Clinton Romesha: The Next American Hero Warrior

Credit: Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

These days, if you want to get to Clinton Romesha — former U.S. Army staff sergeant, Medal of Honor recipient, author of the just-published memoir Red Platoon, and prime candidate to become America's next celebrity warrior — then you better be prepared to get past his brothers-in-arms. A couple of minutes after rumbling onto a 1,600-acre East Texas ranch, where Romesha was hog hunting with a few of his military brethren, I had my first encounter: two thickly bearded men wearing wraparound glasses who approached my vehicle in a Polaris ATV and barked at me to follow them. The guy riding shotgun was holding a MAC-10.

After driving through a warren of dirt roads, we arrived at a farmhouse. A barrel-chested commando type was patrolling the driveway with a massive AR-15. "All clear," he muttered toward his shoulder, presumably into an unseen microphone. With that, the Polaris team led me to the backyard. Next to a patio table littered with cigarette packs, cans of beer, and cartons of bullets sat two more grim-looking men and a gray-haired woman, one of the ranch's owners.

"Can I help you?" she asked. I told her I was there to see Romesha. "Well, he's Clint," she said, pointing at one of the men from the Polaris. I knew that wasn't him. "And he's Clint," she said, pointing at another guy. "And he's Clint," she said, nodding toward a third. They all glared at me.

As the silence lingered, I thought back to Romesha's memoir and his deep ambivalence about the way the Medal of Honor singled him out. And as I stood there, I wondered if he'd orchestrated this "I am Spartacus" display to show some pinko journalist the true meaning of brotherhood and sacrifice. Then I felt someone put a hand on my shoulder and say, "I'm Clint!"

The real Romesha, now 34, was smiling at my side — 5-foot-6, wearing Oakley shower sandals and a baseball cap, and sporting an Old Testament beard that made him look more like a veteran of Antietam than Afghanistan. Immediately they all roared with laughter.

"We had to do something," Romesha said as he hopped into a patio chair, cracked open a beer, and lit up a Camel. "But I was a little worried that you were going to call 911 when they showed up with the MAC-10."

A few hours later, Romesha began reflecting on his life since October 3, 2009, the day he and a group of 52 American soldiers stationed at Combat Outpost Keating, in Afghanistan, spent 13 hours repelling an attack from 300 Taliban. Around his wrist he wears a black band engraved with the names of the eight fellow soldiers who didn't make it home.

When Romesha arrived at Keating, he had already served 10 years in the Army, with two combat deployments in Iraq. But Keating wasn't like anywhere he'd ever seen. Surrounded by steep mountains that offered the Taliban elevated perches from which to direct sniper fire, the base, Romesha writes in Red Platoon, was "the most remote, precarious, and tactically screwed outpost in all of Afghanistan."

In Romesha's telling, the men forced to defend this ill-placed turf were also more MASH than Zero Dark Thirty. The troop's first lieutenant, Andrew Bundermann, introduced himself to Romesha by telling him, "I like to chew tobacco, I like to drink beer, and I don't like to work very hard." Thomas "Raz" Rasmussen — who was one of the "Clints" I'd just met — admitted that he joined the Army not out of any sense of patriotic duty, but because he "never graduated from high school, was living in people's basements, and used to be a fucking meth addict."

Exposing these imperfections was Romesha's aim: Red Platoon was to be the anti–Lone Survivor, a frank portrayal of what it's like to be a grunt in the military rather than an elite Navy SEAL. To do that, Romesha focused on the unit as a whole, rather than his personal biography. (There's barely a mention of his Mormonism or his "old Nevada ranching family," for example.) The result reads more like a work of adventure journalism than autobiography, balancing simultaneous story lines as the grisly battle unfolds.

"The agreement was that if I was going to do the book, it was going to take a coordinated effort between everybody," Romesha said, "and that's what we compiled together."

Even now, giving an interview about his book, Romesha was surrounded by other Red Platoon members, and as the Medal of Honor recipient talked about his literary achievement, Rasmussen piped up: "You know that he can't write his own name half the time."

Brad Larson, Romesha's best friend, piled on: "If it was just Clint, the book would have gone, 'I went and fucked these dudes up one day.' " Both Larson and Rasmussen were awarded the Silver Star for their own efforts at Keating.

In Red Platoon, it doesn't take many pages before this ragtag bunch comes under attack. Just before dawn on that fateful day, 300 Taliban fighters barrage the base with RPG launchers, AK-47s, mortars, and antiaircraft machine guns, and Romesha responds by grabbing a machine gun and "eliminating" as many enemies as he can. Then, as the Taliban overrun the outer perimeter of the base, Romesha has a grim vision of what will come next.

"If help didn't arrive in time, we'd be looking at hand-to-hand combat as the enemy systematically worked its way from one structure to the next, killing us off pocket by pocket," he writes. So Romesha organizes a counterassault, bursting into the only barracks that isn't on fire and announcing to the soldiers, "We're taking this bitch back." With a six-man team, he embarks on a mission to recapture the compromised portions of the base. "What we were doing wasn't really a military move as much as a gangster-style football play," Romesha writes, and there's a heavy dose of absurdity in their valor.

When a simultaneous grenade toss turns a Taliban hostile into a cloud of "pinkish mist," Rasmussen yells out, "Holy crap, did that just happen?!" Later, Larson asks Romesha if he can run back to the barracks in the middle of the battle to grab Dr Peppers and Copenhagen chewing tobacco. Romesha says he can.

"People think that every soldier is just this perfect model of badassery," Romesha said as we sat on the patio, motioning at Rasmussen and Larson. "We weren't Special Forces operators. We weren't special anything! We're average combat veterans who signed up to do the average combat job. Everyone had a shitty day, but together we were able to overcome so much."

When Romesha returned to the States in the spring of 2010, after seven more months in Afghanistan, he got anything but a hero's welcome. He'd lined up a position working security for the Department of Energy, but the job fell through because he'd suffered hearing loss in the service. So he called up his brother-in-law, who worked in the North Dakota oil fields.

Soon Romesha found himself as a swamper on a hydro-excavator truck, a low-man-on-the-totem-pole job that required him to spend hours standing in freezing mud. Then, in late 2012, he got a call to come to the Pentagon. When a group of military brass announced he'd be receiving the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award, he zoned out for a second, then snapped back. "I said, 'For what? There are eight other guys that deserve this more than me.' "

The week he won the award, in February 2013, Michelle Obama invited him to the State of the Union address. First he accepted, he says, then he pulled out when he realized the speech fell on the one night that he could hang out with his Red Platoon brothers in D.C. "I'll give the president all the cred in the world," Romesha said. "After I told him, he looked over at Michelle and said, 'Clint's not going to make it tomorrow. You're going to have to find someone else.' "

The following week, the Army booked him on talk shows in New York. He didn't so much thrive in the spotlight as do what he needed to do to survive it. "My wife requested Rachael Ray," Romesha said. "I showed up hungover." Then he went back to North Dakota and found that being a Medal of Honor recipient was becoming a full-time job.

Romesha's father, who served in Vietnam, had never spoken with his sons about the experience, but Romesha grudgingly realized that the medal demanded he take a different path. "I learned that if you don't tell your own story, then someone else will," Romesha said. Still, he worried that he'd be seen as cashing in, especially when he pursued Red Platoon, for which Sony Pictures optioned the movie rights in January. "I struggled with it for a while."

Romesha now works full-time, more or less, as a Medal of Honor ambassador, and he's become used to the requirements and opportunities that come with the distinction — whether that's board appointments with the Patriot Project or Sportsmen for Warriors, or hanging out in the locker room with the NHL's Minnesota Wild. Over the years he's also figured out a way to make the trappings of the medal work for him. As he sat on the patio, surrounded by Larson, Rasmussen, and the rest of his crew, he told me that he had come up with a policy of sorts: If someone wants to honor him or host him, he's usually happy to comply, but they also need to honor a simple request. "I say, 'You want me there?' " Romesha began, nodding toward his Red Platoon brothers. " 'Then you gotta bring these assholes with me.' "

Red Platoon is available on Amazon or in stores now.