Clint Romesha describes himself as "just a regular guy." But on Wednesday morning, when he took off the Medal of Honor he was awarded for valor in Afghanistan and handed it to a group of 40-50 high school JROTC members, the moment was anything but regular.
"I can't believe I am touching the Medal of Honor," said Scott Bowers, a senior at Soddy-Daisy High School. "Never in a million years did I ever think I could touch one, much less meet someone who received it."
Romesha was the featured speaker Wednesday at the Celebration of Valor luncheon, an annual fundraiser that supports the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center currently being constructed in Aquarium Plaza in downtown Chattanooga. More than 800 were in attendance.
The 38-year-old Romesha, who lives in North Dakota, started his day with a breakfast with JROTC members from all over Hamilton County. He said he never grows tired of watching Americans, especially young Americans, hold the medal.
"I can see individual discovery in each and every one of who holds it," Romesha said. "I never know quite what they are figuring out, but you can see something turn on and put things into perspective."
Romesha was awarded the Medal of Honor on Feb. 11, 2013, by President Barack Obama for his actions at the Battle of Kamdesh on Oct. 3, 2009. Outnumbered 6-1, Romesha rallied his 18-man platoon and 32 other soldiers to hold off a Taliban force of more than 300 at Outpost Keating.
Another American, Ty Carter, was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2014 for his actions at Kamdesh. Eight Americans died and 27 were wounded during a 12-hour fight in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. In 2016, Romesha published "Red Platoon," which recounts the battle, and a movie based on the book is currently in production.
"I felt like that day was the first day in 10 years of military service that I did my job," said Romesha, who completed three combat tours and suffered multiple shrapnel wounds during the battle. "This was the ultimate test of everything I had done in the service, and it all led to this day when it was you versus them, and let's see who comes out on top."
After the luncheon, Romesha visited the ailing Coolidge in his Signal Mountain home before departing Chattanooga. Coolidge turned 98 on Aug. 4 and has battled muscular dystrophy for 50 years. He became the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient in May when Robert Maxwell, 98, died in Oregon. Coolidge is one of three living Medal of Honor recipients who served in World War II.
Both Coolidge and Romesha received their medals in large part because of their actions to hold off a significantly larger enemy force; Coolidge in France and Romesha in Afghanistan. Coolidge's son, Charles Coolidge Jr., drew that comparison in the short meeting, according to event organizers.
"Mr. Coolidge laid the foundation for the rest of us to follow. His values and attributes, like I said, were laid out before us so that we knew what was expected of us. Each time I meet a recipient, and now that I am one, I still can't wrap my head around it, the gravity of it all."
The Celebration of Valor luncheon raises money for the new $6.25 million facility scheduled to open in February 2020. The museum will honor the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients, the first of whom were people who fought in the Civil War battles in the Chattanooga area. The capital campaign had raised more than $5.1 million to date and is expected to raise an additional $250,000.
Romesha said the divisiveness that exists in the country today is not what he sees as he travels around the country. He said he believes his generation has "come up short" in teaching children and other young people the importance of patriotism and the sacrifices made on their behalf.
"We sit around and complain about it, but we have not shown them the way," he said. "What I see, day to day, is that we have been dealing with the war on terror, 20 years of jihad, but there are still those willing to raise their right hand and say, 'I will go and do.'"
Romesha said he decided to leave the military before his last tour that included the Battle of Kamdesh. However, he said, he thought on the trip home in 2009 that he believed he was called "to lead men overseas and into combat."
After receiving the Medal of Honor, Romesha considered returning to the military and finishing out 20 years. He was told he could serve in any capacity he wished but would likely "never see another day of combat" as a Medal of Honor recipient.
"People are born with a specific talent to throw a baseball 100 mph or a football 80 yards," said Romesha, whose father served in Vietnam and his grandfather in World War II. "I think my specific talent is to take men overseas and lead them in combat."
Romesha, who toured the new museum Tuesday, said he hopes to come back in February for the opening that is expected to draw a large number of Medal of Honor recipients, ranking military officers and elected officials.
"I would love to come back to Chattanooga in February," he said. "It'll be warm here."
Contact Davis Lundy at email@example.com.