It’s not easy to upstage U.S. Bancorp CEO Richard Davis, about as gifted a public speaker as this business community has. But a soft-spoken oil field safety specialist from North Dakota managed to do so last week.
The speaker who followed Davis to the podium was Clint Romesha, now of Minot, but previously a staff sergeant with the U.S. Army. A combat veteran, Romesha received the Medal of Honor for his service in Afghanistan on a long and terrible day in the fall of 2009.
And what he had to say to U.S. Bank employees, on leadership, service and sacrifice, was well worth hearing.
Romesha came to Minneapolis to speak on a conference call for employees of U.S. Bank who had served in the military. U.S. Bank has marked Veterans Day this way for the past seven years.
Employee vets in the Twin Cities area are welcome to drop by, and others around the country dial into the call. The purpose of the call is to give employees an update on the work the bank has done to recruit veterans and serve other veterans and their families, and to celebrate the service of vets.
U.S. Bank has hired more than 340 veterans so far this year. It’s again listed on Military Times’ most recent ranking of best employers for vets.
But this was not a public event. U.S. Bank has not joined an emerging trend in business, to commercialize the once-a-year attention given veterans around the second week of November.
Just before Davis kicked off the call last week, he confirmed with the operator that hundreds of U.S. Bank employees were already on the call and more were dialing in. He then told them that unlike previous conference calls, this time they would not be hearing from a general in the military, but a noncommissioned officer.
Dressed in a bow tie and blazer and wearing a luxurious full beard that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Civil War general, Romesha began his remarks with a gentle joke. As an enlisted man and not a general, he explained, he wouldn’t be using any four-syllable words but he just might use some four-letter words.
When he began telling of his experience in Afghanistan it slowly dawned on me that he had been part of a dramatic episode in that war that had been in the news. In fact, the experience of his little garrison in Afghanistan, just 50 or so Americans, later became the subject of a book titled “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor.”
That outpost was Combat Outpost Keating, in a remote part of a remote province of Afghanistan, near its border with Pakistan. Last week at U.S. Bank, Romesha managed to avoid criticizing any higher-ups who could have thought putting a tiny outpost there was a good idea. But he did describe the lay of the land.
Almost completely surrounded by mountains, Combat Outpost Keating sat at the bottom of a teacup. It was, Romesha said, “later deemed indefensible.”
On Oct. 3, 2009, several hundred insurgent fighters attacked, determined to overrun the camp. They came very close to doing so.
Early in the fighting, the insurgents wounded Romesha with a rocket-propelled grenade by hitting the generator he had been using for cover.
And then, he said, “it went from bad to worse.” The Afghan National Army troops stationed there had fled. The Americans had been pushed back into a small area of their compound. What started out as indefensible had become hopeless.
They could not retreat farther because there was nowhere else to go. They couldn’t count on any help coming quickly, not at an outpost so remote.
Romesha helped a small group reach the conclusion that there was only one option left, and that was to counterattack to try to take back control of the outpost.
“I never thought of myself as a very good leader,” he said, describing what he called one of the proudest moments of his military service. “Kind of average. I still think I am average. But when I went into that barracks, I didn’t tell the guys anything, I just said I needed a group of volunteers. And I had five guys stand up, without hesitation. They said ‘We’ll follow you anywhere.’ ”
So the small team, he said, “pushed out.”
They recovered their ammunition supply and then managed to regain control of the front gate area to keep more insurgents from streaming in. The team then provided the cover that allowed a badly injured soldier to be carried back to where the other wounded were being cared for.
The soldiers continued to push back against the insurgents, and as Romesha told the story, their objective had become finding and recovering the bodies of Americans killed earlier that day.
It’s remarkable that when the fighting ended, nearly 13 hours after it began, Romesha was in one piece. But eight soldiers that day did not come home alive. He named them.
Romesha said the word “hero” shouldn’t be used to describe him, recipient of our nation’s highest award for military valor. It’s a word that’s only to be used for the eight who didn’t make it home.
What made his talk so memorable is the way he tells his story — it’s not one of personal heroism. It’s a story of shared service and sacrifice by all members of the team at the outpost that day.
“Let’s share this with our youth,” he said, winding up his remarks. “Let them know there will be challenges in life. What are you going to do when it happens? Are you just going to sit there? Or are you going to stand up and say ‘I know what right is. Let me do the right thing.’ ”