Capping off two weeks of what he described as “travel and adventure,” the nation’s newest Medal of Honor recipient told a group of North Dakotans gathered to greet him at the State Capitol the end of February, “it’s good to be home in North Dakota.”
In a White House ceremony on February 11, former Staff Sargent Clinton Romesha became the fourth living soldier of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to receive the nation’s highest military honor for valor. The next day in another ceremony he was inducted into the Pentagon’s Hall of Honors.
Both events brought together top military and government officials, Members of Congress, former Medal of Honor recipients, Romesha’s platoon members whom he calls “my battle buddies,” and many family members. Romesha received the honor for “extraordinary heroism” during a battle of the Afghanistan War on October 3, 2009, at Combat Outpost Keating, located in the Nuristan Province in the northern part of the country near the Pakistan border.
On the day of that attack, the Outpost, which was located at the bottom of a deep valley, was manned by only U.S. 53 soldiers when it was attacked by more than 300 Taliban fighters. 13-hour firefight Romesha was a section leader of a battalion in the 4th Infantry Division. He led the 13-hour firefight which fought back the Taliban, killing 10 of the enemy despite suffering shrapnel wounds from a grenade. He also directed air assaults to protect the camp and recovered the bodies of the U.S. soldiers who died in the battle.
The battle resulted in eight deaths, and Romesha remembers his fallen comrades every time he speaks about the award, often accompanied by a moment of silence.
“Some say I am a hero, but that doesn’t make sense because I got to come home,” Romesha said in Washington. “I accept this award with mixed emotions. With it comes the helpless feeling that we were not able to save everyone that day. I accepted this award on behalf of all my ‘battle buddies.’”
From that battle, soldiers earned 37 Army Commendations, 27 Purple Hearts, 18 Bronze Stars, nine Silver Stars and one Medal of Honor. A call from the President Romesha was told he would receive the Medal of Honor in a phone call from President Obama in December. It came when he was working outside in a North Dakota oilfield near Tioga. “We visited a bit and he congratulated me, and then I went back to work,” Romesha recalled in a news conference in Bismarck on February 21.
After serving in the Army for 11 years that, in addition to one year in Afghanistan included two tours in Iraq, Romesha decided to leave the service. “I owed it to my family to come home and be a dad and husband,” he said.
He and his wife, Tammy, were middle school sweethearts in northern California. He was raised in Lake City and went to school in nearby Cedarville. The couple celebrated their 13th wedding anniversary while they were in Washington for the February ceremonies.
North Dakota’s job opportunities led Romesha to North Dakota two years ago. His brother-in-law worked in Wyoming for KS Industries, an oilfield service company. “He told me of the company’s plans to open an office in North Dakota.”
Romesha said he had never met anyone from North Dakota. “But it soon became clear that this state was a hidden oasis of opportunity. It had less than two percent unemployment and was full of people with great independent spirit and individualism. It was something I wanted to be part of. It has great opportunities for veterans like me who are entering the workforce.”
The family, which includes three children, Dessi, Gwen and Colin, relocated to Minot. Romesha began his work out of the Tioga office, and quickly transitioned into the safety division. He said it became apparent early on that his military background would be a good fit for that area of work. “My military training taught great values and disciplines and how to follow policies and procedures. It works well with safety issues.”
Living in rural North Dakota has similarities to growing up in northern California, he said. “There is a real hometown feel here. At home we knew who owned every truck that drove through town and people would keep their cars running when they ran into a store. Close-knit communities like you also find here are hard to find these days.”
Romesha says he thinks less about the day of the battle at Outpost Keating and remembers instead the good times and friendships he had with his platoon members. “I remember the barbecues, drinking Dr. Pepper, the hundreds of spades games we played and talking about our goals and aspirations.”
In Minot, Romesha has become involved in veterans groups, and has taken an interest in watching and perhaps someday playing hockey. “On date nights, Tammy and I watch the Minot Minotauros hockey team play, and I am trying to learn how to stay up on skates without falling,” he says.
On March 1, he was introduced and dropped the puck at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks for the University of North Dakota hockey game against Minnesota’s Bemidji State University.
Although he is now a civilian, Romesha views his Medal of Honor as an opportunity to be an ambassador for the military. “The Army will never leave me. I will always be a soldier.” As he reflects on the significance of being one of a very elite group of recipients of the Medal of Honor, Romesha defers the praise, acknowledging instead the teamwork and heroism that is displayed every day by American soldiers.
“There are brave soldiers doing brave things every day. On behalf of all veterans, I want America to know how thankful we are for their support.”