1 May 2016

When military makes mistakes, lessons need to be learned

By Howard Altman 
April 25, 2016

Medal of Honor recipient Clinton Romesha is seen at the American Veterans Center annual conference in Washington, D.C., Nov. 9, 2013.

Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes

TAMPA (Tribune News Service) — When Clinton Romesha was a boy, his father taught him life lessons.

“It’s OK to make mistakes,” was one of them, Romesha told me last week over the telephone. “One of the greatest teaching tools is that you can learn from mistakes.”

On May 3, Romesha will have a chance to share a lesson about a 2009 battle that cost American lives at a remote outpost in Afghanistan because of a series of mistakes.

That’s when “Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor” is released by Dutton publishing. It’s the former Army staff sergeant’s harrowing first-person account of a 13-hour attack by the Taliban that killed eight American soldiers at the outpost, called Combat Outpost Keating, or COP Keating.

Set up three years earlier, below towering cliffs, with a helicopter landing zone across a river, COP Keating was an undefendable backwater and a sitting duck for the men stationed there under the watchful eyes of the Taliban.

“I would like to think that the lessons were learned,” Romesha said.

On Feb. 11, 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Romesha the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the East Room of the White House.

“It was probably the most awkward I’ve ever been in my life,” Romesha said. “It was one of those situations where I am getting recognized for something that came with such adversity for eight others who did not make it home and many others who walked away with wounds. To get the spotlight of attention was really quite awkward.”

Next month, the spotlight will return to Romesha. But far more importantly to him, it will also return to a battle that took place Oct. 3, 2009.

Much has been made over the years about the debacle in Benghazi, in which a U.S. ambassador and three others were killed by jihadis in a Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consular center and annex in that city.

Killed were Ambassador Chris Stevens, ex-Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, and U.S. Foreign Service information officer Sean Smith, whose estranged father Ray was a Vietnam War veteran living in Gulfport until his death last year.

At COP Keating, the men who died were Sgt. Justin Gallegos, Spc. Chris Griffin, Sgt. Josh Hardt, Sgt. Josh Kirk, Spc. Stephen Mace, Sgt. Vernon Martin, Spc. Michael Scusa and PFC Kevin Thomson.

The attack and the decision to place troops in such an indefensible location were the subject of “The Outpost” by CNN anchor Jake Tapper, published 32 days after the Benghazi attack, but the incident never received the attention garnered by the Libyan attack.

For so many reasons, chief among them that we are still placing American troops in harm’s way all around the globe, including about 10,000 still in Afghanistan, I have always thought it should. So I jumped on the chance to interview Romesha.

The book, which he co-wrote with Kevin Fedarko, is an amazing read.

It’s a gripping account of men in desperate combat against an overwhelming enemy who watched their every move from on high.

Despite all the factors that helped create the predicament, including the hunt for missing Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, which tied up aviation assets needed to close down COP Keating earlier, Romesha takes pains to point out the folly of second-guessing.

“Soldiers who have experienced combat, however, understand that armchair quarterbacking and rearview-mirror criticism is shallow and often misguided,” Romesha writes. “It’s easy to second-guess decisions based on their ramifications, and to assign blame after things go wrong. Considerably harder is accepting that in combat, things can and will often go wrong — not because of bad decisions but despite even the best decisions. That is the nature of war.”

“Red Platoon” is also an amazing read because as I turned the pages, I never got the sense of Clinton Romesha “super hero” but of one guy, wounded by shrapnel, helping his teammates survive against tremendous odds, one of several who could have earned the spotlight that Romesha found so awkward.

Though Romesha repeatedly dodged enemy fire and helped organize a counterattack, that assessment is more than OK with him.

“One of reasons for doing the book was to give those guys with me that day the chance to voice what they saw and heard ... and be able to give them credit that was most definitely deserving to them.”

If you read the book, and I highly recommend it, you will see that Romesha is not merely offering lip service.

COP Keating was set up in an effort to stem the flow of Taliban and Al-Qaida fighters from Pakistan, about 12 miles to the east.

Keating, however, violated the most basic principals of martial wisdom — you are pretty much screwed if the enemy has the high ground and is looking down upon you.

But that wasn’t Keating’s only problem. Just to the north, hundreds of insurgents and foreign fighters tried to seize another remote village, called Bargi Matal, considered key to the Afghan government’s efforts to win the upcoming election. Efforts to resupply troops there sucked up the aviation resources needed to dismantle Keating.

That issue was further was exacerbated on June 30, 2009, when Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl disappeared from his base. When it was learned that he had been taken by the Taliban, efforts to get him back “sucked up every last Chinook and Apache,” the final straw in any efforts to shut down the untenable COP Keating.

I asked Romesha his thoughts about Bergdahl, who was eventually traded for five Taliban leaders imprisoned in Guantanamo and is now awaiting a court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

“I’d like to continue to see the Uniform Code of Military Justice implemented the way it was meant to be,” Romesha said. “I look at it strictly on what justice is based upon, with the politics out of it. Let people understand in my eyes, he was a deserter, hands down, for leaving his post. Regardless of what his intent was, he still abandoned his guys. Still left his post. He is a deserter in every sense of the definition.”

Does Romesha blame Bergdahl for what happened at Keating?

“I can’t hold that against him. It was a contributing factor, not to say he was the reason. The reason was that the Taliban put forces together. They trained, prepared, did reconnaissance. They were motivated and wanted to sit there and do what they did. It was the Taliban’s choice. Not the choice made by Bowe Bergdahl as he left his troops.”

Red Platoon is a story that should be required reading at military academies, non-commissioned officer training and any other place where those who teach lessons learned to those who make decisions about how and where and when to put troops into danger.

Though in his book, Romesha says he does not want to assign blame, the narrative of the battle, against the backdrop of how it unfolded, it leaves the reader with no choice but to at least question why COP Keating was allowed to exist. So as a reader who gets a chance to talk to the author, I pushed Romesha on the subject.

“When these young man and women raise their right hand, they no longer have the ability to say, ‘This is flat-out stupid. This shouldn’t happen,’” Romesha said. “Anyone can know that this was not the best position to be in, and things were identified and red-flagged that we could have done to help the odds, give us a little better chance. But this whole hindsight, what-if, is not really a healthy thing to concentrate on. What we know is what happened.”

Romesha said the fact others might learn from what happened gives him “hope and satisfaction.”

“I would like to think that lessons were learned. Time will only tell, but for a lot of my buddies who are still in, COP Keating is one of the huge teaching points in professional development for lieutenants and senior NCOs and officer corps. That settles my mind and lets you know the event wasn’t in vain. It puts my soul at ease and puts things in a little better perspective.”

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