The slender man emerged from the tunnel, blue suede shoes crunching on red dirt surrounding the field at Nationals Park.
The smell of grilled hot dogs and a cover band’s wail drifted in from the outfield, heralding the hope and hype of baseball’s Opening Day.
Few noticed Clint Romesha stop in the sunlight Monday morning. Average height, maybe a bit below. Red cap pulled low. A few days’ growth of beard. Black slacks. He could be your next-door neighbor, the sort of person who doesn’t draw attention to himself in a crowd. No hint, really, that the former Army staff sergeant received the Medal of Honor in February. Except for the jersey.
At first glance, nothing seemed special about Romesha’s white Nationals button-up. The red No. 8 on his back, though, pointed to the reality.
Romesha pushed away a temporary blue bracelet on his left wrist to reveal a black aluminum band covered with silver etching.
“These are the eight soldiers we lost that day,” he said.
For an instant, his voice choked.
The ballpark’s music seemed to fade. Same with the cries for autographs and whack of batting practice baseballs and red-shirted staffers scrambling to open a season draped in the mantra of “World Series or bust.” The band couldn’t be ignored.
Hyperbole and heroes are easy on the field. Do-or-die and can’t-miss and must-win. Legends. Pressure. Courage. All that. We throw the words around with all the care of an usher hucking a bag of peanuts. But the stadium eventually empties and leaf blowers roar on to corral the discarded peanut shells. Games end, but life doesn’t.
The eight men are why Romesha wore a No. 8 jersey as he prepared to throw the season’s first pitch. They go where he does.
Justin Gallegos. Christopher Griffin. Kevin Thomson. Michael Scusa. Vernon Martin. Stephan Mace. Joshua Kirk. Joshua Hardt.
All died on that awful day Oct. 3, 2009, when an estimated 300 Taliban fighters swarmed Combat Outpost Keating in northeastern Afghanistan. Fire poured down from four sides.
What happened next belies the quiet, unassuming person who tugged his left thumb against his slacks and rocked from side to side on the red dirt. The first pitch had him nervous. So, the man described in the 492-word citation read when President Obama hung the medal’s baby blue ribbon around his neck at the White House in February looked like a different person.
Romesha, who grew up in Lake City, Calif., playing high school soccer and rooting for the Seattle Mariners, took out a Taliban machine gun team. Shook off the shrapnel that peppered his body after a rocket-propelled grenade hit a generator he used for cover. Assembled a five-man team under fire. Grabbed a sniper rifle, an unfamiliar Dragunov used by Afghan forces, and led the group to fight back through heavier fire. Called in air support to obliterate a spot pouring RPGs and recoilless rifle rounds on the outpost. Provided fire so injured soldiers could retreat to the aid station. Pushed through yet more fire with his team to recover some of the eight bodies.