The only comprehensive, firsthand account of the fourteen-hour firefight at the Battle of Keating by Medal of Honor recipient Clinton Romesha, for readers of Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden and Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell.
“‘It doesn't get better.’ To us, that phrase nailed one of the essential truths, maybe even the essential truth, about being stuck at an outpost whose strategic and tactical vulnerabilities were so glaringly obvious to every soldier who had ever set foot in that place that the name itself—Keating—had become a kind of backhanded joke.”
In 2009, Clinton Romesha of Red Platoon and the rest of the Black Knight Troop were preparing to shut down Command Outpost (COP) Keating, the most remote and inaccessible in a string of bases built by the US military in Nuristan and Kunar in the hope of preventing Taliban insurgents from moving freely back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Three years after its construction, the army was finally ready to concede what the men on the ground had known immediately: it was simply too isolated and too dangerous to defend.
On October 3, 2009, after years of constant smaller attacks, the Taliban finally decided to throw everything they had at Keating. The ensuing fourteen-hour battle—and eventual victory—cost eight men their lives.
Red Platoon is the riveting firsthand account of the Battle of Keating, told by Romesha, who spearheaded both the defense of the outpost and the counterattack that drove the Taliban back beyond the wire and received the Medal of Honor for his actions.
“A vitally important story that needs to be understood by the public, and I cannot imagine an account that does it better justice that Romesha’s.”—Sebastian Junger, journalist and author of The Perfect Storm
“Red Platoon is sure to become a classic of the genre.”—Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers and In the Kingdom of Ice
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I come from an old Nevada ranching family with military traditions that date back to my grandfather Aury Smith, who took his brother's place in the draft during the summer of 1943 and eventually wound up getting sent into Normandy as a combat engineer just a couple of days after D-day. Six months later, Aury got himself stuck inside the besieged perimeter of Bastogne with the 101st Airborne Division during the Battle of the Bulge. Somehow he made it through, then finished out his time in Europe helping to put on USO shows as a bareback rodeo rider.
Almost thirty years later, my dad was sent to Vietnam. And although he never said a single word about either of the two tours that he pulled up near the Cambodian border with the 4th Infantry Division, which was known to have taken some horrendous casualties during that time, his silence carried enough weight that all three of his sons enlisted in the military.
My oldest brother, Travis, enlisted in the army right after high school, participated in the invasion of Haiti, then later transferred to the air force. Next in line was Preston, who hitched up with the marines. By the time I was a senior in Lake City, California, a town so tiny that our high school graduating class numbered only fifteen, my brothers assumed that I would join up too, despite my father's hopes that I might break the mold and follow the path he'd laid out by enrolling me in the Mormon seminary I had been attending since ninth grade.
My brothers were right. I joined the army in September of 1999, and was assigned to Black Knight Troop, a mechanized armor unit whose sixty-five men were spread across three platoons: Red, White, and Blue.
In military jargon, Black Knight belonged to the four-thousand-man 4th Brigade Combat Team, which itself was part of the twenty-thousand-man 4th Infantry Division. In laymen's terms, what that boiled down to was that I was a tiny cog nestled deep inside the world's largest and most sophisticated war machine. It also meant that I was part of the very same infantry division in which my dad had served.
My first deployment was to Kosovo, where we performed peacekeeping duties and saw very little action. But following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, I volunteered to go to Iraq. After a fifteen-month detour through Korea, I found myself commanding an M1A1 armored tank in Habbaniyah, an area about fifty miles west of Baghdad that sits directly between Ramadi and Fallujah. There we spent the better part of 2004 battling hard-core Al Qaeda fighters who specialized in improvised explosives. We took an average of roughly one IED strike per day.
At the end of that first Iraq deployment, we were sent back to Colorado and the entire unit was reclassified from heavy armor to light reconnaissance so that we could start preparing for the type of fighting we'd eventually be facing in Afghanistan. As part of that transition, I was shipped off to school to learn how to be a cavalry scout. Eleven months later, in June of 2006, we were back in Iraq, this time in a place called Salman Pak, about twenty miles south of Baghdad along a broad bend of the Tigris River and not far from a notorious military installation rumored to serve as a keystone of Saddam Hussein's biological and chemical weapons program. It was also a hotbed of extremist militia, and they did their best to make our lives as miserable as possible.
This was where my new training really began to kick in.
A cavalry scout is generally thought to function as the eyes and ears of a commander during battle. But in fact, a scout's role extends quite a bit further. We refer to ourselves as "jacks-of-all-trades, masters of none," and we are trained to have a working familiarity with-quite literally-every job in the army. We are experts in reconnaissance, countersurveillance, and navigation, but we're also extremely comfortable with all aspects of radio and satellite communications. We know how to assemble and deploy three-man hunter/killer teams. We're pretty good at blowing things up using mines and high explosives. We can function as medics, vehicle mechanics, and combat engineers. And we have a thorough understanding of every single weapons system, from a 9-mm handgun to a 120-mm howitzer.
Many soldiers find it challenging to master such an eclectic skill set. So it was odd that it all came so easily to me. Prior to the military, I found school to be quite difficult, especially when it came to abstract ideas. But these new disciplines came to me so instinctively that it was almost disturbing. Regardless of whether it was small-unit tactics or maneuvering an entire company's worth of armor, the logic seemed inherently obvious. What's more, I loved every aspect of being a scout-although I had a particular knack for something called "react-to-contact" drills, which involved coming up with a combat plan on the spur of the moment as the shit was hitting the fan.
There were two things, however, that didn't come easily at all.
The first had to do with the position in which we found ourselves in Iraq, where we were consigned to a reactive role, and where we found ourselves bound by strict rules of engagement, or ROEs, that prevented us from shooting first-which meant that we were usually able to return fire only when attacked.
I found this intolerable not only from a tactical standpoint but also at a psychological level. And to compensate, I developed an unorthodox style of leadership that hinged on provoking a reaction from the enemy. When I was leading an armored convoy, for example, I would often order my tank driver to abruptly switch lanes, taking the entire column down a city street directly against the flow of traffic, forcing oncoming vehicles to get out of the way or risk head-on collision. At the extreme end of things, I would even use myself as a decoy. To ferret out snipers, for example, I would climb onto the sponson box, a big rectangular storage compartment on the turret of our lead tank, pretend it was a surfboard, and balance myself out there as we clattered through the streets of Habbaniyah, daring any Iraqi marksmen to take a shot at me and expose their positions.
Often these tactics worked well, although they never fully relieved my frustration with the rules of engagement. But as impossible as I found the ROEs, this challenge was dwarfed by a second problem, one that arose as an inevitable consequence of serving in a leadership position in a war zone.
What I found harder than anything else, by far, was witnessing one of my guys get killed. The first time this happened to me was just outside of Sadr City, and it involved one of the finest soldiers I've ever known.
The summer and fall of 2007 was a bad time for all three frontline platoons in Black Knight Troop. By this point we were several months into a new strategy in which the administration of George W. Bush attempted to stabilize Iraq by sending in five additional brigades while extending the tour of almost every soldier who was already on deployment. While the surge did lead to a drop in overall violence, for reasons that remained mysterious (and which may simply have resulted from bad luck), our troop started getting hit harder and more often. In September, one of White PlatoonÕs team leaders got shot in the back, and although he survived, the bullet severed his spine and paralyzed him from the chest down. Not long after that, White lost two other men to a roadside bomb. And then, in September, Snell got hit.
Eric Snell was a thirty-four-year-old scout when I first met him in Iraq, but even as a newly enlisted private he'd managed to stand out as something extraordinary. He had been drafted as an outfielder for the Cleveland Indians straight out of high school in Trenton, New Jersey, but he had decided to forgo a career in the major leagues and instead focus on academics. He got a degree in political science, then moved to South Africa to work as a project manager for AT&T. He could speak French and he'd lived in Italy. He was also good-looking enough that he'd been recruited as a male model, appearing in magazines like Mademoiselle, Modern Bride, and Vibe.
Snell had the entire package, and he brought all of it to the task of being the type of soldier that did everything perfectly. You never had to give him an order or an instruction twice. He learned fast and he learned well. He showed initiative and he demonstrated leadership. In fact, that only thing that seemed even remotely off about the guy was the confusion he provoked among the rest of us over why he had signed on as an ordinary soldier in the first place.
"For Chrissake, Snell, you got all this education and all these credentials," we'd say to him. "Why the fuck did you come into the army as enlisted?"
"Well, yeah, I'm gonna go and be an officer one day," was his response. "But first I want to know what it's like to be a soldier."
That impressed us too.
He was promoted to sergeant two years after he enlisted, far ahead of his peers. Just over two weeks later, on September 18, 2007, me and him and two other guys were ordered to perform overwatch just outside of Sadr City on a group of Iraqi soldiers who were setting up concrete barriers to block suicide bombers. White Platoon had been on duty for most of that morning and our captain had ordered Red to relieve them-an idea that me and my platoon sergeant deemed unwise, because if there were any snipers in the area, they now knew our pattern of movement.
Our objections were overruled, so me and Snell started setting up our perimeter security. I was leaning inside the Humvee, coordinating on the radio with another platoon on the other side of the battle space, and Snell was standing right beside me in back of the vehicle with just his head exposed, when a sniper from across the way got him. The bullet came in just beneath the lip of his helmet, went through his right eye, and blew out the back of his head. As soon as I looked down and saw him lying on the ground, I knew he was dead.
It was the first time I'd seen one of my own guys get killed.
Up to that point, I'd been convinced that there was some sort of connection between how good you were and what happened to you in the theater of battle. But after watching Snell get assassinated like that, I realized that one of the fundamental truths about war is that horrible things can-and often will-happen to anybody, even to a soldier who has everything dialed to perfection.
In the days that followed, I found myself wrestling with the implications of this. While you could strive to be your best, and while you could demand that everyone under you adhered to those standards, the reality was that in the end, none of this might make a rat's ass of difference-even for an ace like Snell.
When you lose a man like that, it can fuel a sense of resignation that can be totally debilitating. If there is no causal link between merit and destiny-if everything on the battlefield boils down to nothing more than a lottery-what's the point of bothering to hone your skills or cultivate excellence?
The loss can create a practical problem too. When a soldier as good as Snell gets drilled through the brain, even if you want to try to replace him, how could you ever find someone to fill his shoes?
As it turned out, however, the rotten luck of losing Snell wound up having a silver lining to it because it triggered the arrival of a soldier who was destined to become my right-hand man in Afghanistan. A man who would provide the foundation of what Red Platoon was to become, and what it would later accomplish during its trial by fire in Afghanistan.
About a month after Snell died, a batch of new replacements arrived in Iraq from Fort Carson, just outside of Colorado Springs, to fill the ranks of our dead.
Whenever a surge of soldiers arrived, the sergeants from all three platoons would size up the new guys and then haggle over how to divvy them up. These assessment-and-bargaining sessions were often intense because the outcome would have a big impact on the quality of each platoon. And the criteria on which everything hinged basically boiled down to our greatest pastime: platoon-on-platoon football.
Ray Didinger, a sportswriter who covered the NFL for more than twenty-five years, once said that football is the "truest" team game because nothing happens if all the players aren't performing their roles to perfection. "Everyone has to contribute on every single play," he argued. "You could have the guys up front all do everything exactly the way they're supposed to; but if one guy breaks down-if he doesn't get the play right or goes in the wrong direction-then the whole play falls apart."
That's not a bad summary of small-unit military tactics either-especially when you consider that football is all about assaulting another team's territory, then holding that ground against a series of counterassaults. Plus, and this is Didinger again, "football is also a violent game and the guys who play it have to accept that fact." Maybe that's why we bonded so deeply with the game-especially in Red Platoon, where we took it with such hyperseriousness that we literally went for years without losing a single platoon-on-platoon matchup.
Brad Larson was a recruit from Chambers, Nebraska, a town whose population (288) was almost as tiny as the miniscule spot where I'd come from. He had jug-handle ears that kicked out from the sides of his head, cartoonishly thick eyebrows, and almost nothing to suggest that he possessed the sort of athletic prowess we were looking for in Red Platoon. So when we wound up getting stuck with him, I initially made a point of ignoring the guy and saying as little to him as possible, despite the fact that he was serving as the driver of my Humvee. Aside from "go left" and "turn right," I don't think I directed a single word to him for more than two weeks.
As it turned out, Larson had played free safety at the junior college he'd attended in Nebraska before joining the army. But as we discovered after finally condescending to allow him on the field during one of our platoon-on-platoon games, he could play just about anywhere because he was so astonishingly fast. Even more impressive was his uncanny sense of vision. Whenever the quarterback drew back his arm to throw, Larson knew exactly where the ball was heading. Except for one guy who had a weird sidearm throw that was almost impossible to read, Larson could figure out where the ball was headed just by looking at the quarterback's eyes and the angle of his forearm. And then, thanks to his ferocious speed, he was able to make a beeline for that spot and destroy whoever was the target.
Table of Contents
Introduction: It Doesn't Get Better 1
Part I The Road to Nuristan
Chapter 1 Loss 17
Chapter 2 Stacked 29
Chapter 3 Keating 51
Chapter 4 Inside the Fishbowl 72
Chapter 5 Everybody Dies 87
Part II Going Cyclic
Chapter 6 "Let's Go Kill Some People" 105
Chapter 7 Heavy Contact 118
Chapter 8 Combat Kirk 130
Chapter 9 Luck 145
Chapter 10 Tunnel Vision 156
Part III Overrun
Chapter 11 The Only Gun Left in the Fight 175
Chapter 12 "Charlie in the Wire" 188
Chapter 13 The Alamo Position 201
Chapter 14 Light 'Em Up 211
Part IV Taking the Bitch Back
Chapter 15 Launch Out 229
Chapter 16 Not Gonna Make It 247
Chapter 17 Ox and Finch 261
Chapter 18 Alive! 272
Chapter 19 The Bone 283
Part V Saving Stephan Mace
Chapter 20 "Go Get It Done" 297
Chapter 21 Mustering the Dead 312
Chapter 22 Conflagration 327
Chapter 23 Farewell to Keating 344
Chapter 24 Trailing Fires 361
In Memoriam 373
Notes on Sources 375
About the Author 379
What People are Saying About This
I read the first half of Red Platoon in one sitting and that night had such intense combat dreams that I actually thought twice about picking the book up again. In addition to being a superb soldier, Romesha is an utterly irresistible writer. I'm completely overwhelmed by what he has done with this book. The assault on Camp Keating is a vitally important story that needs to be understood by the public, and I cannot imagine an account that does it better justice that Romesha's. --Sebastian Junger, journalist and author of The Perfect Storm
The men of Red Platoon and their actions at COP Keating deserve to be known. Clint Romesha's story takes hold from page one and makes you feel every inch of the battle, but it is the bond between soldiers that will stick with you. Red Platoon is on my list of the best books about the Afghan war. --Kevin Maurer, bestselling co-author of No Easy Day
Red Platoon celebrates the most crucial aspect of military operations: the team. Clinton Romesha and the men of Black Knight Troop faced harrowing conditions and a determined enemy during the Battle for COP Keating, and in the process discovered exactly who they are. This account is an important tribute to everyone who fought, and especially to the eight Americans who on that day made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. --Mark Owen, author of No Easy Day
A visceral, heart-pounding account of men in close-quarter combat that is simply impossible to put down. Astonishingly intimate and beautifully written. A word of advice: don't start this book if you're planning on doing anything else for the next few hours. --Scott Anderson, author of Lawrence in Arabia
Red Platoon exemplifies the courage and resiliency our country was founded on. Clint is a true brother and a man that I look up to. --Dakota Meyer, Medal of Honor Recipient and author of Into the Fire
Rendered hour by hour and sometimes second by second, here is battle narrative the way it's supposed to be written. Gritty, plangent, and unflinching, Red Platoon is sure to become a classic of the genre. Through his courageous and no doubt painful act of remembrance, Romesha has done his comrades, indeed all of us, a great serviceleaving an epitaph that will live through the ages. --Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers and In the Kingdom of Ice
Red Platoon is riveting. Like many who were in either Iraq, Afghanistan, or both, I often read books about the wars reluctantly, because it is hard to capture the essence of the experience. In my view Red Platoon is a brilliant book. Had Clint Romesha depicted the soldiers at Keating as a collection of steely-eyed warriors, their feat would have been impressive. Because he captures the reality of a collection of personalities as diverse as America itself, their courage is truly inspiring. --General Stanley McChrystal, U.S. Army, Retired
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Thank you all!
A powerful, well-written testimony on the cost of war.
Excellent read. Fast and furious. Gripping recount of a tragic event.
I couldn't put the book down. I felt like I was there with the guys fighting. My heart goes out to all the soldiers and their families. The pride I feel in the guys and their units grows with each page.
I couldn’t put it down. Highly recommend.
The story of these heroes needs to be read by all Americans. It reminds us of the sacrifice made by our servicemen and the dangers they face so we don't have to.
Very good read. Amazing amount of detail.
A must read for all NCOs.
This book allowed me to understand what happens in battle and why the guys come home with PTSD. I couldn't put the book down.
A truly fascinating look at a heroic episode in our recent history. I feel privileged to have met this American hero in person and the story is truly amazing. I would encourage everyone to read this!
This novel should be read and reread by all those who decide they want become a soldier and by all civilians especially by politicians. Former Staff Sergeant writes with such clarity and passion that you can smell the powder and smoke, feel the bomb concussions and taste the dust of battle as well as feel the pain in the heart for lost comrades.
The depiction of the battle for COP Keating was amazingly descriptive. Truly brought me to the battle and gave me a better understanding of the horrors of war. Great job Ro!
Ro puts you right in the middle of this battle, and you don't leave until he does. Great book.
Two of my favorite books on warfare are "The Killer Angels" and "Gates of Fire". This one makes three. "Red Platoon" is a superb book, well written, shocking, inspiring, heartbreaking, and gripping until the very end.
100 pages or more detailing the ravages of war
Great read! the author put the background, people and the battle in a personal perspective. You can find the battle in Wiki and get the dry facts but this puts the people in it. BZ Ssgt!
A compelling and horrific account of our American military heroes. A must read for everyone.
Good book marred by cheap shot at his commander in chief .