military was always a good fit for me and it was those guys I was with, those brothers, those soldiers in arms that carried me to my first deployment where, when I initially joined, my father, who like I said, did two tours in Vietnam – and when I graduated high school, I was still 17 and initially tried to go in immediately after graduation – wouldn’t sign for me as the guardian. He told me, “Clint, we are a nation of peace right now. If you join the military, maybe not tomorrow and maybe not in 20 years, but you might have to go and do and see things that no man should ever have to go and do and see, and I won’t sign for you,” and I was pretty irritated.
But it wasn’t until that first combat deployment that I truly knew what my dad was talking about. Gay Wetzel has a great quote. He’s a Vietnam recipient. “War is not glorifying, it’s horrifying, and it’s something I don’t think anybody should have to go through, should ever have to see, should ever have to experience.” But it’s a necessary thing that so many Americans will continue to raise that right hand and go, “My Army, the Army I left was an all-volunteer Army.“ I never had to serve during a time of a draft. Everybody I served with put up that right hand and said I will go and do and I will up my freedoms to go and do that. And because of that when you give up those freedoms, you get put in positions that are less than what I call ideal.
Combat Outpost Keating was a position that was less than ideal. It sat at the bottom of a valley surrounded by mountains on all four sides. I remember getting there and after the first couple of days getting settled in; I’m kind of old school, maybe I was born in the wrong generation. I just got social media. I don’t really tweet things. I don’t really Instagram things. I write letters. I love writing letters. And I remember upon getting there, I wrote a letter to my grandmother to let her know I was in Afghanistan. Everything was good and I just kind of basically wrote her, “Grandma, this is some of the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever seen. Growing up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, these mountains in Afghanistan blew those apart.” And I told her about looking up every morning and seeing the mountains and the sunrise, and the foliage and the trees, and this and that, and it was about a week, a week and a half later my grandma sent me a reply, and her letter starts off with, “What the heck are you doing looking up? Everybody knows you take the high ground.“ My grandmother, who is 86 now, knew at that time that when you defend a position you don’t sit in a valley.
And as a leader, I was very worried. That was my third deployment. I’d been in for almost 10 years at that point. To sit there and tell these kids, first deployments ever, 18, 19, 20‑year-old kids, to be in a position like that, how do you keep them motivated? How do you keep them focused? How do you keep them on the mission? Because really, in a sense, we didn’t quite have a mission there at COP Keating. We didn’t have the manpower to patrol the villages and to win this hearts-and-minds campaign that was going on. It was still very kinetic but instead of being an infantry platoon of 42 guys, we were a CAP platoon of 21, so we had almost half the numbers. And because of the location where COP Keating set, the only way to access it was by helicopter and helicopters would only fly at night and only the darkest nights. Because of the way they had to come into the valley, there was really only one way in and one way out. They were an easy target for any Taliban fighter with an AK, so we didn’t get refitted all the time. The priorities of the helicopters came with ammunition, water and fuel. We got a shower once every 7 days. We got a hot meal once every 3 to 4 days and for 3 months, this carried on, and we kept getting told that someday very shortly, we will close this outpost. The military knew it was not ideal. It was later deemed tactically indefensible and to sit there and continue to motivate your guys to let them know that we will get through this.
This will be some of the best times of our lives looking back. And upon getting there, there was a little saying that one of the previous units had written on one of the beams in our barracks room, and the phrase simply said, “It never gets better.“ And we looked at the phrase initially and it was like, yeah, this place sucks. We’re sleeping with the fleas. We don’t get hot showers. We don’t get food very often. I mean you really get to know the smell of your guys after 7 days. But we looked at that saying and it’s so inspiring to be around these young men, these future leaders of our military, and we used that saying not as a negative thing. It was very much a positive thing for our platoon. It never got any better because we made every day we were there the best day of our lives. No matter how bad things got, no matter if that helicopter was finally bringing mail in and he accidentally dropped it into the river right next to the LZ and we got soaked care packages, it was still a great day. You know why? Because we were there with each other.
We had finally gotten word that they were going to close that outpost. We had ran through an election that year, which had delayed us. There was a certain individual that went missing for a while. I’m not going to name any names, but Bowe Bergdahl took that away from us, that was supposed to get us out of that valley earlier and did not, but October 3, 2009 happened. Six o’clock in the morning, bright and early, the Taliban hit us, and it was not uncommon to be woken up around that time. We normally would call it our Taliban alarm clock. Normally around that time, you’d take a couple of rounds in, maybe some mortar fire, maybe some RPGs, some recoilless rifle, but that morning I remember when I woke up to the initial contact, there was just something in the air, and this was different. I mean we were 2 weeks from leaving this place but the Taliban had a different timeline for us. Immediately waking up, throwing my kit on, turning my radio on and hearing the reports from the perimeter, every defensive position was calling up overwhelming, accurate enemy fire. Our defense tried to go into what we call a cyclic rate of fire with their weapons, meaning their machine guns, their Mark 19s. They tried to fire back as much and as fast as they could, but it wasn’t enough. The aircraft and the close air support, unfortunately, had been relocated earlier due to said person missing and what was supposed to be about a 20-minute flight to reinforce us was going to be well over an hour, and we knew we had to hold on for at least an hour for the attack helicopters to get there, the fixed wing aircraft, something else to help us out. Within that first hour, unfortunately though, the Afghan Army that was with us abandoned their position, rolled out of the wire, took first casualties within first rounds at the mortar pit and was totally suppressed. OP Fritchey, which held our second platoon that would help in a firefight, was on the verge of getting overran themselves, so in that first hour, we ended up losing four guys, had no air support, enemy was in our wire, had isolated us from our ammo supply point, and we went to owning about a three-building area.
As that day went on, things just got bad to worse. At one point, I said to myself and Specialist Gregory, “Try to take a machine gun position over to help five guys that were stuck in a Humvee isolated”; tried to return fire and cover their move to get out of there and was unable to do it. It’s a really disheartening thing when you are sitting there and you can hear your battle buddy on the other end of the radio about 100 meters away from you telling you there is nothing you can do. And as the RPG came in, hit the generator, wounded me and my assistant gunner, we knew that we only had about 100 rounds left and that there truly was nothing we could do. That sense of almost helplessness but also a sense of complete loyalty that we had to do something. That wasn’t working; let’s figure out the next step. We displaced back from there. Sergeant Hart, one of my team leaders, came up to me and had said, “Sergeant Romesha, we found some more 50‑cal ammo,” as we were isolated from our ammo supply point, and there just happened to be a couple of boxes somewhere in the barracks they found. He said, “I think I can get this 50‑cal ammo to that extra truck to reload that 50 that’s been empty since this morning.“ “Take a couple of guys, push over with armored support and try to get Gallegos and Larson and Mace.“ And I remember sitting there talking to Hart back and forth, “Brother, it’s not going to happen. I can’t set any sort of north side security, your flanks are totally exposed.“ I mean, it was a suicide mission. But Hart, like so many of the guys I’ve served with that day, so many guys I served with not only that day but my entire military career, this attitude, this idea that failure is not an option; there is still breath left in our chest. We can still go and do something.
I reluctantly told Hart, “Okay, go ahead and do it,” because I knew when he walked out that door of the barracks that would be the last I’d see him. And Hart pushed out and they were able to get to that Humvee. They were able to reload that 50. They were able to get that Humvee moved out and pushed to Gallegos. The entire time Gallegos was calling them, “Brother, you’re just a target. Get out of here.“ But Hart kept pushing, and one of the most chilling things I ever heard come across the radio came when Hart keyed the net and said they got an RPG pointed right at me and that was it. Upon hearing that, came back to the barracks, linked up with my lieutenant at the tactical operations center, who my lieutenant, first deployment ever. Just by the happenstance of things, our troop commander was not there that day and Lieutenant Bunderman, a brand new lieutenant from Minnesota, was the on-the-scene commander running the entire battle. We came up with a plan. “You know, if we’re going to go out, we’re going to go out in a blaze of glory. Let’s take this bitch back. Let’s lead a counterattack.“ And he trusted me to do that. And I ran from one end of those barracks and I asked for a group of volunteers. And it was one of the most proudest moments of my life. Essentially, we had three buildings in our control and at that point, we’d call it the Alamo position, where if you were an American announcing your way coming in through that door, you were getting shot because everybody that had a gun with whatever ammo they had left was just pointing at those doors waiting for the enemy to come. And when I walked in and I said I need a group of volunteers, I had five guys stand up, didn’t even know what I was about to ask next, just that I needed guys. They said, “We’ll follow you anywhere.“ And, I told them what we’d do. We’re going to take back the ammo supply point. We’re going to shut the front gate and we’re going to go find our heroes, and we managed to, by the grace of God, whatever you want to call it, luck, divine intervention, skill, training, we were able to capture the ammo supply point, push the enemy off that, continue to feed ammo back to the rest of the unit. We started getting some good close air support on hand. From there, we were able to push up to the front gate, push the enemy off that, close and secure it, and that’s when I got one of the best radio calls I ever heard.
My other team leader, Sergeant Larson, who I had went on the previous deployment with, I mean we were tight; he was my best friend and at this point, I thought he’d been dead for almost 8 hours. Hadn’t heard anything from that position. I get a call from Lieutenant Bunderman that says you won’t believe this, but Carter and Larson are still alive, Mace is badly wounded and if you can provide them covering fire, I’m going to bring in a B-1 bomber to do a bomb drop and under the cover of the bombs and your fire, they are going to grab Mace and bring him back. And we pushed out and that happened.
Larson came back, dropped Mace off at the aid station, who called me up shortly afterwards, asked where my location was and what did I need. I told him we were at the front gate and I hadn’t drunken all day, and I hadn’t had a cigarette so could you please bring the Dr. Pepper and candle lights. And it was one of those crazy things that even in the midst of all the stuff going on, when Larson showed up, we took a pause and it was only for maybe a minute or so, and we cracked the Dr. Pepper and we took a drink of that warm fizz water, lit up a cigarette, took a couple of drags and that’s when Larson told me Griffin is just outside the shear building wall here, Martin was last seen over by the shitters, Gallegos is laying down in the trench near the Humvee. I don’t know where Hart’s at though. So, we came up with the final portion of the plan, which was push out and bring these guys home because one of the scariest things and one of the tactics that the Taliban had been pulling on us for years was capturing the bodies of dead soldiers. And there is nothing more horrific than not being able to bring one of your brothers home, so their family can have closure. To understand that if the roles were reversed, Gallegos or Hart or Mace or Griffin or Scooza or Martin or Thompson, they’d come get me, so we were going to go get them, and we pushed out. We found Martin, found Griffin, found Gallegos, but it came to the point where we couldn’t find Hart and we got stretched too thin. We were still waiting for the QRF to show up and finally the call came across from Lieutenant Bunderman that we had to pull back, hold position and wait for them to come down off the mountain. We went almost 15 hours before help showed up. When Chosen Company pushed through though, as they did their clearance and sweep, they found Hart’s body and after 15 hours, we finally had accountability on all eight that were lost that day.
I stand up here today, like I said, to be able to share that story, to say those names so they are never forgotten. It’s a truly tragic thing in life, especially for our heroes, is to be forgotten. As long as we always remember their service, their sacrifice, their commitment, and what I got to see that day wasn’t a group of guys that were fighting because they hated the enemy. That was the farthest thing from it. We were fighting because we loved each other so much that it didn’t matter what the odds were, what the sacrifice was going to be. That’s what motivates soldiers, sailors and airmen, Marines, to do what they do every day. It’s not out of hate. It’s not out of anger. It’s out of pure love for each other. That was an amazing thing to behold and I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them. I said I am not a hero. I think that is a word that we have very much cheapened in my generation. We call people that throw footballs heroes, that take knees heroes. I can tell you this right now, I’ve never seen anybody take a knee to do the right thing. They always stood up to do it.
I always felt that I was a warrior, that I was surrounded by other great warriors, that the only time we should ever say the word “hero” is to remember those that never got to come home. I’d like to leave you with this thought tonight. Receiving the medal was a huge chapter in my life. I am honored that I got selected to wear it but it is not mine. It is for all of those that have ever served, all of those that continue to serve, and all of those that will have to serve in the future to make sure what we have today is never taken away. Where I will finally be successful in life, my proudest moment, my crowning achievement will be when my three kids grow up and they understand what service and sacrifice is, and carry it on into the future and pass it on to their kids, my grandchildren. That’s when I’ll know I have done something good in life. And I challenge each and every one of you to do something today that not only makes yourself better but those around you better, and never forget it’s that next generation that will carry this forward and it is not passed through their DNA, it is passed through the memories and stories, and their service and sacrifice, that if they do not do, it will be lost.
Thank you very much, truly, again. It’s an honor and a pleasure.