President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry to Clinton Romesha, a former active duty Army Staff Sergeant. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
David Jackson, USA TODAY
President Obama awarded the nation's highest military honor Monday to a U.S. soldier who led a counterattack in Afghanistan after he and his comrades were asked to "defend the indefensible."
Clinton Romesha, a former Army staff sergeant, earned the Medal of Honor for leading the defense of a plywood-and-concrete outpost dangerously placed in a valley of the Afghanistan mountains, and staffed by only 53 American troops.
More than 300 Taliban fighters attacked Combat Outpost Keating from above on Oct. 3, 2009. Throughout a day-long firefight, Romesha led efforts to beat back the Taliban after some of its fighters penetrated the camp.
The outpost "sat at the bottom of a steep valley," Obama said, and a later investigation determined that the surrounding mountain terrain "gave ideal cover for insurgents to attack."
That investigation also found that Camp Outpost Keating "was tactically indefensible," Obama said. "But that's what these soldiers were asked to do, defend the indefensible."
Eight soldiers died in the battle and 22 were wounded, including Romesha. CNN anchor Jake Tapper wrote about the attack in his book,The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor.
Romesha, 31, who sustained shrapnel words, cited the "loss of our battle buddies" in a statement to reporters after the Medal of Honor ceremony, saying he has "mixed emotions of both joy and sadness," and is "feeling conflicted with this medal I now wear."
He added: "I accept this tremendous honor on behalf of all soldiers who have served with me that day. This award is for the eight soldiers that didn't make it and for the rest of the team that fought valiantly and magnificently that day. I will forever be humbled by their bravery, their commitment to service and their loyalty to one another."
At the White House ceremony, Obama described Romesha as "a pretty humble guy" who was born in Lake City, Calif., a town of less than 100 people. Now retired from the military, Romesha works in the oil fields of North Dakota.
This is not even the biggest event of Romesha's week, Obama joked, as he and his wife celebrate their 13th wedding anniversary.
In describing why Romesha deserves the Medal of Honor, Obama said he "gathered up his guys" after the Taliban invaded the outpost, "and they began to fight their way back -- storming one building and then another, pushing the enemy back, having to actually shoot up at the enemy in the mountains above."
Amid fire and smoke, Obama said, "Clint stood in the doorway calling in airstrikes that shook the earth all around them."
In saluting all of the Americans at Camp Outpost Keating, Obama repeated that one of the lessons "is that our troops should not -- ever -- be put in a position where they have to defend the indefensible."
He added: "That's what these soldiers did for each other in sacrifice driven by pure love."