By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
It was a hell of a way to wake up.
Concentrated fire from rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft machine guns, mortars and small arms ripped through the air at the complex in Afghanistan in which Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha and his team had been sleeping in the early morning hours of Oct. 3, 2009.
An estimated 300 enemy fighters surrounded them.
Romesha’s actions in the hours that followed would earn him the highest award for valor in combat that can be given to members of the armed forces: the Medal of Honor. Most have been awarded posthumously. Romesha is among just 70 living recipients, and, at age 31, he is one of just four younger than 60.
He was honored Thursday in a ceremony at the Pittsburg State University Veterans Memorial, where an engraved paver honoring him will be installed alongside more than 3,000 other pavers. He also spent time speaking with students about leadership and service, and he will be on campus again Friday for two events.
Although Romesha has no direct connection to the university — he grew up in a small town in California — administrators thought his story was one from which students could learn.
“His story is one of valor, of leadership and most importantly self-sacrifice,” said PSU President Steve Scott during the ceremony.
“The same skills that served him so well in the military are now helping him improve operations, reduce risks and ultimately save lives: leadership, critical thinking, strategic planning, crisis management. These are the same skills that we work so hard to develop with our students at Pittsburg State.”
Pat Flynn, an assistant professor in PSU’s School of Construction who oversees the state’s first bachelor of science degree program in environmental and safety management, spearheaded the initiative to bring Romesha to campus.
The new program’s first three students will graduate in December.
Flynn said he believed they could learn much from Romesha, who after leaving the Army in 2011 became a field safety specialist with an oil field construction company in North Dakota.
“Not only does he have field experience to share, but he can also talk about leadership skills and crisis management in a very personal and important way,” Flynn said.
While on campus, Romesha spoke about those experiences with a class of environmental safety students and spent time with ROTC cadets in the Department of Military Science. He will be a guest tonight at the Gorilla Battalion spring awards ceremony.
Serving his country was what Romesha had always planned to do. His grandfather served in England in World War II and was in Normandy two days after the invasion. His father served two tours in Vietnam, and both of his brothers served.
Romesha enlisted in the Army 30 days after turning 18.
“I’m a small-town boy,” he said. “I just knew I was going to serve. Three years turned into six, and six turned into 11 and a half.”
Deployments took him to Germany, Kosovo, South Korea and Iraq, and finally Afghanistan. There, he was assigned as a section leader for Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
That October day in 2009, Romesha moved under intense enemy fire to conduct a reconnaissance of the battlefield and seek reinforcements from the barracks. He took out an enemy machine gun team. While he was engaging a second team, a rocket-propelled grenade struck the generator he was using for cover and peppered him with shrapnel.
He continued to fight and continually exposed himself to heavy enemy fire as he moved about the battlefield engaging and destroying multiple enemy targets.
Maintaining radio communication with the tactical operations center, he orchestrated a plan to secure and reinforce key points of the battlefield, and he directed air support to hit more than 30 enemy fighters.
He and his team provided covering fire to allow injured soldiers to safely reach aid, then pushed forward under enemy fire to prevent the enemies from taking the bodies of fallen U.S. comrades.
“We lost eight great soldiers that day on Oct. 3,” Romesha said. “I carry them with me in my heart every day, but then you come and you see such beautiful things as this, and people coming together in a community to make sure we never forget that service and sacrifice.”
In February, President Barack Obama presented him the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House. His other decorations are many. Among them: Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal (with two Oak Leaf Clusters), Army Achievement Medal (with four Oak Leaf Clusters) and Global War on Terrorism Medal.
Romesha said it was truly an honor for him to be recognized at the Veterans Memorial, “to witness such an awe-inspiring memorial you guys have dedicated for our soldiers.”
But he doesn’t seek the spotlight or easily accept accolades for his actions, preferring to recognize the work of others.
“You see, every day, great heroes among us,” Romesha said. “And you see that great American spirit in remembering those service members who gave the last measure of devotion and sacrifice for this country, defending and honoring the values we hold so dear to our hearts. Remembering them allows them to live on.
“I’m a simple guy — just a guy doing a job that day.”
Of that day, Romesha said, “It’s always there.
“It’s a huge chapter in my life, that day. But I don’t want that to be my defining moment in my life. I have other things. My children, who are 11, 4 and 2, I take pride in. And there is still a lot of life left to live, still a lot of influence I can have and ways I can serve.”
The public may meet and hear from Romesha at a presentation at 9:30 a.m. Friday in Room S102 just inside the main entrance to the Kansas Technology Center.
IN ADDITION TO THE PAVER honoring Clinton Romesha, two other pavers at the PSU memorial honor Medal of Honor recipients Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart — both Delta Force snipers. They died after saving the life of Michael Durant, a pilot whose Black Hawk was shot down in Somalia during the Battle of Mogadishu. The story was the basis for the movie “Black Hawk Down.”