Former Staff Sergeant Clinton L. Romesha was awarded the Medal of Honor this past February for “conspicuous gallantry,” risking his life above and beyond the call of duty, in Afghanistan, on Oct. 3, 2009. Having twice deployed to Iraq, and then to Afghanistan, Romesha was serving at Combat Outpost Keating, in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province, when the outpost was attacked by more than 300 Taliban-led fighters, occupying high ground on all sides, out-numbering the troops at Keating by more than five-to-one, and wielding small arms, rifles, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft machine guns. The soldiers at Keating fought back in what became a 12-hour battle. Romesha was wounded by shrapnel, but went on fighting, continually exposing himself to enemy fire, killing more than 10 of the Taliban-led fighters himself, calling in coordinates for critical air strikes, leading efforts to provide covering fire for injured comrades, and braving overwhelming fire to recover the bodies of the fallen.
Romesha was just one of the veterans who received an award this past Saturday at a banquet in Washington hosted by the American Veterans Center. Also among the awardees was Chester Nez, the last surviving member of the Navajo Code Talkers. As the web site dedicated to them describes it:
They were young Navajo men who transmitted secret communications on the battlefields of WWII” — using encryption based on the Navajo language to send signals the enemy could not crack. From 1942-1945, vital to the American war effort, from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima, they served in every major battle in the Pacific Theater.
Also receiving an award was Lt.-Gen. Frank E Petersen, Jr., the first black aviator and general in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps. Petersen served in the Korean War, flying 64 combat missions, and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and six air medals. He went on to serve in Vietnam, where he flew 250 combat missions, was shot down and rescued, and led a Marine Fighter Attack Squadron, the Black Knights, which received the 1968 Hanson Award for “best squadron in the USMC.”
This amazing lineup went on and on. There was a posthumous award for the late Chris Kyle (the co-author of American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History), whose parents, Wayne and Deby Kyle, came to receive the award for their son. There was a toast to the 80 Doolittle Raiders of WWII, as three of the four surviving Raiders — now in their nineties — gathered elsewhere, at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio, to raise a toast with a bottle of cognac bequeathed to them by Doolittle, and laid down in 1896, the year of his birth.
And at the AVC Honors dinner in Washington, there were also a great many men and women now serving in our military, or preparing to do so.
My husband and I had the privilege of attending this occasion, and there is one comment I will make. While the Master of Ceremonies told some of the incredible stories that went with the awards, the recipients themselves — as well as the assembled crowd — were some of the most modest people you will ever meet, especially in Washington. They did not strut, they did not boast. They did not make it all about themselves. They honored those who fought with them, and they honored the country they fought for. Romesha’s remarks sum it up. He said he was accepting the award not for himself, but for the eight soldiers at Combat Outpost Keating that day who did not make it home. These award winners, and the people applauding them, were not celebrating fame, or glory. It was about something much more than that. It was about keeping faith, and, in a moment when it profoundly matters, rising to meet the test.