Washington (CNN) — His eyes moist and lower lip trembling, Clint Romesha nodded haltingly at family, comrades, military brass and the president standing to applaud him for receiving the nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.
He never smiled during the White House ceremony on Monday and later explained why in a statement to reporters.
“I stand here with mixed emotions of both joy and sadness today,” he said, describing how he felt “conflicted” about the medal around his neck.
“The joy comes from recognition from us doing our jobs as soldiers on distant battlefields,” said Romesha, a former Army staff sergeant dressed in full uniform that included a cavalry hat. “But it is countered by the constant reminder of the loss of our battle buddies – my battle buddies, my soldiers, my friends.”
For “conspicuous gallantry … at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty,” Romesha, 31, received the honor at an emotional ceremony lightened by his rambunctious toddler son.
In conferring the medal, President Barack Obama described the conditions faced by Romesha and 52 other soldiers when they came under attack from mortar, rocket-propelled grenade, machine-gun and sniper fire on October 3, 2009, at Combat Outpost Keating in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
A military investigation later described the outpost as indefensible against the higher-ground positions surrounding it, and Obama noted the challenge that Romesha’s unit faced from the estimated 300 Taliban insurgents.
Explosions from the dawn attack “shook them out of theirs beds and sent them rushing for their weapons, and soon the awful odds became clear,” Obama said.
“What happened next has been described as one of the most intense battles of the entire war in Afghanistan,” the president continued. “The attackers had the advantage, the high ground, the mountains above, and they were unleashing everything they had — rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, mortars, snipers taking aim.”
Romesha and his men “had never seen anything like it,” Obama said.