Fishermen’s Bonds Were Forged in Combat
For Joe Lopez, an unexpected trip to Martha’s Vineyard was the setting for an extraordinary reunion with a man he had never met.
(From Martha’s Vineyard Outdoors Fishing, Hunting and Avoiding Divorce on a Small Island. First published October 2014, The Martha's Vineyard Times.)
(Left) U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Clinton L. Romesha patrols near Combat Outpost Keating in Kamdesh, Nuristan province, Afghanistan, July 27, 2009. Sgt. Romesha received the Medal of Honor for his actions on the day of the battle. U.S. Army photo.
The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby ended last week in a frenzy of activity. Amid all the excitement it would have been easy to overlook a small group of Island visitors, veterans of combat, some of whom were still recovering from grievous wounds suffered in Afghanistan, They stayed on the Island from Sunday to Thursday where they enjoyed fishing and the hospitality extended to them by the Nixon family of Chilmark, and a group of dedicated Island volunteers.
Five years ago on October 3, 2009, Army First Sergeant Jonathan Hill woke up to the sound of gunfire and rocket explosions when up to 400 Taliban attacked 53 U.S. soldiers based in Combat Outpost (COP) Keating set at the bottom of three steep mountains just 14 miles from the Pakistan border.
Retired after 21 years in service to his country, last week Jon’s only concern was how to improve his luck after being out-fished by retired Marine Joe Roberts, who despite his wheelchair and falling over at least once, kept catching all the fish while out with Island charter captain Scott McDowell, one of a group of Menemsha captains who donated their time and boats in a community-based effort known as the the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge.
Now in its sixth year, the fishing respite began when Jack Nixon, then 7, saw a newspaper photo essay about the challenges facing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and told his dad, Bob Nixon, a documentary filmmaker, that he wished some veterans could fish the derby.
Jake Tapper, CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent, described COP Keating, the men and their battle in his bestselling book, "The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor," published by Little, Brown and Company. The daylong battle left eight American soldiers dead and twenty-two more wounded, making it one of the deadliest military fights in decades.
Mr. Tapper and his wife are friends of Bob and Sarah Nixon, owners of the Beach Plum Inn, Menemsha Inn, and Home Port restaurant. One year earlier, Ms. Nixon called Mr. Tapper to see who among the group of men he had chronicled might like to visit the Island and participate in the Saltwater Challenge. It was the start of a new chapter that placed COP Keating at the nucleus of the Island event.
COP Keating, which was slated to be closed, came under attack from all sides just before 6 am. The attackers quickly overran the base and within the first hour, the American defenders had “collapsed their perimeter” to the immediate area around the command post, which became “their final fighting position.”
At the Beach Plum Inn during a break in the fishing, golfing, and eating schedule, Jon Hill spoke about what it meant to serve his country, the Army, the men he served with, and his work as a member of the board of directors of the Defenders of Freedom, a group that assists active and retired military members.
“I’ll tell you, those were some of the best men that the United States Army ever had in one spot, in one fight and I couldn’t be prouder of the guys I served with,” Sergeant Hill said. “The men there fought valiantly, they fought hard and they did some phenomenal things under the worst circumstances.”
Medically retired, Jon, 42, lives in Louisiana with his wife and two children, a 13-year-old girl and a boy, 17. He said what he misses most about the Army is being with young soldiers, watching them grow, mentoring them, “and putting them on a good path to success.”
Jake Tapper called and told him about the Vineyard trip. “I was not going to say no,” he said. “It’s a once in a lifetime chance for folks like me.”
There was one regret. “I really wished I could bring my family,” he said. “There are a lot of spouses and children that go through a lot of pain while their loved ones are deployed and I think they should get recognized a little more than they do.”
Jon likes to fish and hunt. But most of his time is spent working on behalf of Defenders of Freedom. “The best therapy for me is helping other vets move forward,” he said. The organization offers a menu of services to help veterans who are making the transition from military to civilian life get back on their feet. “Being in military is like being institutionalized, you get so used to doing things so differently from the civilian world,” he said.
Across the dining room, West Point graduate Captain Rahul Harpalani was having a grand time with his fellow fishermen. Next year he will leave the military and enter Columbia Business School. Sergeant Hill and Capt. Harpalani first met at COP Keating. On May 15, 2010, Lieutenant Harpalani lost his leg to an IED (improvised explosive device).
“What makes me so proud to know him and say I would follow a guy like that into hell,” Jon said, “is he is a torch-bearing leader. He is an example of the ethos of, I will never quit. He has moved forward, he has rehabilitated himself, and now he is a captain in the Army and when he was injured he was a lieutenant. He is a testament to the fact that you can continue to move forward and continue to do great things and I have a lot of respect for that. He is setting a huge example.”
Jon said he was asleep when the attack on COP Keating occurred. He and the other members of his platoon had no time to don body armor. “It was just chaos outside,” he said. His first concern was getting men and ammo to guard positions.
What Jon never mentioned as we spoke was the Silver Star he received “for exceptional valor in action against an armed enemy.” The citation states that Sergeant First Class Hill “led and directed his platoon while exposing himself to a heavy barrage of enemy fire. With no regard for his own personal safety, Sergeant First Class Hill organized multiple efforts to recover fallen soldiers under effective, accurate fire.”
The full citation [see below] only hints at the drama of the battle and the selfless nature of ordinary men caught in an extraordinary situation. That day was far from his mind last Tuesday. “I’ve had the best two days I’ve had in a long time, catching fish or not,” Jon Hill told me. Before he would leave the Vineyard, Jon would also would make a difference in the life of one soldier still grappling with the loss of a brother in arms and create another link in a story now intertwined with the derby and the Vineyard.
Joseneth (Joe) Lopez, Army specialist 1st Infantry Division, was stationed at COP Keating in 2008. After 12 months of intermittent fire and just three months prior to the battle, Joe’s unit was transferred out. Specialist Nathan Nash, a senior member of the same platoon, remained behind a few weeks to help introduce the new men to the surrounding area. The newcomers to COP Keating included Sergeant Hill, who by coincidence had been Nathan’s drill sergeant in basic training.
One of the men newly assigned to COP Keating was Stephen Mace, Joe’s bunkmate and best friend throughout basic training. The two men, one arriving and the other departing, reconnected briefly at COP Keating. Months later Joe learned his friend Stephen Mace was among the battle dead.
Joe, 25, left the military and moved to Orlando to attend school, but the memory of his best friend’s death in a base he had left continued to haunt him. Last fall, Nathan Nash was a member of the group of soldiers that visited the Vineyard and he encouraged Joe to make the Vineyard trip this year and speak to Jon Hill.
Last week, with Menemsha as a backdrop Jon Hill and Joe Lopez met for the first time. “We sat down and we spoke and I told him about Mace and he told me he was his platoon sergeant and he told me how he passed away and I finally got closure out of it due to this magical trip,” Joe told me in a phone call Tuesday. “We were able to hug it out and I felt like for a second that Mace was next to me and at that point it was beautiful.”
They spoke about Mace and how great a person he was and how he lives through them. Joe said that he had not been able to stop mourning his lost friends. The Vineyard embrace, the beauty of the environment, “no sense of rush or regular life,” helped soothe his pain.
“A lot of questions were put to rest because of First Sergeant Hill and the way he was able to close those wounds,” Joe said. “It’s crazy. We don’t know each other from nowhere, but somehow the stars align and we all got to talk about it.” On Martha’s Vineyard.
Award Narrative: At 0600 on 3 October 2009, Combat Outpost KEATING, Kamdesh District, Nuristan Province, Afghanistan came under complex attack by an enemy force estimated at 400 fighters. The fighters occupied the high ground on all four sides of the COP and initiated the attack with concentrated fire from a B10 recoilless rifle, RPGs, DSHKAs, mortars, and small arms. Sergeant First Class Hill embodied gallantry in action against an overwhelming force. Working at a level above his area of responsibility, Sergeant First Class Hill constantly took the fight to the enemy while knowingly facing a barrage of enemy fire. In the Platoon Leader's absence, Sergeant First Class Hill took full control of the members of 3d Platoon and was able to fight an overwhelming insurgent force while also maintaining accountability of all platoon members. Serving as the sole element of command and control for 3d Platoon, Sergeant First Class Hill repeatedly faced imminent danger while directing numerous counterattacks and establishing security on a surrounded outpost. While directing his platoon, Sergeant First Class Hill took multiple shrapnel wounds from RPG fire while trying to organize a re-supply effort to the embattled guard positions. While maneuvering his Soldiers in the vicinity of the Shura building, Sergeant First Class Hill's position received multiple RPG hits. These RPG blasts effectively suppressed Sergeant First Class Hill's position, but he still managed to maneuver his Soldiers successfully through heavy machine gun and RPG fire to reconsolidate at the barracks and continue re-supplying the battle positions. Upon completion of the truck ammunition re-supply, Sergeant First Class Hill reconsolidated the platoon in the barracks and personally gave first aid to multiple Soldiers with shrapnel wounds. At this time, the east side of the COP had been infiltrated and was on fire. Sergeant First Class Hill directed a team to clear that area and begin setting up a new perimeter to the east. While the team was clearing the east side of the COP, Sergeant First Class Hill and three other Soldiers came under accurate sniper fire. Sergeant First Class Hill, without hesitation, picked up a Latvian sniper rifle and eliminated the target at a distance of over 300 meters. Without Sergeant First Class Hill's flexible thinking and actions, additional AAF would have infiltrated and induced further friendly casualties. Sergeant First Class Hill then coordinated with 1st Platoon to set up a counterattack on the west side of the COP in order to regain lost ground and evacuate the remains of several fallen Soldiers in the area. Sergeant First Class Hill moved under limited cover to get to the fallen Soldiers. As part of this effort, he organized a support by fire element to suppress multiple enemy positions on the west and south sides of the COP to allow his assault element to maneuver to the casualties. Sergeant First Class Hill and his team were able to recover three fallen Soldiers while under intense enemy machine gun and RPG fire. Upon the arrival of the QRF, Sergeant First Class Hill organized a search party to recover Sergeant Hardt's body. At this time, Sergeant Hardt was unaccounted for; however Sergeant First Class Hill courageously maneuvered his team through an area that had seen intense enemy fire and was ultimately able to find and evacuate Sergeant Hardt's remains. Once the QRF was on site, Sergeant First Class Hill pulled his men off the line and was instrumental in keeping their focus in the fight. Additionally, Sergeant First Class Hill led his men in clearing and securing the helicopter landing zone (HLZ) from enemy forces in order to evacuate the many American and Afghan casualties. Approximately four medical evacuation helicopters utilized the HLZ that Sergeant First Class Hill's platoon secured to evacuate casualties. With Sergeant First Class Hill's motivating, caring, and dedicated attitude, 3d Platoon executed multiple missions within the next three days; including, clearing the village of Urmol, from where much of the enemy contact originated. Sergeant First Class Hill embodied gallantry in action while leading 3d Platoon in operations against the enemy on 3 October 2009. His leadership symbolized the highest level of heroism in action while always caring for his men. With complete disregard for his own well being, Sergeant First Class Hill continuously led from the front, providing a shining example for his men as they fought to hold COP KEATING.