CNN CNN


 

Return to Transcripts main page

CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

An American Hero: The Uncommon Valor of Clint Romesha

Aired February 7, 2013 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to get to this special shortly.

But we want to give you a quick update on two important stories we're following, starting with the manhunt for an alleged killer.

Authorities say he's got the means to inflict mass casualties and a mission calling for precisely that. This is the man police all across Southern California have been trying to find and may now be one step closer locating, Christopher Jordan Dorner. You probably know his name by now.

He's an ex-Navy reservist, ex-LAPD officer with a grudge against the LAPD. He's allegedly killed three people already. If you see him, do not approach him. Get someplace safe and then contact authorities. Police have located his burned-out truck near Big Bear Lake. That's about 100 miles east of Los Angeles.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN MCMAHON, SAN BERNARDINO SHERIFF: We did find some tracks around the vehicle, but they did not lead to the suspect. We're continuing to work with our partners.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: We did also learn that the FBI went to the suspect's home in Las Vegas. We do not yet know, however if they recovered anything from there.

Other news, the snow monster getting ready to hit the Northeast. Take a look at the projected accumulations, up to three feet in Boston, as much as a foot in New York, the product of two converging weather systems coming together producing as much as three inches of snow an hour in places and gale-force winds. Nearly 3,000 flights have been canceled already. Amtrak is curtailing train service. The whole mess should peak late tomorrow afternoon.

And now a special report by CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper. He tells the really heroic story of a former staff sergeant, Clint Romesha, who is receiving the American military's highest honor, recognition for leading his fellow soldiers during one of the deadliest attacks against forces in Afghanistan.

This is the story of that battle and of extraordinary courage.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): October 3, 2009, a storm of bullets, rockets, grenades and mortars rain down among a remote U.S. outpost in Eastern Afghanistan deep in a valley.

The Taliban had found a perfect target, Combat Outpost Keating, one of the most vulnerable American military outposts in Afghanistan, studied by the enemy since it was set up three years before, as seen in the Taliban's own video.

Time and again since the post was created in 2006, its defenses were tested by the Taliban. But on that October morning in 2009, the enemy staged its fiercest attack yet. The high ground and their vastly superior numbers gave the Taliban a huge advantage. Eight Americans would be killed in a battle that lasted from dawn until dusk and would come to symbolize the end of a military strategy to hold remote mountainous outposts constantly under attack.

But from the blood and embers, these faces of heroism, soldiers laying down their lives for their brothers, bravery rarely matched in American military history.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Good evening. I'm Jake Tapper.

In the more than 11 years that the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan, more than 2,000 Americans have been killed in that war with more than 18,000 wounded. Also during that time, Presidents Bush and Obama have awarded six American service members the highest honor one can receive, the Medal of Honor, for actions in that war. Three of those awards have been made posthumously.

On Monday, President Obama will award the seventh American service member the Medal of Honor, former Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha, who lives here in Minot, North Dakota.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): It's 4:45 a.m. The sun is not yet up, but Clint Romesha sure is, beginning his commute to his job as field safety specialist for an oil field construction firm, leaving his wife and three children behind. It's a dark 90-minute drive, plenty of time to reminisce about another place on the other side of the world, Afghanistan.

STAFF SGT. CLINTON ROMESHA (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Can't stop but think about Jones strumming away on that guitar.

TAPPER: That's Private Chris Jones who often lightened the mood for his fellow soldiers in the middle of the war zone.

ROMESHA: Jones playing that guitar and his quirky little songs him and Copas (ph) would make up. It was always a memory that gives a little chuckle to my heart whenever I look back.

For me, you know, I don't -- I don't sit there and try to reflect on the bad stuff.

TAPPER: Long before the bad stuff, Clint Romesha lived an idyllic life in Lake City, California, with his parents, two older brothers and two sisters. Both brothers joined the military after high school, following in the footsteps of their father, a Vietnam veteran.

ROMESHA: We all looked up, you know, to dad, looked up to my grandfather, World War II vet. It's just a whole family of service, that I always knew I was going to serve, always wanted to serve.

TAPPER: He joined the Army in 1999 and operated tanks in Kosovo. By 2001, Romesha was stationed in Germany. On 9/11, a colonel called the troops together.

ROMESHA: He let us know that there had been two planes that flew into the World Trade Center and that our lives were about to change and to be ready, you know, take the training to heart.

TAPPER (on camera): You are getting emotional talking about that, remembering that. Why?

ROMESHA: You know, it was an emotional day for everybody in America. You know, it was one of those things that the average American just didn't see coming and, you know, I had never thought that terror would be that close to our front door.

TAPPER (voice-over): By 2004, the U.S. would be waging war on two fronts, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, where Romesha was sent as a tank driver and gunner. On his second deployment in 2006, Romesha became a scout.

ROMESHA: The idea of being a scout, sneaking around, having your most effective weapon being the fact that no one knows you're there and having that radio on your back to call in for the help and the support to engage and destroy the enemy was, you know, just -- it was one of those Hollywood jazzy jobs that always excited me.

TAPPER: As Romesha was sneaking around Iraq, his wife, Tammy, was raising their first daughter, Des, in San Diego. Military couples deal with separation differently. Some talk and e-mail constantly. Others, like Clint Romesha, find they must concentrate solely on the mission of staying alive.

ROMESHA: It was hard to sit there and make those phone calls and hear about, you know, Dessi and her first day at school or, you know, her first words. You know, it -- just couldn't do anything about it. To have that distract you, you know, for me personally, was something that wasn't the time and place. You know, focus on the mission. Focus on getting the guys home.

TAPPER (on camera): Romesha's next deployment would be to Nuristan Province in Eastern Afghanistan to Combat Outpost Keating, a base that many American soldiers thought never should have been built at all. (voice-over): Outpost Keating was built in 2006. With so many troops and assets deployed to Iraq, those in Afghanistan had to make do. One part of the strategy was to build small outposts as the U.S. pushed into Eastern Afghanistan. The location was a trap, evident from the moment Romesha's unit arrived in May 2009.

(on camera): What was your first reaction?

ROMESHA: First reaction was I think the same as everybody that stepped foot on that (INAUDIBLE) this is a pretty indefensible spot.

PRIVATE 1ST CLASS CHRIS JONES (RET.), U.S. ARMY: I thought we were supposed to be on top of a mountain? This is crazy. I mean, that's how I felt. Shooting up? But you just -- I was there. I can't be like, this is stupid.

TAPPER: The outpost was in the Hindu Kush mountain range in a part of the world where you are either on a mountain or in the valley below. In order to be near the population and the road, so it could be resupplied, Combat Outpost Keating was at the bottom of three steep mountains.

Soldiers had been fatally attacked there before, in 2007, Private Chris Pfeifer, in 2008, camp commander Captain Rob Yllescas, and near there, a different camp commander, Captain Tom Bostick. As lethal as its position was the outpost's terrain. The camp was named for Lieutenant Ben Keating, killed when his truck rolled over the treacherous side of the road leading to the camp.

ROMESHA: I knew it was a bad spot, and I knew that previous commanders had expired there. But to sit there and dig up every, you know, every little detail on it, you know it just -- it wasn't healthy for the guys to be exposed to that kind of information.

TAPPER (on camera): So your very first day at Combat Outpost Keating, there was an attack. And a soldier with the platoon leaving, Shane Schearer (ph), got a massive head wound. Other guys got sprinkled with shrapnel.

ROMESHA: To have that instant -- you know, that instant action and that reality check right off the bat really helped set the tempo to know what to prep the guys for, but it also gave you that instant sense of, we're not over here selling Girl Scout cookies, guys. We're in a real fight.

TAPPER (voice-over): Romesha and his men knew it was not a question of if there would be a major attack, but when.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): The troops serving at Combat Outpost Keating were easy targets, stuck deep in a valley in the Hindu Kush mountains.

ROMESHA: When you open up the manual and look in to find the definition of finding a defensible spot, this is the total opposite of it.

JONES: There's always room for improvement. You couldn't really improve that place. You know what I mean? I mean, you could build a whole wall, but that wall is just going to stop them so much. They could still just look down in, you know, like, hey, how is it going?

TAPPER: And for all the risk, Staff Sergeant Romesha knew the base was providing little to the locals and nothing to the larger mission in Afghanistan.

(on camera): The camp was set up there in 2006 to do a number of things. One of them was to bond with the locals, to establish close ties, to convince the people in that part of Afghanistan to trust the Afghan government, to allow projects to create commerce. By 2009, were you doing any of that?

ROMESHA: From my perspective, we weren't doing a whole lot of that. Being shorthanded, you know, our main concern was security for ourselves.

TAPPER: There was nothing being achieved other than defending the outpost itself; is that accurate?

ROMESHA: That's a fairly accurate analogy of it.

TAPPER (voice-over): Romesha and his buddies spent countless days and nights pondering a Taliban strike on the base.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have taken three rounds up here.

TAPPER: The most logical, the most effective ways to hit it. The possibilities weighed on Romesha and his friend Sergeant Tom Rasmussen.

SGT. THOMAS RASMUSSEN, U.S. ARMY: We talked about how we would do it if we were going to overrun an outpost like that.

TAPPER: Just before sunrise on October 3, 2009, the inevitable happened.

ROMESHA: The same plan we came up with is exactly how the enemy hit us.

TAPPER: Over the previous few months, Combat Outpost Keating had seen small attacks before, but this one was different.

RASMUSSEN: When the attack first happened, I was sleeping. I had just gone to bed a couple hours before that, and I had woken up to some explosions going off and machine gun fire outside. So I ran our usual defense drills and threw a pair of pants on and my vest and ran outside. Didn't really realize how big and heavy it was until about 10, 15 minutes into the fight. JONES: I woke up to an explosion. I just grab my machine gun and my ammo and I go out the door.

ROMESHA: So I remember getting my stuff on and turning my radio on to get a sit-rep, a situation report, from the guys. And you could just tell that this was something serious.

TAPPER: Because of the steep mountainsides, the base relied on the men in the mortar pit who had heavy weaponry to strike at targets in high angled positions where the Taliban would take cover.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There it is. Boom.

TAPPER: That morning, the Taliban in the surrounding mountains focused their initial intense fire on the mortars in the corner of the outpost. Private Kevin Thomson ran to man a machine gun and was immediately killed.

From that moment on, manning the mortars was impossible.

ROMESHA: The enemy knew what our reaction plan was. They understood our weapon systems and our capabilities and, initially, right at first, they disabled one of our more capable ones to fight back.

RASMUSSEN: It was definitely coordinated. You could tell immediately that they knew what they were doing. Several guys had their, you know, weapons shot out of their hands.

TAPPER: The Taliban snipers embedded on the mountainside aimed at soldiers as they scrambled out of their barracks to start defending the base. Sergeant Joshua Kirk was killed while trying to return fire, Specialist Michael Scusa as he ran to deliver ammunition.

Staff Sergeant Romesha continued rallying his troops against the onslaught.

JONES: Bombs just kept coming in, coming in, coming in. I mean, I could barely hear myself think.

TAPPER: The radio crackled with bad news, five men pinned down inside a Humvee, including Romesha's close friends, Sergeants Brad Larson and Justin Gallegos, and they did not think they could last much longer.

ROMESHA: Gallegos was calling up that they were totally ineffective in that position. They had no more ammo left. They were getting hit from every which way.

TAPPER: Romesha identified several enemy sniper positions, then radioed that he would provide cover so his buddy Gallegos and the others could escape the Humvee.

ROMESHA: I called Gallegos to let him know, I have got a machine gun in position. If at all possible, I will throw down as much fire as possible if you guys think you can make it out. TAPPER: But the enemy fighters soon had Romesha and Specialist Justin Gregory in their sights.

ROMESHA: I mean, everything was a target. And I was trying to cover everything at once. When I made -- the fatal mistake I would try and teach my guys was, don't get fixated. Keep your head on a swivel. And I was focused on straight to the west.

And I didn't see how the enemy had snuck up to my right-hand side and fired an RPG into the generator I was on. It blew me over on to Gregory, who's to my left.

TAPPER: Romesha helped Gregory, then grabbed the last belt of ammunition and started firing.

ROMESHA: He took off running back to the barracks and there was muzzle flashes everywhere. You just couldn't pick him out fast enough.

TAPPER: But, ultimately, there wasn't anything Romesha could do to help Gallegos and the other four men.

ROMESHA: I tried to hold it as long as I could. And when you are the only machine gun talking on the COP at that point, you start drawing quite a bit of attention.

And finished out the belt, scurried on back, and I called Gallegos and told him told him I was sorry, just told him I was sorry. I couldn't -- I couldn't hold that position for him anymore. And they were still stuck.

TAPPER (on camera): Clint, you can't -- you are one guy with no ammunition facing 400 Taliban. And all of them have the high ground.

ROMESHA: You can always try, though.

TAPPER: You did.

(voice-over): The chaos continued elsewhere on the base. The 20 or so Afghan soldiers had fled or were hiding. Taliban sniper fire was keeping air support at bay. And Clint Romesha was wounded.

ROMESHA: As I was finally making it right back to the barracks to where there was some cover, Raz had stopped me. And I think he said something to the effect of, dude, you have got a hole in your arm.

RASMUSSEN: There's blood coming out of his arms. And I asked him what had happened. And he said he got hit with an RPG. And I asked him if he wanted me to put a pressure dressing on it. And he said, yes, go ahead. And it was still bleeding at the time, so I just took a couple of minutes and put a pressure dressing on it, try to get the bleeding to stop real quick, and we just kept going on.

TAPPER (on camera): At some point, the worst possible thing that could happen, happened. ROMESHA: Yes.

TAPPER: The Taliban were inside the camp.

ROMESHA: Yes.

TAPPER (voice-over): The call went out on the radio, enemy in the wire, the last four words the soldiers at Combat Outpost Keating wanted to hear. The enemy was in their midst.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): The 50 troops at Combat Outpost Keating were facing overwhelming odds. Up to 400 Taliban fighters were surrounding them, attacking them from the high ground.

Three Americans had already been killed in the onslaught. Five more were pinned down in a Humvee, and three were trapped in the mortar pit. And now the Taliban fighters were inside the camp.

Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha was taking stock.

ROMESHA: I was trying to get an assessment of who we still had left and what our ammo situation was looking like, because we were getting pretty critically low.

TAPPER: Sergeant Joshua Hardt approached him with a plan.

ROMESHA: Hardt came up to me in the barracks and he said he was going to get a group of guys and they were going to grab one of the extra Humvees.

TAPPER: Hardt said that he and a few others would run to a different truck outfitted with a .50-caliber machine gun, drive it towards the Humvee where the five troops were pinned down and provide cover for them to escape.

(on camera): Do you think Hardt thought he was going to be successful?

ROMESHA: Hardt had all the determination in the world in everything he did. But I knew it was going to be a hard a hard fight for him.

I remember talking to Hardt about before he goes over there that he needs to find a good position to put that truck in, because that was one thing, you know, I tried to teach the guys, that dead bodies attract more dead bodies. Unfortunately, I let him talk me into it. I gave him the OK.

TAPPER (voice-over): Hardt and Privates Chris Griffin and Ed Faulkner Jr. grabbed ammunition and ran to the truck. Griffin mans the gun and Faulkner started driving. On the radio, Hardt spoke to Sergeant Justin Gallegos, still trapped in the Humvee.

ROMESHA: And I remember listening to him on the radio, the conversation between him and Gallegos, and Gallegos just, you know, telling him, this -- this isn't a good spot. You can't do a whole lot. You know, stay away. Stay away.

TAPPER: Hardt was determined and continued on until a rocket- propelled grenade exploded near his vehicle. Faulkner tried to back up, but the Humvee was stuck. Insurgents targeted them with more grenades.

ROMESHA: I mean, it seemed like an eternity, but such a moment that just passed in an instant that Hardt came across the net and said, I have got an RPG pointed right at me, and that was the last we heard from Hardt.

TAPPER: Hardt and Chris Griffin were killed, as Faulkner scrambled back to the barracks. Romesha went to the aid station to get an assessment of the dead and wounded. He grabbed a Russian sniper rifle that had belonged to an Afghan soldier and walked outside.

ROMESHA: I remember seeing three guys walk right by the entry control point.

TAPPER (on camera): Three Taliban?

ROMESHA: Three enemy fighters. I mean, like they thought they'd already won, strolled in like Johnny on the block.

And I sat there, and it threw me for a second, just one of those "Are you serious?" moments.

TAPPER: But they didn't see you?

ROMESHA: They had no idea I was sitting there. Got this Russian sniper rifle still, and they are less than 100 meters away, or this is a give-me. This is a freebie. Posted up and dropped the guy in the middle.

TAPPER (voice-over): Elsewhere on base, Private Chris Jones encountered a similar scene.

JONES: I look up and they look like workers, you know. And that can't be workers. They got guns on them. All this is happening in seconds, you know what I mean? And so I was like, dude, let's light them up, man.

TAPPER: But the odds were heavily stacked against the few soldiers left defending the base.

ROMESHA: We started engaging the other two. And at that point it was, this ain't good.

TAPPER (on camera): They are on the base.

ROMESHA: They are on the base. Hardt is over in that area. We'd lost contact with Gallegos.

TAPPER (voice-over): Five Americans had been killed. The mortarmen were cut off from the rest of camp. The enemy was overrunning the outpost. But for Clint Romesha, the fight was just beginning.

ROMESHA: We couldn't just sit there and take it anymore. We had to be aggressive.

TAPPER: Working with Lieutenant Andrew Bundermann and Sergeant 1st Class Jonathan Hill, Romesha devised a plan to drive out the Taliban and reclaim the outpost.

(on camera): Throughout all of this, did you ever think, this is it; I'm not going to get out of here?

ROMESHA: No. It's like a fighter going into the boxing ring. If you think you're going to lose before you even step in the ring, you have already lost.

ROMESHA (voice-over): Romesha decided he would run to the north side of camp with a small team, and first secure the ammo supply point.

Meanwhile, Sergeant Hill would push a separate group of U.S. troops to the south side. Romesha's team would gain control of the gate, save the men stuck in the Humvee and then get to the mortar pit.

(on camera): Pretty audacious plan, considering you had enemies strolling through the camp. What made you think you could do that?

ROMESHA: Seemed pretty simple to me at the time. I mean, we bound like a team. We were starting to get some good air support on station at that point. And it was time to find our guys.

TAPPER: Trying to save their brothers would mean a daring dash across the base. Braving a barrage of enemy fire. And hoping that it wasn't too late.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER (voice-over): It was midmorning, October 3, 2009. At Combat Outpost Keating in a remote corner of Afghanistan, a handful of American soldiers were fighting for their lives. With enemy fighters now freely roaming the base and five Americans trapped in a Humvee, Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha knew it was now or never.

ROMESHA: We had to be aggressive. We had to show them -- you know, with them just strolling through the front gate like they owned the place, we couldn't let them do that.

TAPPER: Romesha's plan was to secure the north side of camp. And he would need others to join him.

ROMESHA: I asked for volunteers and gave them a quick idea of the plan. I said, "We'll take this bitch back." And to watch Raz and Delaney and Jones, Lieutenant Miller. They just followed, you know. They didn't hesitate. Didn't question.

CHRIS JONES, FORMER PRIVATE FIRST CLASS, U.S. ARMY: I would rather go out there and let them kill me, and I'll kill a few of them than just sit here and let them do it.

TAPPER (on camera): You ran right into places where others have been killed. You weren't worried? You weren't afraid?

ROMESHA: There wasn't time to be.

JONES: There's few people I would follow to hell and back. And Romesha is one of them.

TAPPER (voice-over): Romesha and his men pushed out of the Red Platoon barracks with the ultimate goal of making it to the Shura building. They would travel this route, and the enemy would unleash an intense concentration of fire. The Americans returned fire in every direction.

ROMESHA: I remember seeing a Taliban fighter coming straight up, straight up the road, unslinging his AK and yelling at him to stop. And I brought my M-4 over the top. Started engaging as I'm yelling to get down, and Raz (ph) starts prepping grenades out of his pouch.

And Dan Lee takes one to the shoulder. Drops to the ground. Dan Lee was lying there grabbing his shoulder. Picked him up. Grabbed a field dressing to patch him up with and shoved him in the direction of the aid station. He made the mad dash.

TAPPER: But there were still Taliban fighters in the American camp. Over the radio, the camp's lieutenant in charge told Romesha to stand by, but Romesha felt he had no time to lose. So he pretended his radio was broken.

ROMESHA: I knew we still had enemy in the wire, and I got tactically impatient. I was worried that, like I said, we were going to finally make it out to positions and find no bodies left to bring home. So we came out Red Platoon barracks.

TAPPER: Securing the north side of camp and recovering the bodies of his brothers would mean storming a building with no idea who might be in there. The plan: Rasmussen would fire a grenade. Romesha and Delaney would burst in, sweeping the room with machine gunfire.

ROMESHA: We got the head nod from each other. That's when I asked, are you guys ready to follow me into this?

TAPPER (on camera): What did Raz say?

ROMESHA: It was something to the effect of, I'll follow you anywhere.

SGT. THOMAS RASMUSSEN, U.S. ARMY: You look back, and I could see the determination in his eyes and not give up. And every time you looked at him, you were ready to keep going. I don't think anybody better could have been in the position. And I think he was definitely meant to be there that day.

TAPPER: Romesha, Rasmussen and Delaney recaptured the building and with it a better view of the enemy. Romesha and his men began calling in targets to be hit by air support.

But across the compound, five men were still stuck in that Humvee, and no one had heard from them in far too long. They were feared dead, including Romesha's friend, Sergeant Brad Larson. Suddenly, surprising news.

ROMESHA: Lieutenant Bonderman called me on the radio and said, "You wouldn't believe it, but Larson is still alive."

TAPPER: And so were two others trapped in the Humvee.

ROMESHA: Bonderman asked, "Do you think you could put enough firepower out to cover their move if we coordinate this with an air strike?"

I told Bonderman, "Yes, we'll make it happen."

ROMESHA: Lieutenant Andrew Bonderman coordinated with a B-1 bomber to target the village of Urmul, which had become a staging ground for the enemy.

TAPPER (on camera): What was it like when you heard that bomb dropping on Urmul?

ROMESHA: Damn, that's close. I mean it was -- it was close.

TAPPER: Big bomb?

ROMESHA: Massive bomb. It was like being inside the bass drum. I mean, just compressed and just intense.

I remember calling back to Lieutenant Bonderman and telling him, "I'm not a structural engineer but I don't know how much longer this mud hut can take it."

And he called back and said, "Do you want me to stop and return the call?"

I said, "No, keep it coming. We'll deal with it later."

ROMESHA: As the bombs began dropping, Romesha and his troops sprinted out of the building and into the open, spraying fire toward the enemy. And providing cover for the three survivors in the Humvee to run to safety.

When we return...

(on camera): Clint, you're so tough on yourself. You were braver that day than most of us can imagine being.

(voice-over): Valor and tragedy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't see the muzzle flashes? Muzzle flashes.

TAPPER (voice-over): After six hours fighting for their lives, Clint Romesha and the men of Combat Outpost Keating took the attack to the Taliban. With the help of air support, they'd freed Brad Larson and two others from the Humvee, where they'd been pinned down for hours.

(on camera): Your buddy Larson shows up in the Shura building. You thought he was gone.

ROMESHA: I remember just giving him a hug. I've known Larson since he'd came in the service. We've been together forever.

TAPPER (voice-over): By now, most of the camp was on fire. But Larson was alive and equipped with vital supplies from the barracks.

ROMESHA: He brought the platoon drink with him, knowing that our barracks might be the next that catches on fire and burn into the ground. So he grabbed his last -- his 12-pack stash that he'd kept in the barracks on his way out. And a carton of my Camel lights.

TAPPER: It was a rare moment of relief during one of the worst firefights in the Afghan war.

ROMESHA: We sat there for a moment. We opened up one more Dr. Pepper, and even though it was warm, room temperature, you know, me, him, Raz, we shared one more. Warmest Dr. Pepper you could ever imagine, but, man it was good. It was good.

I sparked up a cigarette. First one I had all day. I'm sure my wife would have been proud of me. And then it was back to business.

TAPPER: Air support and uncommon valor had turned the tide. The Taliban fighters were now being pushed back. Romesha now faced a critical part of his mission. Recovering the bodies of the fallen.

ROMESHA: My biggest fear was the enemy was going to start taking the dead, and that wasn't -- that wasn't going to happen.

TAPPER: Tell me why it's so important to you that the enemy not get their hands on a dead American soldier. Why does that thought bother you so much?

ROMESHA: Because they're ours. I mean, to give closure to the family. You know, to have their son one more time. I mean, we're not going to leave someone behind. Never going to do it.

TAPPER (voice-over): The men retrieved the bodies of Justin Gallegos, Vernon Martin and Chris Griffin. But enemy fire kept them from rescuing Sergeant John Breeding and two other men still trapped in the mortar pit.

ROMESHA: I had to call Breeding up on the radio and once again let him know that we could still cover him from the Shura Building and would still overwatch him, but at that point I had to apologize once again. We couldn't make it.

TAPPER (on camera): Clint, you're so tough on yourself. You were braver that day than most of us can imagine being. And I can still hear it in your voice when you talk about talking to Sergeant Breeding or talking to Sergeant Gallegos, as if you failed that day. You didn't fail that day.

ROMESHA: Yes, but it's -- you know, I told them I'd be there for them. Like I said, my granddad used to teach me that, you know, when you tell someone you're going to do something, you do it. You know, your actions is what makes you.

And I know I'm hard on myself, but, you know, it still hurts to tell Sergeant Breeding that I was going to make it to him, but I just couldn't.

TAPPER (voice-over): Later, Romesha would find out Breeding and the other two men in the mortar pit survived.

Planes and helicopters now filled the valley with a quick reaction force on the way. But the day's grim toll continued. Joshua Hardt's body was found. Stephan Mace had been rescued from the Humvee, but his wounds were too much to bear. The death toll reached eight.

(on camera): That night sounds surreal. Most of the camp has now burned down. Still enemy in the mountains, a few, taking pot shots. You guys sleep in your barracks. Blue Platoon sleeps near the aid station. Jones takes out a guitar. Starts playing songs. What's going through your mind?

ROMESHA: Refocus. We've still got nine more months of deployment. This wasn't the end. We've still got to keep going. We've still got to fight. We've still got a job to do.

TAPPER (voice-over): The day after the attack, Romesha and some of the other men stop to take this picture.

Clint Romesha made it home in 2010, and he left the Army the following year. He lives in Minot, North Dakota, now, working as a field safety specialist for an oil field construction firm.

ROMESHA: A lot of everything we do with this is the same thing. We're following standard operating procedures. We're following policies. Rules and regulations. And, I mean, that is exactly what we did in the military. We had policies that were written in blood, just like out here in the oil field.

TAPPER: And after 11 1/2 years in the Army, much of it overseas, Romesha is also focused on catching up with his family.

(on camera): Is that good?

ROMESHA: It was that time. It was, you know, time to be a father and a husband.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Uh-oh.

ROMESHA: Uh-oh, what-oh?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mouth.

ROMESHA: Your mouth?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nose.

ROMESHA: Nose? You don't want to watch my movies?

TAPPER (voice-over): Clint Romesha was living a quiet life until an unexpected phone call.

(on camera): Was it just, "Hold, please, for the president"?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hello, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Minot's Maysa Arena.

TAPPER (voice-over): It's a Friday night in Minot, North Dakota. Townspeople are converging on the local ice rink to catch the town's junior hockey club, the Minot Minotauros. Clint Romesha is here with wife Tammy. The Californians are still getting used to North Dakota.

ROMESHA: When I came up here, I was hoping to learn how to skate, do a hockey stop and take a shot on goal without looking like too much of a clown.

TAPPER (on camera): How far have you gotten with that?

ROMESHA: So I can fall now. I've gotten that one successfully down.

TAPPER (voice-over): Hockey may be big news in Minot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we are so happy to have Staff Sergeant Romesha here tonight.

TAPPER: But tonight Romesha is the star.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On February 11, 2013, President Barack Obama will award Clinton Romesha, a former active duty staff sergeant, the Medal of Honor for valor.

TAPPER: The Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor that a service member can receive. Romesha is about to become only the fourth living recipient to have served in Afghanistan.

(on camera): Where were you when President Obama called you to tell you?

ROMESHA: I was out on a job site covering our pipeline crew up here in North Dakota.

TAPPER: Was it just, "Hold, please, for the president"?

ROMESHA: When I picked up the phone on the unavailable number that popped up and the secretary was on the other line, you know, she asked me if this was Clint Romesha, and I confirmed yes. And she told me that "President Obama would like to talk to you."

At that point, you're just kind of are sitting there going, OK. Just Clint Romesha. This is weird. And I just remember telling him that, for me, it's -- it's not about me. You know, it was everybody that day up at COP Keating. So many other guys that day made this happen.

TAPPER: Are you uncomfortable receiving the Medal of Honor?

ROMESHA: I was doing a job. And I know that there are so many great soldiers out there that would have stepped into my shoes and done the same thing. I just feel that I just did a job.

TAPPER (voice-over): But that job on that day was horrific. Eight friends killed. More than 20 wounded. Other survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. One soldier with horrifying PTSD who served at Combat Outpost Keating with Romesha died from a drug overdose. They are, to no small degree, haunted.

(on camera): How much is Afghanistan in the rear-view mirror for you?

ROMESHA: I still reflect on my time in Afghanistan. But when I'm doing that, I'm thinking of the quirky little songs that Jones used to play. I'm thinking of that Dr. Pepper that Red Platoon, you know, that was our drink forever. I'm thinking of the days in the gym, you know. I'm thinking about the constant, you know, teasing going back and forth between Mace and Kopas (ph).

TAPPER (voice-over): For Clint Romesha, it's all about the buddies he served with, the ones he led that day, and the eight men who did not make it back.

ROMESHA: When you sit there and, I mean, you look to your left and your right you see those battle buddies, you know, on the ground, squeezing those triggers at that point, those are who depend on you, and those are who you depend on. That's who I do it for.

The situation we're in, in the here and now, regardless of how we got there, you know, being the team player and knowing I've got his back and he's got mine. That's what I reflect. That's what I -- what motivates me.

TAPPER (on camera): President Obama will award the Medal of Honor to Clint Romesha on Monday at the White House. He will also be honored at the Pentagon on Tuesday, after which he will come back here to Minot, North Dakota, and continue with his new job.

Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan continues. More than 60,000 American service members are right now in that country fighting that war.

I'm Jake Tapper for CNN in Minot, North Dakota.