It doesn’t get better

By Randall Poulton | Mar 19, 2020

Twenty or so Mainers have died while serving our country in Afghanistan. In my opinion, they are all heroes. Whether the United States military should be deployed to Afghanistan, or any foreign country, is another subject entirely. I hope this column informs readers a bit about what it is like to serve in harm’s way and, in some small manner, honors those who paid the ultimate price.

Benjamin Keating was born in Sanford in 1979.  He graduated from Massabesic High School and went on to UNH where he joined the ROTC program. Following his graduation, Keating entered active military service as a first lieutenant. In 2006, Keating was deployed to the remote Nuristan province of Afghanistan. That November, he was killed.

On the surface, the details of his death, albeit tragic, were fairly mundane: Keating was working on building a road through a narrow mountain pass known as Ambush Ally, when, suddenly, the road collapsed, causing the 9-ton construction vehicle he was driving to roll down the side of the mountain. Keating was crushed and died at the scene. But Keating’s death was just the beginning of a deadly chain of events.

Clinton Romesha hails from Nevada. He joined the Army in 1999 and he, too, was deployed to Nuristan. Whether he met Keating is not clear, but Romesha absolutely knew Keating’s story. In fact, after Keating’s death, Ambush Ally was closed and the Combat Outpost (COP) at the end of unfinished road was officially renamed COP Keating. With Ambush Ally closed, the only way to get men and supplies in and out of Keating was by helicopter. It would be at Keating, in 2009, that Romesha would conduct himself in an incredibly heroic manner, such that he was later awarded the Medal of Honor.

Also stationed at Keating was Joshua Kirk of South Portland. Kirk was born in 1979 in Thomaston. Before joining the Army, Kirk attended Southern Maine Community College, majoring in construction technology. In May of 2009, Kirk volunteered to do a second tour in Afghanistan. During his time at Keating, Kirk had a reputation as a fearless warrior.

In layman’s terms, COP Keating was clearly a bridge too far. The actual descriptions used by the soldiers deployed to Keating were far too coarse and descriptive to be repeated in a family newspaper. In the sort of graveyard humor that infects warriors, the motto of the men at Keating was “It doesn’t get better.” Who came up with this saying is unknown, it may have been Josh Kirk.

Just how bad was the tactical situation at COP Keating? Well, there is an old military saying: You never want to look up and see the enemy. Good ground is high ground. Keating was located in a low valley, ringed by mountains and completely isolated. Very bad ground indeed. It doesn’t get better.

Now, this is not to say COP Keating was defenseless. Far from it. The weaponry used to secure the outpost was robust in the extreme. For example, one of the primary defenses was a Mark 19 grenade launcher mounted in a turret on top of a Humvee. The Mark 19 is a fully automatic “machine gun” that shoots grenades that are over 1.5 inches in diameter. It has a sustained fire rate of 40 rounds per minute. During the battle of Keating, this gun fired pretty much continuously for over 10 hours.

This last player in this saga is not a hero: Bowie Bergdahl. In 2009 Bergdahl was on duty in Afghanistan when he deserted his post. This started a chain of events that ended in a prisoner swap, with the United States trading five Muslim terrorists for Bergdahl. In the months immediately following Bergdahl’s desertion, the Army expended incredible manpower and airpower in an attempt to locate him. Unfortunately, many Americans died while conducting, or as the consequence of, those fruitless rescue operations.

Three months after Bergdahl took his little walk, Josh Kirk was back at COP Keating, when, at sunrise on October 3, 2009, the Taliban attacked in force. The ensuing fire-fight is considered one of the most intense engagements of Operation Enduring Freedom. It lasted more than 12 hours and American forces were outnumbered six to one. Overnight, the Taliban had fortified the surrounding mountains with all manner of heavy weapons. Bullets, rockets, grenades and mortar shells rained down on Keating. It doesn’t get better. Calls for air support quickly turned to pleas for any help possible. Keating was being blasted apart and overrun and air support was delayed because of — you guessed it — operation find Bergdahl.

In the nick of time, two Apache helicopters from Jalalabad arrived and their guns and rockets briefly slowed the Taliban assault. But the situation was still very bad: Eight men, including Josh Kirk, were dead or dying and many more were wounded. The remaining Americans were pinned down in a small section of the base they called the Alamo. It doesn’t get better: They were also low on ammunition. The Taliban were close to completely overrunning COP Keating. Inside the Alamo, just two hours after being literally blown-up, Romesha was planning a counterattack to retake the ammo bunker.

Finally, just before noon, the fixed-wing Air Force arrived with a vengeance. These pilots had their own motto: “The mission is an 18-year-old with a rifle. Everything else is support.” And support they did. A-10 Warthogs and F-15s fighters began devastating strafing runs. The biggest morale boost was the arrival of a B-1 bomber from 1,300 miles away in Qatar. Among the munitions the “Bone” carried were 20 smart bombs: 12 500-pounders and eight 2000-pound bunker busters. The decision was made to drop those huge bombs dangerously close to the Alamo and use the massive explosions to cover Romesha’s counterattack. It worked and the ammo bunker was retaken,

The Taliban attack would continue for another six hours but the tide had turned. Romesha and the other heroes inside Keating held until reinforcements arrived. Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha and Staff Sgt. Ty Carter would be awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the battle.

My sources for this column included Clinton Romesha’s book, “Red Platoon,” and various internet searches. The battle for Keating is also known as the battle of Kamdesh and has been the subject of several books and movies.

Randall Poulton is a columnist for The Republican Journal. He lives in Winterport.

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