In October 2009, my cavalry troop was preparing to shut down a remote outpost in Afghanistan when we were assaulted by more than 300 Taliban-led insurgents. In violation of the most basic principles of warfare, our base, Combat Outpost Keating, had been built in a valley surrounded by three mountains. It is almost impossible to hold and defend your ground when the enemy is free to shoot from above while observing every move you make.
Within the first hour of the attack, the insurgents had breached our wire, driving most of Keating’s 50 U.S. guardians into our final defensive formation inside a cluster of three hard-shelled buildings, known as the Alamo position.
It was then that five enlisted men volunteered to join me in a counterattack meant to drive the enemy back beyond the wire, rescue missing comrades and retrieve the bodies of our dead.
During the next several hours, we achieved these goals. But by the time the battle was over, we’d lost eight men. Three days later, we were evacuated, and the outpost was leveled by a series of American Hellfire missiles.
As far as the Army was concerned, that was the end of Keating’s story. But the men who fought saw things differently.
How do you consecrate the memory of your fallen when the place where they lost their lives is off-limits, terrain to which you may never return?
Generally, soldiers don’t like to talk about their most painful experiences. Most combat veterans have shorthand, watered-down versions of what happened to us that we recite, politely and dutifully, when asked. The real stories are almost never shared.
For the most part, we prefer to keep those memories safely locked away.
Why? For one, because language is such an imperfect tool. Anyone who has survived combat knows that words are entirely incapable of conveying the horrors of battle. Soldiers assume that any attempt to communicate such truths will merely underscore the futility of trying. This creates its own kind of defeat, another loss to be added to the balance sheet.
I cannot speak for every soldier. But this has been true for me and the men who fought by my side. And something else I know: Our tour in Afghanistan left a hole in all of us — a hole we weren’t able to identify, much less repair, because the Army had done almost nothing to prepare us for it.
We were given exhaustive training for the tasks set before us as soldiers. But when it came to coping with challenges after we came home, we were provided almost no resources.
This may have been the central insight — dimly realized and barely articulated — that led a group of us to conclude that if there were a path forward through the thickets of grief and loss, we would have to create it ourselves.
And that is how we decided we needed to tell our story.
By “our” story, I don’t simply mean what happened at Keating. The most vital component was building a testament to the men who did not come back. Who they were. How they died. And to the extent possible, measuring whether their deaths held meaning, given that their lives were sacrificed for an outpost that probably never should have been built.
And so I spent a good portion of 2015 traveling around the country to talk to the men with whom I served, and we embraced the detailed and painful task of remembering what, exactly, had taken place during that 13-hour battle.
The result of our labor was a book that came out this month, a copy of which was given to each family who lost a soldier at Keating.
Upon reading it, the mother of Stephan Mace — one of the men I failed to save — wrote to tell me she had finally achieved, for the first time in seven years, a feeling of closure concerning her son’s fate.
That was all I could have asked for. In some small way, the book had helped. Moreover, her words helped illuminate something that I’d never fully understood but that now sits quite close to the center of what Memorial Day means to me.
I have always thought of myself as a man whose actions meant far more than his words. But I’ve discovered that although stories cannot put what’s broken back together, the deceptively simple act of acknowledging brokenness — staring it in the face, doing one’s best to describe it unflinchingly and without embellishment — can create its own kind of cohesion.
By memorializing loss, we can begin to move in the direction of one day making things less broken.
Recently, critics have suggested that too many stories about Iraq and Afghanistan are being published, especially by Navy SEALs, and that those soldiers would demonstrate better wisdom through restraint and silence.
As odd as it feels for me to be saying this, I emphatically disagree.
In fact, considering that 2.5 million U.S. soldiers have fought in one or both of those wars, I don’t think we have enough of these books.
These wars should, in my view, produce a veritable flood of stories – and we should welcome the deluge.
In addition to providing a first draft of history, such stories are part of the process by which the nation that sent its soldiers to fight can stumble toward an understanding of what their sacrifices mean. More important, these stories can be an essential part of the process through which those whose lives were touched directly by war begin to put themselves back together and help others do the same.
This is why, on this Memorial Day, a holiday that many Americans commemorate with family picnics and barbecues that may not necessarily include a reflection on the sacrifices of war, I urge my fellow veterans to consider doing something that may cut against the grain of your strongest instincts:
Tap into the well of your memories and break your silence by finding a way to share your stories with those around you. Because the rest of us need to hear what you have to say.
And what’s more, you may need to hear it.
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Clinton Romesha is a former Army staff sergeant. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the defense of Combat Outpost Keating.