COP Keating - The Battle of Kamdesh

On the morning of October 3, 2009, members of the U.S. Army’s Black Knight Troop (3-61 Cav, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division) were attacked at their base – Combat Outpost Keating – by more than 300 well-armed Taliban soldiers. Located deep within Afghanistan’s remote and mountainous Nuristan province, COP Keating was established in 2006 as a base of operations for U.S. Army personnel seeking to stop the flow of soldiers and munitions arriving from nearby Pakistan and as a place to direct and support counterinsurgency efforts in the nearby villages. The deadly attack on October 3 led to the deaths of 8 U.S. Army servicemen and wounded another 22. The remarkable courage and heroism shown during this desperate battle led to numerous decorations, including Medals of Honor for Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha and Specialist Ty Carter

COMBAT OUTPOST KEATING 

Since its creation in 2006, Combat Outpost Keating (COP Keating) was declared by almost every arriving U.S. soldier to be a terrible location for a base. With soaring mountains looming high above it, the base was vulnerable to fire from a multitude of positions on the rocky slopes above. Even worse, the rough road leading to the base – once used by armored Humvees and Afghan “jingle trucks” bringing supplies – was no longer used due to the persistent threat of ambush and the frequent washouts. All supplies now arrived by helicopter at night. 

Deep within Afghanistan’s rugged Nuristan province, COP Keating was first considered a base from which U.S. Army counterinsurgency efforts could win local Afghan villagers’ hearts and minds through funded improvement projects. However, these counterinsurgency efforts had produced little long-term benefit as the villagers could not, or would not, stop the Taliban and other local warriors from moving through their towns and trails. Given its glaring defensive weaknesses and lack of a compelling mission, the Army had approved a plan to eliminate the base in August of 2009. Unfortunately, the evacuation plan was postponed due to a lack of available heavy-lift helicopters and simmering tensions between President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was concerned that the U.S. president’s commitment to Afghanistan’s security was waning. 

While every U.S. Army unit to occupy COP Keating had encountered regular sniper and mortar fire, the camp witnessed a significant escalation of attacks in 2009 – 212 different attacks in the first 9 months. The 48 U.S. Army and 24 Afghan National Army (ANA) forces assigned to the base in October had almost become accustomed to the regular attacks. And intelligence reports for the region dismissed fresh rumors of a pending major assault as a likely exaggeration. 

THE TALIBAN ARE HERE! THEY’RE COMING! 

After completing their morning prayers, close to 300 Taliban soldiers, led by Abdul Rahman, unleashed a torrent of fire from their mountain positions around the camp. B-10 recoilless rifles, Dushka heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortar fire began to rain down on the camp at 5:58 am local time. With intimate knowledge of the camp’s layout, weapon systems, and the Army’s operational procedures, the Taliban first targeted the men near the camp’s most powerful weapon – its 120mm mortar. Soldiers manning the armored Humvees with turreted machine guns (LRAS-1 and LRAS-2) also received punishing fire. The men stationed at nearby Observation Post Fritsche were also attacked at this same time and were unable to provide supporting fire. At 6:03 am, the outpost’s command center sent out an urgent message over the mIRC network – “FRITSCHE AND KEATING IN HEAVY CONTACT.” 

As the U.S. Army soldiers quickly roused from the barracks and donned their gear, the attack increased in intensity. Private First Class Kevin Thomson in the 120mm mortar pit was stuck in the face by a bullet and killed. Sergeant Josh Kirk, who had been preparing to fire an AT4 anti-tank rocket at the ‘Putting Green’ location, was mortally wounded by RPG shrapnel and a sniper’s bullet which struck him in the head. Those soldiers in and around the armored Humvees found it increasingly difficult to return fire as they were continually targeted and their ammunition ran low. 

The men at LRAS-2 were busy firing their .50 cal. when an RPG round knocked the heavy machine gun off its mount and sprayed shrapnel into Sergeant Vernon Martin’s body. Meanwhile, Sergeant Justin Gallegos, firing his M240 machine gun near the Humvee, received fire and his gun was also put out of action. With no means of suppressing the heavy enemy fire, Gallegos and Specialist Stephen Mace got into the armored Humvee where Larson and the wounded Martin were. Specialist Ty Carter ran 75 yards through a shower of bullets to reach the Humvee with more M240 ammunition, but that gun was no longer operational. Without returning fire, the camp was vulnerable to being overwhelmed by the Taliban descending the switchbacks.   

Specialist Michael Scusa, running towards LRAS-1, was struck in the neck by a sniper’s bullet and killed.  

Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha, hoping to provide covering fire for the men trapped in the LRAS-2 Humvee, began firing an M48 machine gun against the many enemy positions directing fire at them. Despite eliminating several machine gun positions, Gallegos believed that the fire against the Humvee was still too much to risk a run. Wounded by RPG shrapnel and almost out of ammunition, Romesha realized that the plan to assist the men in the trapped Humvee had failed.  

6:50 AM: “WE’VE GOT ENEMY IN THE WIRE!”  

With casualties mounting and the enemy fire unrelenting, Romesha raced over to LRAS-1 to check on Specialist Zach Koppes trapped inside. Smoke and fire raged from the nearby ANA building and other structures. 

While at LRAS-1, Romesha grabbed a Russian Dragunov sniper rifle and engaged in a cat and mouse duel with a Taliban sniper who had been targeting Koppes’ position. Dodging enemy shots and looking through the scope, Romesha silenced the sniper and gained Koppes more time.   

Around this same time, as Taliban soldiers poured into the base, Specialist Chris Griffin and Joshua Hardt were killed. In Hardt’s case, his fellow soldiers would not learn of his demise until after the battle.  

Meanwhile, Carter, Gallegos, Mace, Martin, and Larsen all sought to make their escape from the LRAS-2 Humvee. Hoping that a brief respite in the intense fire would give them a chance to escape, the men from the Humvee were met with an avalanche of machine gun and RPG fire once the Taliban saw the soldiers in the open. Mace’s legs were shredded by RPG shrapnel. And Gallegos, who had gone to Mace’s aid, was struck repeatedly and killed by the enemies’ fire.  

The heavy enemy fire drove both Carter and Larson back to the relative safety of the riddled LRAS-2 Humvee. While Larson and Carter had found safety, the severely wounded Mace remained outside on the ground. Despite the persistent enemy fire, Carter finally convinced Larson to let him run over to Mace to provide aid. Applying an “Israeli bandage” and homemade splint to Mace’s shredded left leg, Carter located and treated other wounds with tape and gauze. Later, Larson and Carter placed Mace on a stretcher and raced him to the aid station as bullets rained down from above. Exhausted and in pain, Carter slumped to the ground outside the aid station.

THE COUNTERATTACK: “WE’RE TAKING THIS BITCH BACK” 

With more and more Taliban soldiers now inside the base, an important decision was needed. The likelihood of being completely overrun was increasing rapidly. With ten or so unwounded soldiers available to counter the growing threat within the camp, Lt. Andrew Bundermann began to issue an “Alamo order” – a last-ditch, desperate shrinking of the perimeter to concentrate firepower. But Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha had a very different idea in mind. “[F] that….we need to retake this [f]ing camp and drive the [f]ing Taliban out!” After some discussion on the plan, Bundermann gave his approval, and Romesha rallied those willing to charge forward through the camp.  

The counterattack plan included two coordinated actions. Sergeant First Class, Jonathan Hill from Blue Platoon (“The Bastards”), would take his men and focus on the eastern side of the camp – the ANA side. Romesha would concentrate on the western portion of the camp, aiming first for the ammunition storage shed and the entry point to the base. 

Romesha made a passionate plea for volunteers to join him within the Red Platoon barracks. Thomas Rasmussen, Mark Dulaney, Josh Dannelley, Chris Jones, and Matthew Miller agreed to join him. To this brave crew, Romesha declared, “We’re taking this bitch back.”

With newly arrived AH-64 Apache helicopters striking Taliban positions in the mountains, Romesha and his team moved forward. They successfully reached the ammo shed, where they grabbed more grenades for their next action. Making their way to the Shura building, the Red Platoon team, augmented by the two Latvian ANA advisors – First Sergeant Janis Lakis and Corporal Martins Dabolins – attacked a large concentration of enemy fighters milling about. It was eight men fighting dozens, if not hundreds of fighters. 

Reaching the dining hall, the team could move no further, given the heavy counter fire. As the group began to fire on targets outside the camp near the bridge, Dannelly was wounded by a nearby Taliban soldier who fired an AK-47 round into his shoulder. After dispatching other enemy soldiers near the camp entrance, Romesha turned to those near him and asked, “You guys trust me, right?” “This could get bad.” With the team, Romesha stormed the Shura building and secured the entrance to the camp. 

While Romesha’s force was retaking key parts of the camp, Lt. Bundermann continued to direct the various U.S. aircraft and helicopters sent to provide close air support. A veritable aerial armada would show up in the skies over COP Keating – F-15Es, A-10s, B-1s, and AH-64 Apaches. The supporting aircraft would deliver 16 tons worth of ordnance against the enemy positions this day.  

With the air attacks beginning to drive the Taliban off, a new threat emerged – fire. With many buildings now in flames, one of the surviving buildings – the aid station filled with wounded – was in danger of being destroyed by a nearby burning tree. Carter, who had previously worked at a Home Depot, was recruited to take the tree down with a chainsaw. As Carter cut into the burning wood, the tree spun and fell on the nearby tactical operations center, caving in its roof. 

With the camp now mostly secure and the Taliban in retreat from the hillsides, Romesha cracked open a Dr. Pepper with his comrades. At 1230pm members of the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) from 1-32 Infantry, led by Lieutenant Colonel Brad Brown, arrived by helicopter at Observation Post Fritsche and began to descend the hillside toward COP Keating. The men dispatched the remaining Taliban soldiers they encountered and passed an enormous number of enemy dead on the slopes. By 7:00 pm, the threat to the outpost had come to an end. Through the incredible courage and bravery of the men of the Black Knight Troop, the base and its soldiers were saved. Mace was quickly loaded aboard a medevac helicopter and raced to the medical facility at Camp Bostick, where he, unfortunately, succumbed to his wounds.  

The toll from the battle was heavy. Eight U.S. Army soldiers were killed in action, and another 22 were wounded.  Of the roughly 300 Taliban fighters who had attacked the camp that day, approximately 150 them lay dead at the end of the battle.  

The QRF force and the remaining members of the Black Knight troop would evacuate COP Keating on October 6, and on the following day, a B-1 bomber would lay waste to the remains of this problematic site. COP Keating would be no more. 

Thirty-seven Army Commendation Medals with “V” for valor devices, 27 Purple Hearts, 21 Bronze Stars, and 9 Silver Stars would be awarded to the U.S. Army soldiers who had fought at COP Keating fateful October day. Sgt. Justin Gallegos and 1LT Andrew Bunderman’s Silver Stars would later be upgraded to Distinguished Service Crosses. For two of the soldiers, a higher decoration awaited.  

U.S. Army soldiers killed in action at the October 3, 2009 Battle of COP Keating.   

  • Kevin Thomson (Reno, Nevada) 
  • Joshua Kirk (South Portland, Maine) 
  • Michael Scusa (Villas, New Jersey) 
  • Chris Griffin (Kincheloe, Michigan) 
  • Vernon Martin (Savannah, Georgia) 
  • Justin Gallegos (Tucson, Arizona) 
  • Joshua Hardt (Applegate, California) 
  • Stephan Mace (Lovettsville, Virginia) 

Note:  Many consider the 2010 death of Ed Faulkner, Jr., who had been suffering from PTSD, to be the ninth fallen soldier from the Battle of COP Keating.