On October 3, 2009, more than 300 Taliban insurgents descended upon US Army Combat Outpost (COP) Keating in Kamdesh, Afghanistan. The some 50 soldiers of the Black Knight Troop (3-61 Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division) stationed there were outnumbered and overwhelmed. Remarkably, they defeated their attackers, but at a terrible cost – eight died and 22 were injured.
Kamdesh wasn’t a good location for a combat outpost
Combat Outpost (COP) Keating was established in 2006. Located in the Landai Sin Valley of Afghanistan’s Nuristan province, it was deemed a terrible location for a base by the majority of the soldiers who arrived there. Mountains towered above the valley, leaving COP Keating vulnerable to attacks from above. As well, the nearby rough road used by Afghan forces forced re-supplies to arrive at night via helicopter.
Despite its drawbacks, COP Keating was chosen for its proximity to the Pakistani border. The area was key for the anti-coalition forces with supply lines in Pakistan, and it was believed positioning allied troops in Kamdesh – where three valley systems along the border converged – could stop the flow of weapons and soldiers from the country.
A major role of the base was to build relationships with locals through improvement projects as a kind of counterinsurgency, but Taliban forces continued to move through the area. Three years after it opened, COP Keating has ultimately deemed a failure, due to its poor defenses and lack of purpose, and was scheduled to be shuttered in August 2009.
Since opening, COP Keating regularly encountered sniper and mortar fire, but, in 2009, these attacks became more frequent – 212 occurred in the first nine months of the base’s final year. To make matters worse, its closure was delayed by a lack of proper transport and growing tensions between US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. This left the Black Knight Troop in a vulnerable position – disaster was inevitable.
Battle of Kamdesh, minute by minute
At around 3:00 AM on October 3, 2009, 300 Taliban-backed insurgents arrived in Kamdesh and asked that locals evacuate. After they finished their morning prayers, they opened fire on COP Keating with Soviet-era B-10 recoilless rifles, DShK heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and mortar fire.
The insurgents had extensive knowledge of the base’s layout and weaponry, and they first targeted its most powerful weapon: the 120 mm mortar. As fighters descended upon COP Keating, others targeted nearby Observation Post Fritsche. At 6:03 AM, the post sent out an urgent message, “FRITSCHE AND KEATING IN HEAVY CONTACT.”
Within two minutes, the first US soldier was killed; Pfc. Kevin Thomson was shot in the face while defending the northernmost mortar pit. Not long after, Sgt. Josh Kirk was struck by RPG shrapnel while preparing to fire an AT4 anti-tank rocket. This was followed by a sniper’s bullet to the head.
The US troops tried to return fire from armored Humvees equipped with machine guns, but were overwhelmed as their ammunition ran low. Sgt. Vernon Martin was struck by a bullet and, shortly after, an RPG knocked a .50 caliber machine gun off its mount, spraying shrapnel and inflicting him with additional injuries.
Martin and another soldier were near a Humvee when they were joined by Sgt. Justin Gallegos and Spc. Stephen Mace. The four got into the vehicle as Spc. Ty Carter ran through a barrage of bullets with ammunition for the Humvee’s M240 machine gun, which was no longer operational. Without any way of fending off the ensuing Taliban forces, COP Keating was left even more vulnerable.
Spc. Michael Scusa was killed by a bullet to the neck while running from the barracks to defend another position. Hoping to cover the men trapped in the Humvee, Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha began firing his M48 machine gun at the enemy, but was injured by the overwhelming gunfire.
Afghani guards fled as the fighting intensified
Forty-eight minutes after the Battle of Kamdesh began, the Taliban had overwhelmed COP Keating’s perimeter defenses. Local Afghan National Army soldiers stationed as guards around the base were begged to stand their ground, but ultimately fled as the fighting intensified. American soldiers reported that none of the Afghani troops stayed behind, opting to run, hide and/or steal equipment and supplies from the base during and after the attack
The Taliban entered the base and set fire to its main buildings. An hour into the battle, COP Keating’s defenders fell back to protect two structures as more of the base fell. As additional fighters filed in, the remaining US troops realized the possibility of being overrun was growing. Lt. Andrew Bundermann started to issue an order to shrink the perimeter and concentrate firepower. However, Romesha gave one last rallying cry, telling the men to “retake this f***ing camp and drive the f***ing Taliban out!”
The small group began plotting two coordinated attacks. Sfc. Jonathan Hill agreed to take his men toward the east side, while Romesha rallied several to join him in the western part to retake both the ammunition storage shed and main entry point to the base. As they planned, Boeing AH-64 Apaches arrived on-scene and began taking out Taliban positions along the mountainside.
A final attempt to take back control of Combat Outpost Keating
Romesha told his men, “We’re taking this b***h back,” as they crept forward and arrived at the ammunition storage shed. They grabbed grenades and set their sights on the Shura building, a mosque targeted by the invading Taliban fighters. The eight men faced hundreds of insurgents, but managed to clear the area and move to the dining hall, before reaching the Shura and securing COP Keating’s entrance.
While American air strikes continued to support the battle going on below, a new threat emerged: fire. A burning tree threatened the aid station, which was filled with wounded soldiers. Luckily, those still fighting cut it down with a chainsaw before it could fall. By 12:30 PM, the majority of the Taliban fighters were running from the area, accepting defeat.
The 1-32 Infantry Quick Reaction Force (QRF) arrived on the scene and dispatched the remaining insurgents – in all, 150 were killed in the battle. By 7:00 PM, COP Keating was secured. Eight American soldiers were dead, while another 22 were wounded. Within a matter of days, the remaining troops were evacuated from the base, which was subsequently destroyed by a Rockwell B-1 Lancer.
Reliving what happened during the Battle of Kamdesh
In 2013, Romesha and Carter received the Medal of Honor for their courage, bravery and leadership during the Battle of Kamdesh. Additionally, 27 Purple Hearts, nine Silver Stars, 37 Army Commendation Medals with “V” and 21 Bronze Stars were presented to others who fought. The Silver Stars awarded to Bundermann and Gallegos (the latter posthumously) were upgraded to Distinguished Service Crosses.
In 2020, a film about the attack on COP Keating was released, based on Jake Tapper’s best-selling book, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor. When one of the battle’s veterans caught wind that his experience would be made into a movie, he felt concerned about how the battle would be portrayed.
Writing in an article for The New York Times, retired Lt. Col. Stoney Portis explained, “Over the years, I have learned that sharing the experience allowed many of us to put our emotions into words. That process helped us heal, but a bad rendering of the battle would leave us talking about what the movie got wrong instead of what actually happened.”
Portis reached out to director Rob Lurie, who himself is a US Army veteran and graduate of US Military Academy West Point. He and fellow veteran, retired Maj. Chris Cordova, flew to Bulgaria to visit the film’s set. “When Cordova and I arrived on set, both of us were astounded. It looked just like our outpost on the day of the battle,” Portis wrote.
In his NYT piece, the veteran described walking into the replica aid station, where Cordova burst into tears. Nearly 10 years prior, his travel companion, a physician’s assistant at COP Keating, had worked for hours treating the wounded from the battle. One of those he’d cared for was 21-year-old Mace, whom Cordova kept alive for nine hours by giving him blood transfusions from other soldiers, including himself.
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Portis described how he and Cordova felt watching The Outpost be filmed, reliving the most traumatic day of their lives. In a bizarre twist, the combat veteran realized the powerful nature of watching his story – to be a listener, instead of the speaker. As he explained, listening is one of the biggest parts of the healing process, as by “allowing soldiers to tell their story, by hearing their story, you are also part of the healing.”